Turkey is becoming more involved with the fighting in Libya and that is not going to end well. Turkey is bringing the same rivalry to Libya it has with most Arab states in Syria. Turkey is allied with Iran and Qatar against the rest of the Moslem world, especially Egypt and the Gulf Arab oil states. Turkey is also allied with Russia, but so is the LNA (Libyan National Army) that is seeking to shut down the militias in Tripoli and finally reunite the country. Why is Turkey getting involved with Libya? It’s mainly about local politics in Turkey and fond memories of an empire that failed and fell apart a century ago. Libya was, for centuries, part of that empire and because of that Turks are not remembered fondly in Libya.
The Turks first showed up in the 1550s as the Ottoman Empire conquered the coastal towns and cities of what is now Libya. Eventually, the Turks advanced inland but there was no real incentive to because south of the coast it was mainly desert and, before oil was discovered and developed in the 1960s, there was little of economic value down there. Empires have bills to pay and tend to keep their soldiers where the money is.
From the 1550s to 1910 Libya was technically a province of the Ottoman Empire but was mainly run by local strongmen who were often Turks who had gone native. In 1911 Italy took advantage of the weak control the Turks exercised and invaded.
By 1912 Italy controlled what is now Libya. The Italians sent in colonists and brought the industrial revolution to Libya. Italian rule ended in 1943 when Italy, an ally of Germany during World War II, surrendered to the allies. Occupied by Allied troops, Libya was given independence in 1951 as a constitutional monarchy. The royal family was led by a prominent local religious leader who became king. The parliament demonstrated the political divides between eastern and western coastal Libya and the less populous tribal interior. The discovery and development of oil fields down south in the 1960s brought unprecedented wealth and prosperity to Libya. It also brought a military takeover in 1969. This coup was led by Moamar Kaddafi who misruled Libya until 2011 when he was overthrown and killed.
The Turks had good relations with the Libyan monarchy but less stable and cordial relations with Kaddafi. Now the Turks have returned and are backing the Islamic militias. This is not popular with most Libyans, who have learned to fear the chaotic and unpredictable militias. Libya remains a thinly populated and divided (by tribal and local loyalties) place. When the kingdom was established in 1951 the population was about a million. The 1960s oil wealth triggered a population explosion (and lots of imported workers) that reached six million when the 2011 revolution occurred.
There are few things Libyans agree on and these include dislike of the Turks, Islamic terrorists, militias (especially Islamic ones) and foreign interference in general. For that reason, the UN peacemaking efforts are none too popular. That’s because the UN backed an unpopular and weak government in Tripoli, a city controlled largely by rival militias. The UN is seen as outsiders more interested in pursuing their own goals rather than what Libyans want (peace and some form of unity). The LNA and its leader Khalifa Hiftar know that and made themselves useful by subduing the militias and Islamic terror groups in eastern Libya and slowly moving south and west to do the same throughout Libya.
The Turks are arming and assisting the militias of Tripoli, including the Islamic ones. Turkey believes groups like the Moslem Brotherhood and other moderate Islamic groups are the future. This view is not shared by most Turks; just the ones in power. In the 1990s the Turks, who had gone secular after their centuries old Ottoman Empire collapsed in the 1920s, decided to give Islam another chance as an elected ruler (Recep Erdogan) tried, with some success, to revive the Ottoman Empire using a combination of Islam, technology and creative diplomacy to make Turkey great again. The new Turkish Empire builder (called “Sultan Recep I” behind his back) is not that much interested in taking back lost real estate but is eager to regain the Turkish leadership of the Islamic world. That was lost a century ago when Turkish secular reformers renounced the title of caliph the Turkish Sultan (emperor) had long held (by force). Sultan Recep has a lot of opposition at home and not much support in the region for an Ottoman revival. But Erdogan is a resourceful and ruthless politician and in early 2018 won re-election as president. This keeps him in power until 2023 as an elected official even though his political allies are doing much less well with the voters. Erdogan has lost support for sending Turkish troops into Syria where, since 2016, they have sought to build a security zone that would keep Islamic terrorists out of Turkey. Erdogan believes in the power of the mythical moderate Moslem militant but few Moslems or Infidels (non-Moslems) do. Nor do many Libyans. Given his precarious political situation back home, it is unclear how much military effort Erdogan will or can commit to Libya.
Turks in Libya are nothing new but now Turkey is increasing the shipments of military aid and apparently sending some advisors as well. The UN and some Western nations want the two rival Libyan government to merge but the Turks prefer the more terrorist-friendly GNA even though GNA forces are much less militarily effective than the LNA. Turkey has been pushing its agenda in Libya since 2012, with little effect.
Back in early 2015, Turkey warned all Turkish citizens to get out of Libya because of growing violence and anti-Turk sentiment. Turkey also warned all Turkish airlines to stay out of Libyan air space. This came after the eastern HoR government warned that it would shoot down any Turkish airliners or cargo aircraft entering Libya. This is all the result of the pro-Islamic radical Tripoli government having support from Turkey, Sudan and Qatar. Turkey said it supports the Islamic forces in Libya but that coalition includes many Islamic terror groups that the Turks insist they do not back. At the time the HoR government had most of the world recognizing it, along with most of the Islamic world. Turkey was under growing international pressure to support the HoR government and refused to do so. Instead, Turkey accused its foreign critics of conspiring against Turkey. This paranoia continues and since 2015 more evidence has surfaced of Turkish willingness to cooperate with some Islamic terror groups. This apparently includes the ones that dominate Misrata and keep that city pro-GNA.
Turkey is alone in providing military support for the GNA. For one thing, this violates the UN arms sanctions. Then there are the other foreign supporters of the GNA militias and especially the Islamic militias. Sudan used to be a source of support but that has ended because of a recent uprising that replaced the pro-GNA Sudan government. Two major Turkish allies, Iran and Russia, are no help in Libya. Iran is preoccupied with its own economic and political problems. Russia backs the LNA. Egypt and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) have long supported the LNA with weapons and air support. The U.S. recently declared its support for the LNA and a growing number of European nations are openly or covertly supporting the LNA.
Turkey, despite its closer ties with Russia, is still a member of NATO. The intervention in Libya may be one of the issues that gets Turkey thrown out of NATO and openly acknowledged as hostile to the West. This prospect motivates more Turks to openly and actively oppose Erdogan, who has established something of a police state to deal with local opposition. The extent of Turkish support for the GNA could be limited by other NATO nations enforcing the ban on importing weapons by sea.
The LNA has restored order to most of the major oil production and export facilities. Until June production was holding steady at 1.2 million BPD (barrels per day) and for once there is some assurance that the oil facilities will remain safe. In July some local group blocked (by turning valves, not bombs) a major pipeline. This was apparently another local dispute over money and it cut exports to about a million BPD, the lowest it’s been in five months. The LNA is still encountering problems with the NOC (National Oil Company), Central Bank and the UN over how to operate all these facilities and spend the oil income. The GNA has sought, with some success, to deprive the LNA of much oil income. There were also continuing problems with corruption in how oil income was spent. One thing the NOC and LNA can agree on is that the longer the fighting goes on the more risk is of oil production being disrupted once more.
July 21, 2019: A Turkish UAV attacked an LNA position outside the city, leaving six dead. These were probably Turkish made Anka UAVs. Since the late 1990s, Turkey has developed and deployed several workable UAV designs. In early 2018 the Turkish Air Force received six of the 40 Anka UAVs they had ordered back in 2013. At that point eight Ankas had been built but two have crashed during testing. So far in 2019 the Turkish Air Force as received two more. Anka is actually delivered as a “system”. Each Anka system consists of three UAVs plus ground control equipment and all necessary maintenance and ground operations gear. Looking very similar to the American Predator, the Anka is a 1.6 ton aircraft propelled by a rear-facing propeller. The payload is 200 kg (440 pounds) and endurance is 24 hours, and Anka can operate up to 200 kilometers from its controller. Max altitude is 7,900 meters (26,000 feet). A UAV like this would sell for over $2 million each. The Turkish military was supposed to receive its first Anka by the end of 2013 but that was delayed by technical problems. Turkey also announced a larger (four ton) version of Anka that can carry missiles or a lot more reconnaissance equipment. That has also been delayed and none have entered service yet. In 2016 Turkey put the original Anka UAV into service for the first time but deliveries of production models only began in 2017. The Turkish Air Force has used armed Anka UAVs against Kurdish separatists in eastern Turkey.
The UAE has operated Chinese Wing Loong UAVs in Libya since 2016. Each of these can be equipped to carry two BA-7 laser-guided missiles (similar to the Hellfire). Development on Wing Loong began in 2005, first flight was in 2007 and Chinese troops got the first ones in 2008 for further testing. While Wing Loong is similar in shape to the larger American MQ-9 Reaper, in size it's almost identical to the 1.2 ton Predator. The UAE operated these UAVs (and other aircraft) from an airbase 100 kilometers northeast of Benghazi.
In the west (Tripoli), LNA forces shot down another Turkish UAV.
July 17, 2019: The LNA revealed that it had brought in more troops and was now entering the next phase if its effort take control of Tripoli. The first phase of the battle lasted about a hundred days and took control of the outskirts in the south and east. This campaign, like all LNA efforts, was deliberate and meant to keep LNA casualties low. The militias suffered heavier casualties and morale fell. The Turks had observers with the militias and reported that more Turkish support was required to save the militias from collapse and the GNA from defeat. Turkey sent additional weapons and some military personnel. Most of these had to travel by ship because the main Tripoli airport, 24 kilometers outside the city, was now under LNA control. The smaller Mitiga airport, which is only eight kilometers from Tripoli is still under GNA control but is subject to LNA airstrikes. Also available is the Misrata city airport, which is 210 kilometers to the east. Misrata is the third largest city in the country and also dominated by local militias. Many of the militiamen defending Tripoli are from Misrata.
The battle for Tripoli, which began on April 4th, has left about 1,100 dead so far. More than 100,000 civilians have had to flee their homes to avoid the fighting.
July 16, 2019: France, Britain, Egypt, the UAE, U.S. and Italy issued a joint announcement calling on the GNA and HoR (the eastern government) to halt the fighting in Tripoli and resume negotiations to form a united government. The problem is that many militias in Tripoli and Misrata are hostile to a united government because it would mean an end to their independence. This is what most Libyans want and has been a key item to be agreed on for any unification deal to work.
July 15, 2019: In the east (Benghazi), there were public protests against Turkey and Qatar for actively providing military support to the GNA in Tripoli.
July 11, 2019: In the east (Benghazi), two car bombs went off at the funeral of a senior LNA commander. Six people were killed and 30 wounded. It is unclear who was responsible for the bombs.
June 30, 2019: In the west (Tripoli), LNA forces shot down a Turkish UAV.
June 27, 2019: In the west, 100 kilometers southwest of Tripoli a pro-GNA militia, with Turkish help, captured Gharyan, a key town for the movement of supplies to LNA forces in Tripoli. The LNA had to divert forces to Gharyan to regain control of the area. Turkish weapons and advisors had been involved in the attack on Gharyan. The Turkish supported raid on Gharyan captured some American Javelin ATGM (anti-tank guided missiles) which, it turned out, belonged to French special operations forces who have been working with the LNA since 2015 and were there mainly to collect intel and help with counter-terror operations.
June 25, 2019: In the west, across the border in Tunisia ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) took credit for two suicide bomb attacks in the capital. One policeman was killed and eight people wounded. Attacks like this are rare in Tunisia and even less frequent in Libya and Algeria. ISIL had tried to establish itself in eastern Algeria and coastal Libya but after several years of activity (and heavy losses) the remaining ISIL personnel appear concentrated in Libya, with a few still in Tunisia, where ISIL maintains at least one camp in the coastal mountains the border runs through. The Algerian security forces are still watching the borders, but doing so with a bit less manpower because of the need to assign troops to riot control duty. In Libya just about everyone with a gun is looking ISIL members and if they see one, shooting first.