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 advisers and technical experts was the response 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 provided drones and armoured vehicles for the defence of Tripoli, which helped stall an offensive launched by Haftar’s forces nine months ago.
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 increased around Tripoli in recent weeks.
This heightened pressure on GNA forces, which sources said is struggling against missile systems used to bring down drones and laser-guided shells thought to have been introduced by Russian contractors.
The GNA drone fleet has been depleted by attacks on airports and air bases in Tripoli and Misrata, north-west of Sirte.
Turkish officials indicate any deployment will not involve troops but Turkey is considering sending Syrian rebels. A source in the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army said some fighters already signed up as guards.
“What this will bring 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 co-ordination of troops on the ground.”
RUSSIAN AND TURKISH CO-OPERATION
Manoeuvring in Libya by Russia and Turkey, whose presidents met in Turkey on Wednesday, overshadowed European efforts to revive a UN-led peace process.
Turkey and Russia are generally on opposing sides in Syria’s civil war, they recently strengthened economic and military ties. They now co-operate in north-east Syria, mounting joint patrols and Ankara bought Russian missile defence systems last year despite opposition in Washington.
Ankara and Moscow want to protect their strategic interests in Libya, where they lost lucrative contracts in 2011 after a NATO-backed uprising and in the wider east Mediterranean region.
The countries are unlikely to clash directly, with Ankara seeking leverage to negotiate offshore gas drilling rights after signing military and maritime accords with the GNA in November.
“In Libya, Ankara’s end game is not to help Tripoli win the conflict, which is not realistic. It is to create a stalemate and political negotiations to preserve its maritime demarcation deal,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who heads Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.
A senior Turkish official told Reuters: “Turkey is in close contact with Russia to prevent conflict. This will continue.”
Russia could be eyeing a long-term goal of a naval base in eastern Libya, said Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow with the Clingendael Institute in The Hague.
“Russia is presented with a golden opportunity to make its presence in eastern Libya more entrenched,” he said.
Ankara and Moscow are filling the gap left by US disengagement in Libya under President Donald Trump and there are divisions among European states over Libya.
“I think the Europeans are out in the cold here,” said Harchaoui. “They’re scrambling.”