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Turkey’s Gains in Libya Will Feed Hifter’s Fire

6 MINS READApr 24, 2020 | 10:00 GMT
Fighters loyal to the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) celebrate in Sabratha, Libya, after seizing the coastal city from Khalifa Hifter’s rebel troops on April 13, 2020. 

Fighters loyal to the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) celebrate in Sabratha, Libya, after seizing the coastal city from Khalifa Hifter’s rebel troops on April 13, 2020. 

(MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via Getty Images)
Highlights

Turkey’s investment into Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) may be paying off as the GNA and its allies have begun to make limited gains on the battlefield against Khalifa Hifter’s Libyan National Army (LNA). After securing full control along the coastal highway between Tripoli and Tunisia earlier this month, the GNA recently launched an offensive against the strategic town of Tarhuna, which is crucial for the Hifter’s supply chains to maintain his offensive on Tripoli. With Ankara’s help, the GNA will likely continue to have some success against Hifter’s allies. But by strengthening the resolve of his foreign backers, these advances will ultimately lead to an increase in the eastern leader and his army’s capabilities. Armed with added support from countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, Hifter will be well-positioned to continue his year-long offensive, prolonging Libya's civil war. ...

Turkey’s investment into Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) may be paying off as the GNA and its allies have begun to make limited gains on the battlefield against Khalifa Hifter’s Libyan National Army (LNA). After securing full control along the coastal highway between Tripoli and Tunisia earlier this month, the GNA recently launched an offensive against the strategic town of Tarhuna, which is crucial for the Hifter’s supply chains to maintain his offensive on Tripoli.

With Ankara’s help, the GNA will likely continue to have some success against Hifter’s allies. But by strengthening the resolve of his foreign backers, these advances will ultimately lead to an increase in the eastern leader and his army’s capabilities. Armed with added support from countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, Hifter will be well-positioned to continue his year-long offensive, prolonging Libya's civil war. 

The Big Picture

Since signing an agreement with Turkey in November, forces loyal to Libya’s internationally-recognized Government of National Accord have made several material gains against Khalifa Hifter and his Libyan National Army (LNA)’s offensive in Tripoli. As it continues to suffer losses on the ground, the LNA will likely turn to increased airstrikes, adding to the already high humanitarian toll of the country’s bloody civil war. 

A Turkish Boost 

Prior to the surge of Turkish support this year, conditions on the front lines in Tripoli were dire for many GNA forces. The United Arab Emirates and others had essentially provided Hifter with limitless support for his air campaign, enabling his LNA forces to strike strategic targets in Tripoli and Misrata. In September, LNA-allied Russian mercenaries were also deployed to the region, where their high level of training and equipment provided a significant boost in the capabilities of Hifter’s forces. 

Meanwhile, fears of violating a U.N. arms embargo on Libya has left Tripoli with little support from Europe and the United States. But those Western governments have also shown little interest in enforcing that same arms embargo against the LNA’s foreign backers, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for fear of jeopardizing their own Middle East strategies and alliances. 

For this reason, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also gambled that the West would have little appetite to place sanctions on Turkey for its involvement in Libya. To ensure an Emirati-backed government isn’t installed in Tripoli, Ankara has provided more drones, air defense systems and electronic warfare radar jammers to the GNA. This has since helped offset some of the LNA’s advantages in the air, and has also allowed the GNA to more successfully hit the LNA’s supply lines. Turkey has also provided the GNA’s ground forces with increased equipment and supplies, and has augmented the pro-GNA fighters with battle-hardened Syrian rebels as well. The result has been a qualitative increase in the GNA’s capabilities in the immediate vicinity of their strongholds.

Limited Gains

With this added Turkish support, the GNA may be able to seize the city of Tarhuna and the strategic al-Watiya airbase west of Tripoli. But the GNA remains unlikely to make significant gains beyond the region of Tripolitania. The GNA is still constrained in its ability to project power far from their strongholds for several key reasons. Perhaps most importantly, the further that the GNA operates from its key airbases in Misrata and Tripoli, the more vulnerable it will be to the LNA’s and its allies’ airpower. The range of the drones that Turkey has provided is less than 200 kilometers (124 miles). The further out these drones are from their LNA targets, the less air defense, radar and jamming coverage can be used to support them, making them more prone to failures and being spotted by the LNA’s air defenses. 

The GNA’s land-based supply chains will also be more exposed to LNA strikes as well as they will be further extended over long distances and in more remote areas making it easier for the LNA to attack them. Were it to make advances beyond its current strongholds near Tripoli, the lower effectiveness of the GNA’s drones will only exacerbate the challenges that the GNA would have in maintaining long-supply chains 

Libya’s Civil War Continues 

The GNA’s localized successes, however, still pose a dilemma for Khalifa Hifter and his foreign backers. It has long been clear that Hifter’s offensive on Tripoli was unlikely to result in a victory on the ground. And the LNA’s attempts to court pro-GNA militias and towns onto its side have so far largely failed. But for Hifter and his allies, maintaining its low-intensity offensive instead of entering peace talks may still prove the best option.  

Without the need to continue fighting, splits could emerge within Hifter’s diverse support base in Benghazi and eastern Libya. Many LNA forces and their allies in these areas would ultimately be content with a federalist Libya that gives the country’s oil-rich eastern regions semi-autonomy or independence. If the offensive in Tripoli stops, those splits would become more apparent and undermine a renewed offensive in the future. 

Turkey and the Libyan government’s recent successes will ultimately increase Hifter and his rebel army’s capabilities by strengthening the resolve of his own foreign backers.

A resolution to the Libyan conflict would also force Hifter’s foreign supporters to not only accept a pro-Turkey government in Tripoli, but one that openly involves the Muslim Brotherhood. Such an outcome is unacceptable for nearby Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which consider the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. The LNA’s foreign allies have invested too much time and resources into supporting Hifter over the past six years to see his long-term strategy of toppling the government in Tripoli threatened. Instead, Hifter’s backers are more likely to increase their support, which could enable the LNA’s offensive to rely less on ground forces and more on air forces.  

With no end in sight to this foreign aid, Hifter has calculated that his LNA forces can outlast Turkish-supported GNA. He’ll likely continue to play the long-game by conducting siege-style tactics while denying access to his territory’s oil exports in a bid to dry up Tripoli’s economy. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates will continue to facilitate the delivery of fuel supplies to Eastern Libya in order to keep the offensive awash in fuel. While unpopular, an emboldened LNA may even consider more forcefully targeting Tripoli’s water and power supplies, exacerbating the war-torn country’s already dire humanitarian crisis. 

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