A string of victories by Turkish-backed Government of National Accord forces in western Libya this week against Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army, signaled the arrival of Turkey as a potentially decisive force among the foreign powers battling for supremacy in the Middle East’s biggest proxy war.
Libyan fighters backed by Turkish firepower captured on Monday a major air base west of Tripoli, the capital, used drones to destroy newly arrived Russian air defense batteries, and on Thursday pressed their offensive by ousting Haftar’s forces from a key town south of Tripoli.
The triumphs marked a stunning reversal of fortunes for the GNA, which looked weak and badly besieged by Haftar until President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey sent troops and armed drones in January. It was Turkey’s most forceful intervention in the oil-rich North African nation since the end of the Ottoman Empire over a century ago.
Over a year ago, Haftar began an offensive to capture Tripoli and appeared to have the upper hand in the conflict, positioning his foreign sponsors, including Russia, to play a major role in Libya’s future.
But on Wednesday, triumphant soldiers loyal to the government in Tripoli paraded through central Libya with a captured air defense system in a pointed humiliation of Haftar’s foreign backers.
Then, on Thursday, Haftar’s forces were driven out of Asaba, a small but strategic town they had held 60 miles outside the capital.
The United Nations envoy to Libya, Stephanie Williams, warned the Security Council this week that the escalating fighting, driven by a flood of foreign-supplied weapons, warplanes and mercenaries, risked “turning the Libyan conflict into a pure proxy war.”
Although Turkey’s dramatic gains this week appeared to change the course of the war, they were by no means conclusive. The fortunes of the players in Libya’s conflict have seesawed wildly since the fall of Col. Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
On Thursday Haftar, 76, vowed to strike back with what his air force chief called “the largest aerial campaign in Libyan history” against Turkish targets in Tripoli.
In reality, Haftar’s next move will be determined by his sponsors.
Fathi Bashagha, the Tripoli government’s interior minister, told Bloomberg on Thursday that eight Soviet-era jets, escorted by two newer Russian fighter jets, had flown from a base in Syria to boost Haftar. A European official said he had received similar reports, but said it was unclear if the jets were Russian or Syrian.
Any overt Russian military action would be a significant escalation for Moscow, which until now has exerted influence in Libya through mercenaries from the Wagner Group, the private army with close links to the Kremlin.
The European official said that the jets were most likely a signal from the Kremlin to Turkey to slow down its offensive and turn to a negotiated solution.
Russia did not comment on the reports, but after a phone call between the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, on Thursday morning, the two countries jointly called for an immediate ceasefire in Libya and the resumption of a United Nations-led political process, the Russian foreign ministry said.
The New York Times