By Alaeddin Saleh
A series of successes by Turkey-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya came to a sudden halt July 4th when the Al-Watiya airbase recently captured by the GNA factions was struck by unknown jets. Forces loyal to GNA entered Al-Watiya just a few weeks ago after a rapid offensive supported by Turkish drones. Back then, the GNA fighters took selfies with the Pantsir S-1 systems abandoned by the Libyan National Army (LNA). Instead of Russian-made Pantsirs Turkish MIM-23 HAWK systems were positioned at the base.
The latest satellite pictures of Al-Watia make it clear that these very systems were damaged or possibly destroyed in the attack. These developments surely dealt a huge blow to the pride of the Turkish leadership, all the more so because the attack happened just hours after Turkish defense minister Hulusi Akar concluded his visit to Tripoli.
Spokesman for the Volcano of Rage operation carried out by GNA units Abdul-Malik al-Madani claimed that Al-Watiya was attacked by Dassault Mirage 2000-9 multi-role fighters of the United Arab Emirates Air Force that used the Egyptian Sidi-Barrani airbase located closed to the Libyan border. The UAE did not comment on the statement.
The incident did not come as a complete surprise. Recep Erdogan’s aggressive policy in Libya has long been a concern for quite a few regional and global powers who could have deemed it necessary to slap the Turkish president on the wrist.
First, Turkey’s provocative actions endanger the interest of Libya’s closest neighbor, Egypt. The Egyptian leader Abdelfattah al-Sisi has already declared his readiness to conduct a full-scale military operation in Libya. Second, Turkish intervention in Libya is frown upon in the United Arab Emirates, one of the Egypt’s allies. Third, France has been consistently critical of Erdogan’s Libyan policy. Evidently, all of Paris, Abu-Dhabi and Cairo support the LNA leader Khalifa Hafter.
Probably the most thorough analysis up to date of the possible identity of the culprits behind the Al-Watiya attack was conducted by an independent researcher Akram Kharif. The analyst concluded that Russian involvement is least likely, as Russia lacks necessary military assets in Libya and is wary of damaging the relation with Turkey. Besides, Libya is off limits for the Russian spacial intelligence and targeting systems. Kharif argues that the operation was likely carried out by the UAE jets from Egypt’s soil with information support provided by France. If we accept this conclusion, the attack should be viewed as a “red line” drawn for the Turkish authorities.
Turkey and the GNA did not disclose the scale of casualties suffered in the attack, but it is of little relevance really. What’s more important is the symbolic meaning behind the attack that gave Ankara’s ambitious plans for capturing strategic areas of Sirte port and Jufra airbase a reality check. The future of the Libyan conflict now depends on the ability of the Turkish authorities to decipher this message.
By Alaeddin Saleh