LNA soldiers at drill without weapons. Image: Proganda/LNA
The withdrawal of the LNA from Watia airbase is seen as a turning point. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg hints at support for Sarajevo government
Syrians are fighting Syrians in Libya and Turkey is in the process of establishing a permanent strategic base in North Africa. The tide of war in Libya has changed with Turkey’s military deployment, which began last December.
On Monday, the unity government militias (GNA), which it supported with 57 airstrikes within two weeks, made an important capture: the Watia military airport southwest of Tripoli. This deprived their opponent, the militia grouping known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), of a key base. The troops under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar withdrew.
Field Marshal Haftar in a new position
The importance of Watia air base to Haftar’s forces is shown by the fact that they were also withdrawn from Tripoli suburbs. They now have serious supply problems. The goal of capturing the capital, which Haftar confidently proclaimed a year ago, is now a distant prospect. Haftar expected at the time to quickly capture Tripoli, where the GNA government is based. The strongman of the Libyan east was counting on no resistance to him at the "Liberation of the capital from terrorists" was opposed.
But things turned out differently, and with the intervention of the Turkish military, a turnaround even began, which is now recording a much-noticed success with the conquest of Watia. Whether it will last, however, is uncertain, according to observers. The LNA also has international support. Most clearly by the United Arab Emirates, but also, albeit more in the background, by Russia and France.
Escalation or convergence on a political slogan?
How they will react to Haftar’s setback is now the question: whether Haftar’s troops’ retreat is probably only a tactical one and whether he can count on reinforcement? This would entail the risk that the armed conflicts in Libya would take on a new dimension, with fiercer fighting, more weapons being used and more victims.
Already now the fear, which German Chancellor Merkel has repeatedly voiced, that Libya could become a battlefield like Syria, is taking on a more concrete form. According to observers, not only has Turkey brought several thousand Syrian fighters from Islamist militias to Libya, but in the course of a strengthened link between Haftar and Damascus, there are also said to be "loyal to Assad" Syrian fighters may have entered the North African country to support Haftar. Numbers for this are not to be found.
What is certain, however, is that Haftar’s forces have been supplied with weapons and equipment by the United Arab Emirates for months.
The Turkish drones and the Russian Pantsir air defense system
Troops on the side of Haftar’s opponents proudly displayed their spoils of war captured during the capture of the Watia military base: Specimens of the Russian anti-aircraft Pantsir – which, however, are not supplied to the LNA by Russia, but by the United Arab Emirates. Later, pro-GNA forces even claimed that Turkish drones had destroyed a Pantsir system in Tarhuna (the scene of fighting for weeks).
The fact that Russia militarily supports Haftar is not officially confirmed by the leadership in Moscow, but the Pantsir air defense captured by GNA supporters is the latest indication of the long-obvious support of the LNA from Russia, which also includes fighters of the private Wagner-Soldner troop. According to an internal paper of the UN Security Council committee responsible for sanctions against Libya (z.B. (the Russian government is responsible for the arms embargo), the Wagner Group is said to have 1.have stationed 200 fighters in Libya.
However, the Russian government’s attitude toward Haftar is cautious and ambivalent, despite the field marshal’s good contacts with the leadership in Moscow. The Kremlin has always attached importance to maintaining relations with GNA representatives. Following Haftar’s military setback, there is now speculation that the Russian government may now drop the old general.
One indication is that Haftar’s last visit to a conference in Russia was disappointing. At the time, shortly before the Libya conference in Berlin, the Kremlin had hoped that Haftar would sign a cease-fire agreement. However, he refused to do so. The following Berlin conference did not bring a breakthrough either.
Weapons continued to be delivered to Libya and fighting continued, the military solution was given priority for the opponents on the ground and in the skies above Libya, where the Turkish drones proved to be a powerful means of warfare, which contributed significantly to the turn of events in the war. The United Arab Emirates provided reinforcements in the air campaign.
The reaction of the United Arab Emirates and France?
How the UAE continues its support for Haftar will depend on how France behaves, according to observers of Libyan events. Although the French government, not unlike the leadership in Moscow, officially emphasized that it was in contact with both sides and was working for a political solution, there were several incidents that indicated that Macron’s government was more strongly positioned on Haftar’s side than on the side of the GNA leader Saraj.
With Macron and Erdogan at cross-purposes on several ies, most notably Syria, where Macron joined militarily with the Kurdish YPG militia and explicitly condemned Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria last year, the events in Libya are also raising tensions within NATO (Libya: The Next NATO Crisis).
NATO: Stoltenberg speaks out in favor of the GNA
The reaction of NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg to the military successes of the GNA supporters was correspondingly cautious – and this even before the capture of the air base. After all, even from the Trump administration came various rallies in support of the field marshal. Haftar lived in exile in the USA for many years and had close relations with the CIA.
But Saraj and the GNA government are the formally officially recognized government in Libya, and NATO member Turkey makes a crude point of saying that its contracts allowing it the strategic aubenpost in North Africa were with the officially recognized government in Tripoli.
Stoltenberg made it clear that for NATO the two opponents of the war are not on the same level, that the GNA has a privileged status. In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, he hinted that NATO would not oppose Turkey. Al-Monitor quotes Stoltenberg as saying that while all parties in Libya should follow the arms embargo,:
"This does not mean, however, that the forces under Haftar’s command and the government of Saraj, the only one recognized by the UN, are on the same level. Therefore, NATO is ready to support the government in Tripoli."
This was followed by several speculations. NATO’s direct military intervention in Libya is considered unlikely because of the different positions within the alliance. But, as al-Monitor writer Fehim Tastekin notes, there has been a change in the mood.
It could now be that the "Berlin process", cease-fire and political solution could still carry weight here, despite all the prophecies of doom, since Haftar can no longer negotiate from a position of military superiority.
However, he also has a strong political base in Libya and significantly more support among the tribes and the population, especially in the east and south of the country, than GNA leader Serraj. This is also a significant factor in the power game.
As mentioned above, the war in Libya can also change again. Haftar’s international supporters are strong Player.
Given that the war is also being fought over the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region-and that new information about the GNA’s links to extremists has recently come to light-it is unlikely that its opponent, the Haftar-led alliance, will be dropped so easily.
Since the refugee ie is of particular importance to the EU as far as Libya is concerned, questions also arise in the background as to whether Erdogan will in the future be able to implement another just-in-time strategy "Border lock" dominates and can threaten to open borders.