As Russia and Turkey broker negotiations in Moscow to convince Libya’s warring parties to sign a permanent truce, Turkey has already set out its Libyan road map with an important red line.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara Jan. 13, while Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu headed to Moscow. The shared objective of the parties is to secure the continuation of the cease-fire and hammer out a deal between Khalifa Hifter’s forces and the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). So far, the multilateral Moscow summit seems to be a fruitful opening for de-escalation. GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj is said to have accepted the truce, while Hifter asked for 24 hours before signing the text.
According to sources in Ankara contacted by Al-Monitor, the Turkish government sees Tripoli as a red line, regardless of whether the cease-fire holds. Turkey will seek to prevent Hifter’s forces from entering Tripoli at any cost, even through military measures. Erdogan made a clear commitment to Sarraj to that effect when the two met in Istanbul Jan. 12, the sources said.
Some 80 Turkish military personnel are currently in Tripoli. About 10 Turkish officers are training cadets at the Mitiga military academy, while others are involved in train-and-equip activities. The most recent group sent to Libya, about 40 servicemen, will operate the Milkar-3A3 V/UHF radio jammer system provided by Turkey for electronically jamming Tripoli’s airspace. Additionally, a Koral radar jammer might be dispatched to Tripoli in the coming days.
Turkey’s assistance plans for the near future also involve the deployment of the air defense early warning command and control system HERIKKS, the fire support automation system ADOP and the tactical area communications system TASMUS. Such equipment would help set up a joint air, sea and ground operational scheme in Tripoli, beefing up the GNA’s capabilities in terms of command, control, communication, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR), which currently constitute the main shortcoming in Tripoli’s defense.
The Milkar-3A3 and Koral systems would be used to protect Tripoli's urban center in an effort to limit, delay or prevent air and missile attacks from Hifter’s forces and jam their radars and radio communication.
Turkey also plans to establish an operations center, headed by a lieutenant general from the Turkish land forces and comprising officials from the land, naval and air forces, with the aim of coordinating Tripoli’s air and ground defenses.
The sources in Ankara said that Tunisia and Algeria, Libya’s two western neighbors, agree with Turkey on Tripoli being a red line. Italy and Russia also appear to support that notion.
In this context, the number of Turkish soldiers in Libya will likely grow in the coming days, solely for defensive and C4ISR purposes. Because of the cease-fire effort, Ankara’s current plans do not involve any military deployment for combat purposes.
Ankara apparently plans to divide Tripoli into three zones and deploy rebel groups brought from Syria to each zone for combat tasks. The three groups are the Sultan Murad Division, Firqat al-Hamza and Firqat al-Mutasim, all affiliated with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army. Using the time the cease-fire would provide, Ankara intends to build rapport between the Syrian groups and the GNA forces and erect well-fortified defensive perimeters at Abu Salim in the south of Tripoli, Tajura in the east and Arada in the southeast of the city.
Since the Turkish parliament’s approval Jan. 2 of a government measure to deploy combat units to Libya, another factor driving Ankara’s change of heart is Turkish public opinion. According to a survey published last week, only 34% of the public favors military deployment in Libya. Among sub-groups, 56% of Turks who voted for the ruling Justice and Development Party favored military deployment. In contrast, public support for operations Olive Branch and Peace Spring in Syria stood at about 75% and 82%, respectively. In other words, a larger deployment in Libya, particularly for combat missions, would be a politically risky move for Erdogan.
In any case, the cease-fire in Libya is still fragile. The GNA wants Hifter’s forces to retreat to their April 2019 positions, while Hifter insists the diplomatic talks must start on the basis of existing positions. Of note, Hifter’s forces captured the key coastal city of Sirte in early January. Their control also extends to areas about 15 kilometers (9 miles) south of Tripoli. Pulling back to the positions of April 2019 would mean forfeiting territorial gains.
Given the frictions that arose between Turkey and Russia in managing the situation in Syria’s rebel-held province of Idlib, Ankara now appears to favor a multilateral process in Libya involving Italy and Germany, hence the significance of Conte’s Jan. 13 meeting with Erdogan. Turkey is maintaining intense diplomatic contacts with Germany, Algeria and Tunisia as well.