By Paul Iddon
With Turkey vowing to support more offensives by its ally in the Libyan civil war, Egypt might intervene militarily on the opposite side, potentially leading to a dangerous conflict between the Turkish and Egyptian militaries in that North African nation.
Turkey has supplied armed drones, military advisors and Syrian mercenaries to the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), which is battling the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar. Turkish aid has helped the GNA break the LNA’s lengthy siege on the capital Tripoli, first launched in April 2019, and go on the offensive against Haftar’s forces.
That enormous strategic setback for Haftar greatly irked his backers, which include the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France and Russia.
Turkey is adamant about retaining its growing military presence in western Libya and wants to help the GNA push on further eastward and seize more strategically important territories from Haftar, if not topple the warlord’s rule over eastern Libya altogether.
On June 5, Erdogan’s communications office tweeted that the LNA-held al-Jufra airbase, the largest in the country, and the strategically important city of Sirte are next on the GNA’s target list.
That wasn’t the first time that Turkey and the GNA have stated these two targets are next. The two allies scored a string of victories against the LNA in May, capturing the western al-Watiya airbase and breaking the LNA’s siege on Tripoli.
Russia delivered a fleet of 14 MiG-29 Fulcrum jet fighters and Su-24 Fencer bombers to Al-Jufra in late May. The fact that the planes are notably unmarked and Russia denies supplying them to the LNA might well mean that Russia wouldn’t retaliate directly if Al-Jufra is captured or those planes are destroyed by a Turkish-backed GNA offensive.
Egypt is growing increasingly frustrated over the present situation in Libya and has hinted that it will intervene directly in the conflict.
In late June, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared that “Sirte and al-Jufra are a red line” for Egypt while touring an base on the Egyptian-Libyan border, where he watched fighter jets and helicopters take off in a clear show of force.
“Be prepared to carry out any mission here within our borders or, if necessary, outside our borders,” he told Egyptian military personnel.
On July 4, unidentified warplanes attacked al-Watiya, where Turkey had begun deploying some of its MIM-23 Hawk air defense missiles. The attack came after a two-day visit to Libya by Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Chief of Staff Yasar Gular, a visit that underscored Turkey’s military commitment to western Libya and likely frustrated Haftar and his foreign backers.
One report states that French-made jets, possibly Dassault Rafales, bombed al-Watiya. If true, that would strongly indicate the attack was carried out by Egypt, which possesses a fleet of those formidable multirole jets.
Egyptian Rafales are also equipped with long-range air-to-surface Storm Shadow missiles, meaning that the warplanes could have evaded any low to medium-altitude air defenses when striking al-Watiya relatively easily.
If proven beyond a doubt, this would indicate that Egypt is serious about intervening directly in the conflict and ensuring the Turkish-backed GNA is not allowed advance any further.
Turkey has mostly low-altitude air defenses, armed Bayraktar TB2 drones, and military advisers on the ground in Libya. It has beefed up the GNA’s manpower by paying thousands of Syrian militiamen to fight alongside them against the LNA.
If Egypt were to intervene in the near future militarily, it could quickly put the GNA back on the defensive unless Turkey substantially increases its military presence.
Turkey has already shown its willingness to flex its military muscles in the North African state.
In June, for example, Turkish F-16s flew across the Mediterranean and carried out an eight-hour drill off Libya’s coast in a 2,000 kilometer (roughly 1,250 miles) round trip. That was a clear demonstration of the Turkish Air Force’s ability to intervene in the Libyan conflict.
Also, Turkish Navy guided-missile frigates, former U.S. Navy Oliver Hazard Perry-class warships, have operated off the Libyan coast where they have actively helped defend Tripoli’s airspace. On April 1, one of those frigates even fired an SM-1 surface-to-air at an LNA drone.
The Turkish Navy could continue to lend such support and potentially even deter Egyptian warplanes from attacking GNA-held territories near the coast. However, Turkey will need more substantive air power than drones over Libyan skies in the event of significant Egyptian military intervention on the LNA side.
While Turkey can use tanker aircraft to fly its F-16s to Libya, without any airfields those jets could only loiter over the battlefield for relatively short periods before making the long flight back home. That would make sustaining combat air patrols quite a challenge logistically.
Neighboring Algeria and Tunisia have declined Turkish requests to use their airbases.
On the other hand, Egypt does not have such a problem given its proximity to the battlefield.
Another option Turkey might take would be to deploy its F-16s in western Libyan airbases such as al-Watiya, which would be a hugely significant development.
One Turkish columnist writing in a pro-government newspaper even suggested in June that, “Nobody should be surprised if Turkish F-16s and attack helicopters are seen at the military bases in this country.”
Again, even in such a scenario, Egypt would still have an advantage considering Turkey would not likely risk attacking airbases in Egypt itself. However, its military aircraft would be under the constant threat of attack when based on Libyan soil.
Also, even a substantial deployment of Turkish air, ground, and naval forces to the Libyan war zone would not likely be enough if it comes to an actual war with the Egyptian military.
According to the 2020 Military Strength Ranking, Egypt today has a stronger military than Turkey, with Egypt ranked ninth and Turkey in 11th place.
Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, Turkish F-16s are armed with long-range AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, which could prove advantageous if both American-made jets find themselves engaged in dogfights over Libya.
On the other hand, Egyptian Rafales are far more advanced and formidable warplanes than Turkey’s aging F-4 Phantom IIs. Egypt possesses AH-64 Apache gunships while Turkey still operates AH-1W Cobras.
On the ground, if Turkey sends its armor to Libya, it might find its German-made Leopard II and vintage American-made M60 Patton tanks would have a hard time if they found themselves engaging Egypt’s American-made M1A1 Abrams — over 1,000 of which are in Cairo’s arsenal.
Also, Turkey would have to transport its armor across the Mediterranean while Egypt would just have to drive its across the border.
Of course, such a dangerous escalation between these two major military powers is certainly neither inevitable nor desirable for either side given how costly and dangerous it would likely prove to be.
With that being said, expect more tense saber-rattling and the flexing of military muscles between Turkey and Egypt over Libya in the coming weeks and months.
Paul Iddon – A journalist/columnist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. He is a writer about Middle East affairs, politics and history.