As Libya goes through a critical period, two memorandums of understanding signed on Nov. 27, 2019, in the fields of delimitation of maritime jurisdictions and military security cooperation changed the fate of Libya.
Turkey has supported the Government of National Accord, established in late 2015 under the Suheyrat agreement, which is a signatory of the Libyan parties for a political solution in Libya, and which the UN recognizes as legitimate administration in Libya, since the first day of its inauguration.
Warlord Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the illegitimate armed forces in Libya, has taken control of more areas inside the country by force, also supported by some European and regional countries.
Hopes for a political solution to the crisis have risen again as Libyans prepared for an UN-led dialogue conference in April 2019.
But when Haftar, who has the support of regional countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and France, ordered his administration’s militias to seize the capital in April 2019, instability-plagued Libya was dragged into a spiral of violence again.
Haftar arrived at the gates of the capital Tripoli with the support of financial resources, heavy weapons, mercenaries, unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), warplanes, and military advisers through his regional supporters.
Since the beginning, Turkey announced its support for the Libyan government in its fight against Khalifa Haftar, his coup attempt, his regional supporters, and his intent on taking control of the capital and the country by force.
After talks between Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, who visited Turkey on Nov. 27, 2019, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the two countries signed memorandums of understanding on the delimitation of maritime jurisdictions and military security cooperation.
Agreement moves the regional balance
Regional countries which based their interests on Haftar and his control over the country by force, raised their opposition to the agreements between Turkey and Libya, while Haftar intensified his armed attacks on the capital Tripoli before the agreement became effective.
During this period, reports saying mercenaries affiliated with the Russian private security company Wagner were involved in Haftar’s ranks also became frequent.
Besides the support from Wagner, the UCAVs provided by the UAE strengthened Haftar’s air dominance, helping him increase his attacks on Tripoli, including civilian settlements. Hundreds of civilians were killed in these attacks. Hundreds of thousands of civilians who fled their homes because of the war started to take refuge inside Tripoli.
Turkish parliament ratifies motion to send troops to Libya
The Turkish parliament convened an extraordinary session on Jan. 2 to vote on sending troops to Libya, and the motion was adopted by a majority vote.
Turkish military experts arrived at Libya and began to provide their Libyan counterparts with consulting services, while Haftar intensified his attacks on the capital, fearing that the balance in the war would change.
On Jan. 4, a UCAV linked to Haftar targeted a group of youth walking outside the Hadba military high school, south of Tripoli, killing at least 30 people, most of them young students.
On Jan. 6 early in the morning, Haftar’s forces launched simultaneous attacks on the city of Sirte, 450 kilometers (280 miles) west of Tripoli, from several different. After an armed group inside the city switched sides, the Libyan army withdrew from the city of Sirte, considering the safety of civilians in the city.
Haftar, who captured a strategic city inside Libya, pushed his attempts further to seize the capital by force.
Turkey, Russia call for a cease-fire
Turkey and Russia after talks called for a joint cease-fire, effective Jan. 12. The Libyan government responded positively to the call, while Haftar agreed to the cease-fire only minutes before midnight on Jan. 12.
On Jan. 14, the sides met in the Russian capital Moscow to turn the cease-fire into an agreement. While the Libyan government signed the cease-fire, Haftar left Moscow at midnight without signing it, also baffling his Russian hosts.
As Haftar’s militias have occasionally violated the cease-fire on the front lines, the eyes turned to a conference on Libya which was set for Jan 18 in Berlin, also to be attended by the Libyan parties to the conflict.
But groups affiliated with Haftar, who previously controlled oil production facilities in the east of the country, announced they were halting oil production in the country, claiming that the oil cut was “a popular movement”. This led to criticisms that Haftar was using the main source of the country’s economy as a political trump card a day before the Berlin Conference.
The conference was still held in the German capital Berlin on Jan. 18 with the participation of 12 countries and four international organizations to bring a permanent cease-fire to the war. As leaders and Libyan actors were discussing the crisis in the country, Haftar’s militias did not back down from their attacks on the capital.
Haftar, who left the conference again without signing the cease-fire agreement, signaled that he would continue his attacks, and the violence in the country did not stop in both Tripoli and other parts of Libya.
Libyan gov’t launches Operation Peace Storm
The UN has proposed a humanitarian cease-fire on March 22 to the warring parties in Libya over the COVID-19 outbreak that has gripped the world. The Libyan government accepted the proposal. Haftar’s side also announced that it had accepted the call, but within minutes it carried out an intense rocket attack on Tripoli.
The first case of coronavirus in Libya was detected on March 23. The government implemented several measures, including a curfew.
Haftar’s militias carried out one of their most intense attacks in recent period on civilian settlements in Tripoli, including hospitals, just one day after the first COVID-19 infection was detected.
Government forces had long remained defensive against Haftar’s militia, which targeted field hospitals, doctors, schools, government institutions, and civilian living quarters.
But the Libyan army launched Operation Peace Storm, announcing that from March 25 they were moving from a defensive position to an offensive position “to protect the lives of civilians”.
In the first phase of the operation launched by the Libyan army, Haftar’s militias displayed a tough defense. Over time, however, Haftar’s defensive line began to collapse.
On April 13, the Libyan government cleared an area of 3,000 square kilometers (1,158 square miles) — stretching from the capital Tripoli to the Tunisian border in the west of the country — of Haftar militias.
As part of the Libyan government’s Operation Peace Storm, a large number of aircraft, helicopters, UCAVs, and a high number of tanks, cannons, armored vehicles, heavy weapons, as well as facilities used by militias linked to Haftar were destroyed.
Haftar’s militias, after its casualties in the field, attempted to take revenge by heavily shelling civilian settlements in Tripoli.
Haftar begins to withdraw
Haftar, who maintained his position by expanding the area he controlled inside Libya by force, sought international support and more allies.
However, after his losses in the west of the country, Haftar’s authority in the area he controlled also was challenged. After his defeat, Haftar called his supporters to take to the streets to decide on who would lead the country and later announced that he had accepted “the call”, announcing that he had taken over the country on April 27.
But Haftar’s attempted coup against his allies provoked an international reaction and did not find a response within the country.
On May 18, the Libyan army, after other successful operations, also took strategic Al-Watiya airbase located 140 km (87 miles) southwest of Tripoli on an area of 50 square kilometers (19 square miles), which can deploy thousands of troops without external support, including onboard military aircraft runways, hangars, fuel tankers, and vehicle depots.
UCAVs attached to the Libyan army conducted more than 100 airstrikes on militia gathering points, weapons depots, armed vehicles, and ammunition trucks around the Al-Watiya Air Base.
Haftar’s hope of taking Tripoli ends
Haftar’s militias have intensified their indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the city from their positions south of the capital Tripoli.
Heading south of the capital Tripoli to remove Haftar’s militia, the Libyan army quickly drove Haftar’s militia out of the entire Tripoli in a few days at the beginning of June, then from the city of Tarhuna and the city of Bani Walid, south of the capital. The Libyan army then took control of the main social, administrative, and commercial population centers in the west of the country and the ports between them.
The Libyan army’s advance continued as far as the city of Sirte, 450 kilometers (280 miles) west of the capital Tripoli. UCAVs and unidentified international warplanes in Haftar’s ranks stopped the Libyan army’s advance.
Turkish Armed Forces clearing Libya of explosives left by Haftar’s mercenaries
In Libya, Turkish military teams landed on the site to clear a large number of mines, handmade explosives, and ammunition that Haftar’s militias and mercenaries had planted in civilian areas as they retreated south of Tripoli.
After the rescue of settlements occupied by Haftar’s militia, especially Tripoli, to ensure the safe return of civilians to their homes, bomb disposal experts belonging to the Turkish land, sea, air forces, and special Forces continued to work to normalize life by clearing the area of explosives and mines.
The Turkish Armed Forces also accelerated the training of the Libyan army in these areas.
Military cooperation between the two countries paved the way for the safe return of civilians to their homes.
Balance on-field helped political dialogue
Thanks to the Turkish-Libyan cooperation, strengthened through memorandums of understanding between Ankara and Tripoli, the military balance that had so far appeared to be in Haftar’s favor changed.
As the Libyan government purged the main population centers south of the capital and west of the country from Haftar’s militias, the international actors who established the balance in Libya after Haftar seized the capital and the administration by force noticed that the warlord could not fulfill this promise.
Haftar supporters, including the UAE, Egypt, France, and especially international actors such as Russia, preferred to pursue their interests with a political actor, Tobruk-based House of Representatives Speaker Aguila Saleh — who is also a legitimate figure under Suheyrat agreement — instead of Haftar — an actor in military uniform in the Middle Eastern caricature.
The Libyan government noticed that a new wave of violence would begin if they advanced to the axis of Sirte under the control of Haftar’s militia with the support of Russia and the UAE. The knot between the parties, tied in Sirte, led to a new power balance.
As a result of pressure from the international community, Libyan Prime Minister Sarraj and Speaker Aguila Saleh announced a mutual cease-fire on Aug. 21.
The move created a positive environment of expectation in Libya, where the two sides announced they would remain committed after a long time of conflict. Oil production, the main source of the country’s economy, then resumed.
After the cease-fire, negotiations in different areas on resolving the Libyan crisis and the search for a political solution were launched.
After one year over these developments, many regional and international experts stress that today’s environment for negotiation and the political solution has been possible with Turkey’s support to Libya and the balance it brought to the field following memorandums of understanding signed between Turkey and Libya.
Next goal: modern and professional army
During the Arab Spring, the incompetence of state institutions caused by the fall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime, particularly the lack of a modern and professional army, is cited as the main reason behind Libya’s many recent troubles.
The memorandum of understanding on military and security cooperation between Turkey and Libya includes the following areas: training, consulting, transfer of experience, planning, materials support, and forming a joint Defense and Security Cooperation Office in Turkey and Libya in case of a request.
This office will provide the two countries with training, technical information, support, development, maintenance, repair, recovery, disposal, port, and providing consultancy support. The memorandum also covers that — on the condition of keeping the ownership — land, air, and sea vehicles, equipment, weapons, use of buildings and field (training bases) inside the territorial borders of parties and upon the invitation of them, as well as joint military planning, exchange of experience, training and consultancy services for the use of weapon systems and equipment in the areas of land, sea and air forces within the armed forces.
The memorandum of understanding at the same time includes security and military training and teaching, practice or participation in joint exercises and training, security and defense, terrorism and fighting against illegal migration, the security of land, sea, and air borders, combating smuggling and narcotic terror, operations on clearing handmade explosives, natural disaster relief operations, training, information and experience exchange and the execution of joint operations in different areas of cooperation between the parties and contact visits, the organizational structure of the defense and security forces, defense and security the structure of the units and equipment, and personnel management.
Turkey’s efforts to establish a modern, professional army for Libya and its consultancy in this field are in full swing.
The military training program by the Turkish Armed Forces for the Libyan army had its first graduates last week. A graduation ceremony was held in Tripoli for Libyan military students who completed an eight-week training to achieve international standards for the Libyan army.
Libyan Defense Minister Salah Eddine al-Namrush said that with this graduation, the Libyan-Turkish military cooperation bore its first fruits in the field of training.
*Writing by Merve Berker in Ankara.
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