The Libyan front looks bleak for Erdogan, writes Turkish journalist Fehim Tastekin in Al Monitor. Tastekin notes that Turkey is far from achieving its stated objectives in the two wars in which it is currently entangled. In late February, 36 Turkish soldiers were killed in Idlib, but Turkey’s response on Syrian forces was not convincing, and Turkey has agreed to a Russian ceasefire.
Tastekin goes on to describe Turkey’s military efforts in Libya as more secretive, with Ankara working to keep the Turkish public in the dark. It is already trying to downplay its losses in Libya to avoid a public backlash, although this does not seem to be working. Only recently did Erdogan acknowledge Turkish casualties in Libya, doing so in an obscure reference that angered many. Erdogan referred to a “few martyrs”, and only after the news of one officer’s death made the rounds on social media. There are further reports from Haftar’s forces of more Turkish soldiers having been killed.
It is also leading to a backlash in the Arab world. Just last week, the Tobruk government signed a series of agreements with Damascus and will reopen Libya’s embassy there instead of the Tripoli government. Haftar is aligning with the Syrian government in Idlib over Turkey. Basically, Turkey’s intervention in Libya pushed Damascus to formalise its alliance with Haftar. Some observes believe it was the UAE and Russia, as well as Egypt who may have pushed Assad to expand his anti-Turkey alliance with Haftar. The UAE reopened its Damascus embassy only two months prior.
All these moves are not occurring in a vacuum and signify a growing isolation and antagonism of Turkey in the Arab world, and with it Tripoli. The viability of Erdogan’s involvement in Libya is also in doubt. Turkey’s assistance, including the Syrian mercenaries, has kept the GNA afloat in Tripoli. But the LNA attacks continue, including over 120 missiles fired in February alone with Mitiga airport having had to be shut down numerous times. Basically, by bringing in Turkey, the GNA created a military balance and an impasse to force Haftar into a dialogue.
But Haftar too has received a surge in foreign support. Air traffic from the UAE to eastern Libya has increased noticeably since January. There are reports of over 3000 tonnes of military material having been sent to Haftar in late January – equivalent to all the UAE’s military assistance throughout 2019.
Turkey has escalated as well. It is said to have sent some 5000 Syrian fighters, with almost 2000 being trained in Turkey. Turkey also sent two vessels off the Tripoli coast, and another Lebanese flagged cargo ship of arms, seized by Italy in early February. To be sure, Turkey’s drones and anti-aircraft guns have denied Haftar aerial superiority over Tripoli, which is why he now resorts to shelling Mitiga from dozens of km away. However, achieving more meaningful results may require a greater military presence, and it is not clear Turkey can commit to such an effort.
But for now, it seems Haftar has the stronger backing to continue escalating as needed. According to one Turkish analyst interviewed, Erdogan seeks considerable economic and strategic gains for his investment and wants to take the fight into Haftar-held territory. However, it cannot commit the requisite force to do so, especially as the Syrian front escalates. Erdogan hoped to achieve a partnership with Moscow over their involvement in both Syria and Libya and used Russia’s militia strategy as well. However, Erdogan didn’t count on Russia having a relatively limited role with greater influence in the hands of the UAE and Egypt.