Libya Tribune

The report is based on dozens of interviews with Turkish and Libyan officials and experts, as well as representatives of Western and Arab governments.

.

Part (III)

III. Is Turkey Achieving the Results It Intended?

To a certain extent, and for the time being, Turkey has rebalanced the battlefield: Ankara’s military involvement has managed to slow down the advance of Haftar’s forces, in some areas even forcing them to retreat, and to avert the Serraj government’s fall.

As long as Turkey’s allied government in Tripoli remains in power, Ankara considers its immediate geostrategic and economic interests protected or at least not forfeited.

Turkey’s intervention has not brought an end to the conflict, however, nor has it opened the door to negotiations between Libya’s rival political and military factions.

Quite the contrary: the war around the Libyan capital has intensified, peace talks are nowhere on the horizon, and tensions between Ankara and some capitals – including Abu Dhabi, Cairo and Paris – have risen.

In the meantime, the Tripoli government’s financial situation has worsened appreciably after pro-Haftar tribes cut oil production and thus Tripoli’s only major revenue stream.

A. Diplomatic Front

At first, it looked as though Turkey was right to expect that its intervention in Libya would compel Haftar to accept a political settlement. On 8 January, Presidents Erdoğan and Putin issued a sudden joint call for a ceasefire in Libya.  

The two leaders invited Libyan factions to stop military operations starting on 12 January and return to political negotiations. In subsequent days, both Haftar’s coalition and the Tripoli government publicly expressed support for a ceasefire. Fighting in Tripoli diminished measurably.

Optimism was short-lived, however, as the ensuing diplomatic initiatives to broker a ceasefire floundered. Moscow and Ankara tried to leverage their influence over their respective Libyan allies but failed, primarily because Haftar refused to sign on.  

In a 13 January meeting in Moscow, Haftar rebuffed a seven-point ceasefire agreement drafted by Turkey and Russia. Only Serraj signed.

The Russian-Turkish initiative jolted the UN and other foreign powers into convening a diplomatic conference on Libya in Berlin for 19 January, following months of protracted, difficult consultations among foreign stakeholders in the Libyan conflict.

European capitals, in particular, feared that Ankara and Moscow intended to carve out respective zones of influence in Libya and propose a settlement that would sideline them.

At the Berlin conference, after initially rejecting a ceasefire and allegedly under pressure from Egyptian representatives, Haftar eventually agreed to appoint five military officers to take part in subsequent UN-mediated talks with military officers designated by the Tripoli government.  

The military-to military talks were part of a three-track negotiation package (the other two tracks were political and financial) that the UN proposed at the Berlin conference, UN Security Council Resolution 2510 endorsed, and the event’s international participants, including Turkey and Haftar backers such as the UAE, Egypt and Russia, committed to support.

The two sides failed to reach an agreement, however, after two rounds of Geneva-based negotiations in February.

The Haftar coalition’s delegation insisted that a ceasefire should be contingent on, among other things, the surrender of the Tripoli government’s military forces, the handover of key military bases in the capital to Haftar’s forces and the withdrawal of Turkish and Syrian troops from Libya, which to Tripoli was a non-starter.

For its part, Tripoli demanded the withdrawal of Haftar’s forces from Tripoli and the return of families to their homes in residential areas affected by fighting.  

Likewise, the UN-mediated political negotiations, also in Geneva, collapsed in late February before they even started when more than half of the fifty participants from both sides of the military and political divide boycotted them.  

As for the financial track, negotiations took place but proved inconsequential.

Even if dates were to be set for military and political talks, the odds are high that both sides would either keep boycotting them or stick to their respective, irreconcilable demands. 

Overall, the resumption of hostilities since mid-February, the continuous flow of weapons to both sides and increasingly difficult diplomatic conditions suggest that negotiations are unlikely to succeed.

Officially, the UN is still pursuing the three-track talks, but no negotiation took place in March and none is scheduled for April.

Travel restrictions imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19 add to the difficulties, although they are not the primary reason for the impasse in consultations.

Even if dates were to be set for military and political talks, the odds are high that both sides would either keep boycotting them or stick to their respective, irreconcilable demands.

Meanwhile, clashes and attacks in the Tripoli area have intensified, while the sudden resignation on 2 March of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Libya, Ghassan Salamé, the talks’ chief architect, deals a further blow to mediation attempts.  

In addition, global developments, such as the onset of the coronavirus crisis and a sharp drop in oil prices, have shifted attention away from Libya and reduced the international community’s diplomatic engagement with the conflict.

B. Battlefield Dynamics

Since January, Turkey has reportedly deployed approximately 100 army officers to Libya. According to Turkish and Libyan sources, their role is primarily to coordinate the Tripoli government’s war efforts and train its allied local forces.

The latter include Libyan army officers who have remained loyal to Tripoli and refused to join Haftar-led troops, but the majority belong to militias formed in the wake of the Qadhafi regime’s fall and who are on the Tripoli government’s payroll.

Turkey has also upped its supply of military equipment and weaponry to Tripoli government-allied forces. Until January, Ankara had been providing combat drones, rockets and armoured vehicles, deploying Turkish technicians to operate this equipment and train Libyan fighters in its use.

Between January and March, at least four cargo ships transporting military equipment from Turkey docked in Tripoli and Misrata, reportedly escorted by Turkish naval vessels.  

What exactly they were carrying is not known, but Libyans with close ties to the Tripoli authorities claim that their load represents a sizeable qualitative and quantitative increase in military equipment.

In February, sources in Tripoli said aerial defence equipment, namely the medium-range surface-to-air missile systems that Turkish forces have installed in the Tripoli and Misrata airports, had made the biggest impact of any upgrade in Turkish assistance to date.  

Turkish officials concur that this type of support has saved lives.  

A Western diplomat, speaking in February, expressed tacit sympathy for Turkey’s provision of this equipment, which has effectively brought air and drone strikes on Tripoli to a halt:

When you land in Tripoli airport now, you can actually see these air defence systems. Thanks to these, Haftar’s aviation and the drones he used to bomb Tripoli can no longer fly over the capital. We have to thank Turkey for that.

By April, Turkey had further increased its military exposure in Libya by tapping into its navy and air force. According to Libyan sources, Ankara has deployed two warships off the western Libyan coast to provide cover for the Tripoli government forces’ ground operations.  

In early April, one of these vessels fired surface-to-air missiles at military assets of Haftar-led forces.  

The Turkish air force has also become active in Libya’s skies, so far mainly for intelligence and deterrence purposes.

But weapons deliveries to Haftar’s forces have also continued. According to aviation analysts, more than a hundred cargo flights from Jordan, Egypt, the UAE and UAE-controlled bases in Eritrea landed in Benghazi between late January and the end of February.  

Analysts speculate that these were carrying “hundreds of tons worth of equipment” to support Haftar’s assault on Tripoli.

While Turkey’s intervention arguably prevented the Tripoli government’s imminent fall, Haftar forces, far from stepping back, have intensified their offensive.

In January, they reconquered the coastal city of Sirte in central Libya. It was the pro-Haftar coalition’s most significant territorial gain since the outbreak of hostilities in April 2019.

By mid-February, heavy fighting had resumed in Tripoli as well. Haftar’s forces pounded the city with missiles, as Turkish air defence systems forced the field marshal’s planes and drones to halt operations.

Haftar-aligned sources claimed that his forces were targeting Turkish positions in the capital, but several rockets clearly hit residential neighbourhoods, killing civilians.  

On 18 February, a missile launched by Haftar forces from positions near the airport road, allegedly aimed at a Turkish ship, struck Tripoli’s only functioning port.

Subsequent on-site verifications confirmed that the missile had not hit any vessel but had damaged a warehouse. Nevertheless, military sources in Tripoli confirmed that a Turkish ship had departed only minutes before the missile struck, killing two Turkish officers in the port.  

In late February, Haftar forces fired over a hundred rockets on Tripoli’s Mitiga airport over a three-day span, claiming to be targeting an operations centre set up by the Turkish military.  

Shelling and further missile strikes hammered the capital, including densely populated residential areas and hospitals, in late March and early April, killing at least five civilians including women and children.

While fighting in the capital proceeded, in April Turkish-backed government forces scored successes in other parts of western Libya.

They targeted supply routes from eastern Libya to Haftar’s strongholds south of Tripoli, interrupting the flow of fuel, food and weapons to the field marshal’s loyalists.

On 14 April, they marched into the coastal towns of Sabratha and Sorman, which had been under the nominal control of pro-Haftar security forces for over a year.

On 18 April, they advanced toward Tarhuna, Haftar’s most important base in western Libya and the site of the operations rooms for the assault on Tripoli.

(Allegedly, the foreign private security contractors backing Haftar forces are also based there.) Tripoli government forces bombarded and surrounded Tarhuna, but they stopped short of entering the town.

In spite of these military gains, financial constraints may challenge the sustainability of Tripoli’s defence down the line.

Haftar-allied tribesmen have forced the closure of Libya’s oilfields and export terminals to increase pressure on the Tripoli government, saying they did not want to see Libyan oil revenues, which accrue to the Tripoli-based Central Bank, used to fund Turkey’s military intervention and Syrian fighters.  

Their action cut Libya off from all its oil money, leaving the Tripoli government without resources to cover public expenditures. As of mid-April, the shortfall amounted to over $4 billion.

Although Tripoli-based authorities say they have sufficient reserves to pay public-sector salaries for up to a year, foreign diplomats expressed scepticism that they will be able to sustain payments for more than several months.

Beyond this date, the Serraj government may suffer difficulties in paying personnel across the country, including in Haftar-controlled eastern Libya, where most public-sector employees remain on Tripoli’s payroll.

The pro-Haftar coalition benefits financially from Russian-printed cash, which it uses to cover part of the expenditures of the east-based government with which it is allied.

But it does not have access to oil revenues, which according to UN resolutions can accrue only to Tripoli.

The Haftar coalition’s calculation may be that the Tripoli government will be forced to capitulate if it runs out of funds; or, alternatively, that Tripoli’s financial distress will either open the door to independent oil sales by its rivals or force new UN-backed arrangements to share Libya’s oil revenues between Tripoli and the east-based authorities. None of these outcomes would align with Turkey’s stated interests.

_____________