Turkey’s decisive entry into Libya’s civil war

Khalifa Haftar’s militias are being pushed out from the western part of Libya, where there are strategic oil fields. As other external powers engaged in Libya consider their options, Turkey is close to securing its access to energy deposits in the Mediterranean Basin.

A photo of the leaders of Germany and Turkey, and the head of the United Nations meeting in Berlin
Berlin, January 19, 2020: German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) greets Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to the Libya Conference. Three days earlier, Mr. Erdogan announced he would send Turkish troops to Libya in support of the besieged UN-backed Tripoli government, which proved to be a real game changer in the conflict. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • Warlord Khalifa Haftar failed to take over oil-rich Tripolitania 
  • The civil war’s economic, social and humanitarian toll is rising
  • Turkey appears to be the most successful of many external actors

On June 5, 2020, the Tobruk-based militias of the self-styled Libyan National Army lost their last strategic outpost in Tripolitania – the city of Tarhuna. Their commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who opposes Libya’s internationally recognized government in Tripoli, used the town as a base in his 430-day campaign to capture the capital. 

Tarhuna was the last in a series of LNA military defeats – more than a year into the siege of Tripoli, which began on April 4, 2019. The game changer was Turkey’s entry into the fray in early 2020 to back the head of the Tripoli-based Government of National Agreement (GNA), Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.

Militias’ civil war

Mr. Haftar’s thin excuse for starting the war that destroyed two years of work by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has been the presence of extremist Salafist groups in the capital. However, within the LNA, there are many adherents of Saudi Madkhalism, a strain of Islamist thought within the larger Salafist movement: the Subul Al-Salam militia, the Al-Wadi Brigade, the Tawhid Battalion, the Tariq bin Ziyad Battalion – to name just a few. Still, the warlord’s rhetoric touched a nerve in Egypt and most of the Arab Gulf monarchies were alarmed by the threat of Islamist activism, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. 

The military conflict has had a peculiar character over the last months. On the ground, it involved only a few thousand troops on both sides, flanked by mercenaries (Syrians for Tripoli, Sudanese and Russians for the LNA) and swarms of Turkish- and Chinese-made drones in the air. In May, the tide shifted to the advantage of the Turkey-supported GNA. 


Facts & figures

A map of Libya, its provinces and the cities of strategic importance during the civil war in 2020
The Cyrenaica-based, self-styled National Libyan Army’s bid to take over Tripoli and the oil-rich Tripolitania has failed after the invaders lost their strategic strongholds in the city of Tarhuna and the al-Watiya Air Base. © macpixxel for GIS

On March 25, 2020, the reinforced GNA answered the LNA’s attacks – despite the call for a truce at the Berlin Conference in January 2020 – by launching what it called “Operation Peace Storm.” Within weeks, the Haftar militias suffered defeats and surrendered a string of western towns. On the same day, the GNA forces, aided with Turkish Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, took on the al-Watiya Air Base in the desert southwest of the capital, where many of the field marshal’s loyalists were taking refuge. 

The base, of high strategic value due to its proximity to the capital and the city of Zintan, had been under the control of Haftar’s forces since August 2014 (with only two interruptions, in April 2019 and January 2020, when it returned briefly into the hands of the GNA). On April 13, the base fell again after a massive GNA attack supported by Turkish forces. The entire area was then conclusively taken over by Tripoli’s militias. The Turkish-backed government offensive ended in early June with the capture of Tarhuna. There were only limited civilian casualties.

The shooting war is not over yet. The GNA drone fleet uses 40-kilogram MAM-L munitions capable of precision targeting within a range of 8 kilometers. The LNA makes extensive use of armed Chinese Chengdu Wing Loong II drones, purchased from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. On April 1, a Turkish frigate fired a surface-to-air missile at the Cyrenaica forces, marking the debut of Ankara’s direct involvement in combat. (Two Turkish G-class frigates, Goksu and Gokova, have also been providing naval support to GNA forces operating between the capital and Sabratha since February.) A Boeing E-7T from the Turkish air fleet provides intelligence to the ground and naval forces.

Russian-made Grad rockets continued to rain on Tripoli, not sparing civilian homes and hospitals.

In the meantime, Russian-made Grad rockets continued to rain on Tripoli, not sparing civilian homes and hospitals. The most affected areas were the Mitiga airport, Souq al-Jum’aa and Arada – all within a 10-kilometer circle from Martyrs’ Square, the heart of the capital. Another frequently targeted area was Abugrein south of Misrata, where most of the pro-GNA militiamen come from. 

The Tripoli militia “cartels” have not changed their ways since the war started, and continue to challenge the Ministry of the Interior. Its current head, former Libyan Air Force pilot and Misrata Military Council member Fathi Bashaga, once had the ambition to reorganize militia groups to create a professional police force in Libya. In recent weeks, however, he was forced to release hundreds of criminals from prisons, which hardly improved the capital’s security conditions.

The war is bearing its bitter fruit. In one year, Marshal Haftar’s operation has claimed some 1,700 lives – more than half of all the fatalities since the beginning of the Libyan revolution in 2011. About 17,000 people wounded and 200,000 displaced.

Pandemics and oil

During the pandemic, the war did not stop; it only became more obscure. European nations and the United States have been focused on trying to manage the worst public health emergency since the Spanish flu of the 20th century. Covid-19 cloaked Marshal Haftar’s actions, enabling him to tighten his siege of the Libyan capital for a time. In early April, the United Nations asked for a truce to try to limit the humanitarian crisis created by the conflict and the coronavirus, which began to spread among the Libyan population. But the UN initiative made little difference.

On April 17, Libya reported 49 Covid-19 cases and one death. By June 7, the figures were 256 and five, respectively. In reality, the situation must have been much worse, as there are no face masks or hospital-grade personal protection materials to speak of in the country, and no tests. Hospitals are not equipped to handle coronavirus patients and militiamen live in close proximity within the armed groups. 

The hospitals are not equipped to handle coronavirus patients and within the armed groups, militiamen live in close proximity.

In Tripoli, people are not wearing gloves or masks and the central market is crowded. No prevention measures have been introduced and the Ministry of Health is not dispensing relevant advice to the population. The healthcare system is on the brink of collapse. Ambulances have been regularly targeted by attackers or stolen. Doctors are getting kidnapped or killed on the streets. 

The main hospital in Tripoli, Al-Khadra, has a hundred ventilators in stock, but no other hospitals in Libya have similar supplies. Al-Khadra was bombed three times by the LNA during the third week of April. In Fezzan, the hospital in Murzuk has four ventilators that do not always work, as electricity blackouts have become frequent in recent weeks. The situation in Cyrenaica appears to be equally bad, but no reliable data is available: the regime there has gagged the media.

Economic catastrophe

And then there is Libya’s oil. The blockade of oilfields by armed groups supporting the field marshal has reduced crude production from more than one million barrels (mb/d) per day to less than 200,000 mb/d. The economic loss is currently estimated at around $4 billion – quite a figure for a country that lives off energy rent and has two million state employees out of six million inhabitants. Last month, those two million officials did not receive their salaries because of the blockade. Add to this the April collapse in global demand for oil, which depressed the commodity’s prices to their lowest level in 21 years, and the scale of Libya’s economic drama becomes apparent. Under these conditions, another humanitarian crisis looms in North Africa. 

On the positive side, the LNA defeat in Tripolitania has allowed a gradual reopening of the El Sharara field, Libya’s largest oil deposit. It is managed as a joint venture between Libya’s state-run NOC and French Total SA, Spanish Repsol SA, Austrian OMV AG and Norwegian Equinor ASA. The adjacent El Feel (the Elephant), managed by a partnership between the NOC an Italian Eni S.p.A, started pumping in early June. 

International powers

Looking back, the January 2020 Berlin Conference seems a tragic farce. Doubtlessly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel demonstrated her political charisma in bringing together all the conflict’s actors, especially external ones. But this, as expected, was not enough to create an effective cease-fire. The two antagonists never ceased to fight, the Haftar forces in particular, despite the promises made. In the warlord’s strategy, there was no room for a political dialogue before unifying the country with military force.  

The arms embargo was declared a joke by UNSMIL Acting Special Representative Stephanie Williams. (She has replaced Ghassan Salame, who resigned on March 3, 2020, apparently exhausted from the constant failures of his mission.) Every single day, weapons, ammunition and fighters are arriving in Libya. The war is sustained by a dozen foreign powers. The most active are Turkey and Qatar for the coalition supporting Tripoli while the LNA has Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Russia in its corner. Each country plays its own game, pursuing different national interests.

Each country plays its own game, pursuing different national interests.

Libyan ministers of interior, defense and economy are very close to Turkey, which will influence Tripoli’s future. The Libyan conflict is increasingly linked to developments in Syria. The Russians, whose mercenaries in Libya belong mostly to the Wagner Group PMC (owned by the Russian magnate Yevgeny Prigozhin, a member of President Vladimir Putin’s circle), have additionally recruited some 350 former pro-Assad Syrian fighters to support the LNA. Each is paid $3,000 for three months of engagement. It is no coincidence that the House of Representatives (HoR) of the partially recognized Tobruk legislature opened its diplomatic office in Damascus.

In January 2020, Turkey, for its part, brought about 2,000 fighters from the Free Syrian Army’s Sultan Murad Division to the side of the Tripoli government. They are the same men whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent to northern Syria earlier. Ethnically, they are Turkmen, Syrian citizens with deep Turkish roots. Each is paid some $2,000 per month and can obtain Turkish citizenship for his services. Many analysts believe their ranks are growing. According to various sources, the GNA also relies on mercenaries from Chad, recruited in Libya’s southwestern Fezzan province, through intermediaries in the city of Sabha.

The United Arab Emirates has contributed to the war by rebuilding the old Al-Khadim Air Base in 2016. Located 170 km east of Benghazi, it is being used as a strategic landing point.

Operation IRINI

The European Union’s newest effort to enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya is not expected to succeed. Operation IRINI (Greek for “peace”) will have powerful tools, including the use of aerial, satellite and maritime assets, and its personnel will be able to inspect vessels on the high seas off the coast of Libya, based on the 2016 UN Security Council Resolution 2292. The operation also has Greece’s backing: not surprisingly, Athens has opened its ports to IRINI vessels. This could complicate shipments of Turkish war materiel supplies for the GNA via naval routes. 

The field marshal, however, receives weapons and men mostly across land-border roads through Egypt, which have been used by smugglers for centuries. Besides, his forces regularly receive air deliveries from the United Arab Emirates. In April 2020 alone, more than 100 flights took off from the UAE’s Sweihan Air Base and Assab International Airport in Eritrea, supplying the LNA directly with about 6,200 tons of weapons and ammunition. Against this backdrop, IRINI’s limitations are evident.

Many there have been waiting for the field marshal’s first signs of weakness to challenge him.

These foreign actors in Libya are all asserting their geopolitical strength. As demonstrated in Yemen and Syria, such practices are ruinous to the targeted countries and give very little reason for optimism about the political outcome.

Mr. Haftar’s position in Tripolitania is precarious: he has suffered a crushing military defeat that could also prove to be political – both internally and externally. Tripolitania is lost to the warlord. His Cyrenaica base can be described as “sedated,” but is certainly not pacified. Many there have been waiting for the field marshal’s first signs of weakness to challenge him. Externally, he is making an all-out effort to get more men on the ground from the UAE and Russia.



Haftar's Defeat

Abandoned, his external allies disappointed by his ineptitude, the warlord implodes in Cyrenaica. His old tribal allies leave him as well, undercutting his strength at home and forcing him to flee the country. It is not certain, however, that the GNA, even if it had continuous support from Turkey, would dare to venture too far east to exploit the power vacuum. The lesson from the field marshal’s geographic overextension, which made supply routes to the front vulnerable and enfeebled the LNA force, is not lost to commanders in Tripolitania. Turkey would need to develop an entirely new strategy to move into Libya’s east.


The field marshal’s foreign allies do not abandon him, but they are wary of entering into a heavy-hitting conflict with Turkey. Turkey remains anchored to the Libyan territory. For President Erdogan, his country’s presence in Libya equals access to oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean, which he formalized in November 2019 through a memorandum of understanding with Prime Minister al-Sarraj. For Ankara, Libya means energy and international prestige. 

On the Haftar side, Egypt has pushed for a new cease-fire, which the GNA rejects. The field marshal declared himself in favor of the initiative by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, whose “Cairo Declaration” calls for an intra-Libyan resolution of the conflict. The proposed steps include a disarming and dismantling of the militias and expulsion of mercenaries. It also mentions a presidential council election to be held under UN auspices and the drafting of a constitutional declaration to regulate general elections at a later stage. The plan’s glaring weakness is that neither Mr. Haftar nor Tripoli militias would seriously consider surrendering their weapons.

Haftar's Discovery

This is the most unlikely scenario at the moment. As a military strategist, the field marshal has discredited himself too severely in the eyes of his supporters. Also, they lack the motivation to risk a war against a military colossus such as Turkey. 

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