Turkish support for Tripoli could ‘rebalance forces’ in Libya

FILE PHOTO: A destroyed and burnt tank that belonged to the eastern forces led by Khalifa Haftar, is seen in Gharyan south of Tripoli Libya June 27, 2019. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny/File Photo

The planned arrival of Turkish military advisers in Libya should bolster the internationally recognised government, but may not be enough to turn the tide of a conflict in which eastern-based forces have the upper hand thanks to foreign support.

Turkey’s decision to send the advisers and technical experts responded to a request by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA), which Ankara backs against forces allied to veteran commander Khalifa Haftar.

Turkey has already provided drones and armoured vehicles for the defence of the capital, Tripoli, which helped quickly stall the offensive launched by Haftar’s forces nine months ago. 

But Turkish backing has often been outweighed by air power from the United Arab Emirates in support of Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), and by a technological and frontline edge provided by Russian military contractors since September, officials, diplomats and analysts say.

“The decision by the GNA to request military support from Turkey follows a dangerous escalation in the conflict from Haftar and his backers, including bringing in Russian mercenaries,” GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha said in a statement to Reuters.

On Monday, the LNA advanced into Sirte, a strategic city in the centre of Libya’s Mediterranean coastline, and fighting has increased around Tripoli in recent weeks.

This has heightened pressure on GNA forces, which two sources close to those forces said had been struggling against missile systems being used to bring down drones and laser-guided shells thought to have been introduced by Russian contractors.

The GNA’s drone fleet has also been depleted by attacks on airports and air bases in Tripoli and the city of Misrata, northwest of Sirte.

Turkish officials have indicated that any deployment will not involve troops but that Turkey has been considering sending Syrian rebels. A source in the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army said some fighters had already signed up as guards.

“What this will bring above all is a rebalancing of forces,” said Arnaud Delalande, an independent defence consultant and Libya expert. “In particular it could bring air defence, which could be jamming systems, but also coordination of troops on the ground.”