By Tomas Avenarius and Paul-Anton Krüger
The civil war in Libya escalated. Now there could be a direct confrontation between Turkey and Russia and the Emirates.
Hardly a threat is too bombastic to seem exaggerated to the warring parties in Libya. “In the coming hours, you will see the most serious airstrikes in Libyan history,” Major General Saqr al-Jaroushi announced Thursday as Muslims around the world were preparing for the highest holidays of Islam at the end of Ramadan.
The man is the Air Force chief of the renegade warlord Khalifa Haftar, who can be dubbed a field marshal. He controls large parts of the country in the east and south and has recently declared himself sole ruler.
Al-Jaroushi may have forgotten the bombardment by France, Great Britain, the United States and other NATO countries in 2011, but the announcement fears that the civil war in the North African country will escalate further.
“We continue to experience alarming military expansion as a result of the continued use of increasingly sophisticated and deadly weapons by foreign supporters,” warned Acting UN Special Envoy Stephanie Williams on Wednesday at the UN Security Council.
This could lead to a “comprehensive proxy war” in Libya.
“It is questionable whether Russia is ready for a direct clash with Turkey,” says Lacher
Russia and the United Arab Emirates could face Turkey on Haftar’s side. It supports militias that are loyal to the internationally recognized unitary government headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj in Tripoli. “All Turkish positions and interests in all cities are legitimate targets for our fighter jets,” threatened al-Jaroushi.
This is taken seriously in Tripoli, because according to the government there, Haftar is said to have received at least eight Russian-style fighter jets, including six MiG-29s and two Sukhoi-24 fighter-bombers.
They are said to have been transferred to Libya from the Russian air base Khmeimim near the Syrian port city of Latakia – allegedly escorted by modern Sukhoi-35-Jets of the Russian Air Force.
It is not certain whether the story about the escort is correct. The delivery of fighter jets to Haftar, however, is considered confirmed by western diplomats – they speak of significantly higher numbers.
You see it as an attempt by Haftar’s supporters to make up for his recent military defeats. Most recently, his troops had to evacuate the strategically important al-Watiyah air base near the border with Tunisia and had also increasingly lost ground in the Tripoli region.
Haftar launched an offensive in April 2019 with the goal of conquering the capital and taking control of the whole of Libya. But the advance of his troops had stopped in the suburbs. Moscow and Abu Dhabi subsequently increased their support.
Hundreds of mercenaries from the Russian military service group Wagner, who is closely connected to the Kremlin, brought Haftar decisive advantages, as the latest UN report on violations of the UN arms embargo says.
Syrian mercenaries, recruited from the ranks of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, are now fighting for Haftar alongside paid warriors from Chad and Sudan. The Emirates sent new combat drones and deployed Pantsir air defense systems manufactured in Russia.
But Turkey followed suit: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for his part, had anti-aircraft missiles brought to Libya, probably of the Hawk type, an aging system from the United States, as well as jammers for electronic warfare.
That was enough to neutralize the Emirates drones in the Tripoli area. At the same time, Turkey sent further self-produced Bayraktar TB2 combat drones that attacked Haftar’s supply lines. As a result, his troops lost some coastal locations near Tripoli and al-Watiyah Air Force Base.
For Turkish newspaper commentators, the victory already seems certain: “Haftar’s fortress has been conquered,” writes the government- friendly newspaper Yenişafak. And Yeni Söz says: “The countdown has started for Haftar.” You will see Erdoğan’s course confirmed.
It was only thanks to the advising Turkish officers that Haftar’s troops were driven out. There are also numerous Syrian militia officers who had previously fought against the Assad regime alongside the Serraj government; Ankara now pays them for use in Libya.
However, Turkey’s military successes could now be wiped out by the recently delivered Russian fighter jets – none of the warring parties in Libya had such weapons until now.
“The recent defeats and the destruction of the Russian air defense systems weaken Haftar’s position in the Tripoli region,” said Wolfram Lacher, Libya expert at the Science and Politics Foundation in Berlin and one of the best experts on the situation worldwide.
They could have a dramatic impact on the morale of his powers and the cohesion of his alliance, he says. “The arrival of Russian warplanes could prevent the domino effect threatening Haftar’s alliance.
It is still questionable whether Russia is actually ready for a direct clash with Turkey in Libya” – The air defense systems installed by Turkey should be among the first targets of Russian fighter jets.
Turkey threatens “severe retribution”, which could also apply to Haftar’s headquarters.
Lacher believes it is possible that the impending use of these combat aircraft alone will be enough to dissuade Turkey and its Libyan allies from advancing further.
Then he predicts that the Russian-Turkish initiative to negotiate an armistice could be reissued. Indeed, the Russian foreign ministry said on Thursday after a meeting between head of department Sergei Lavrov and his Turkish colleague Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu that the hostilities had to be stopped immediately and the “political process” under the aegis of the UN had to be resumed.
But Haftar had given up the 2015 Skhirat Agreement, the basis of the UN’s mediation efforts, apparently without first reinsuring all of his supporters.
According to Lacher, Moscow should now have considerably more influence on the field marshal than just a few months ago, since its forces must fear further defeats without Russian support.
However, if the combat aircraft were to be used, Lacher’s view would question previous assumptions about Russian engagement in Libya: “It would then no longer be an inconspicuous and inexpensive operation, but would face Russia directly to Turkey. “
Turkey and the Emirates are engaged in an ideologically motivated struggle for regional supremacy.
In fact, at the Berlin conference hosted by Chancellor Angela Merkel in January, all foreign supporters of the Libyan war parties had agreed to abide by the UN arms embargo and to work towards a ceasefire and negotiations to end the civil war.
However, as Foreign Minister Heiko Maas admitted after consulting with his colleagues from France, Great Britain and Turkey on Tuesday, the “call for a humanitarian ceasefire, especially in the fasting month of Ramadan, has remained largely ineffective”.
Instead, there is an escalation spiral with ongoing fighting and arms deliveries on both sides.
This may also be due to the fact that Turkey and the Emirates are engaged in an ideologically motivated struggle for regional supremacy.
Erdoğan and the militias from Misrata fighting on the side of Serraj are close to the Islamist Muslim Brothers. The Emirates see their political Islam as the root of all problems and the origin of Islamist terrorism.
Together with Saudi Arabia and – since the military coup in 2013 – Egypt they are running the counter-revolution to the Arab Spring. The Turkish newspaper Yenisafak wrote about Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and pioneer of the aggressive foreign policy of the Emirates:
“This man is fighting with Turkey everywhere. He will be buried in Libya, he will be in Yemen and in the Gulf of To be beaten Basra. “
Tomas Avenarius, the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Middle East correspondent.
Paul-Anton Krüger – Since October 2018 deputy head of the foreign policy department with a focus on the Middle East and international security, previously four years correspondent for large parts of the Arab world and Iran based in Cairo.