Turkey tensions with Libya’s Haftar risks proxy war
TRIPOLI - Libya's military strongman Khalifa Haftar, by provoking Turkey, seeks to divert attention from battlefield setbacks and draw in his backers, at the risk of a proxy war between regional rivals, experts say.
The strongman of eastern Libya who launched an assault on the capital three months ago threatened Friday to attack Turkish interests in the country, accusing Ankara of providing military support to his rivals, the Government of National Accord (GNA).
His forces arrested six Turkish nationals before releasing them on Monday after Ankara threatened to retaliate.
On Sunday, Haftar's fighters said they destroyed a Turkish Bayraktar drone in a strike on an airport in Tripoli.
Tensions have spiked since pro-GNA forces announced last week their recapture of the town of Gharyan, 100 kilometres (60 miles) from Tripoli, that Haftar had turned into a command centre for his stalled offensive against the capital.
The field marshal's attack on Turkey seeks to cover up what was a humiliating military defeat, according to Libya analysts.
"It's really an attempt to muddy the waters, said Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at the Clingendael Institute think-tank in The Hague.
Blow on 2 fronts
He said the loss of Gharyan was a blow on two fronts: it would handicap the Tripoli campaign and also led to the discovery of US-made Javelin missiles apparently supplied to Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) by the United Arab Emirates, his backer along with Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Harchaoui, however, said Turkey had achieved its goal and fended off the Tripoli assault by delivering armed drones to the GNA in May and "does not need an escalation at this stage".
According to defence specialist Arnaud Delalande, the Turkish military has been providing training on Bayraktar TB2 drones and piloting them until the GNA technicians are ready.
LFA forces destroyed two of the Turkish drones on the ground at the capital's Mitiga airport on June 8 and said that another one was bombed on Sunday.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has confirmed his country backs the GNA and supplies it with weapons under a "military cooperation agreement".
He told reporters on June 20 that Turkish backing had allowed Tripoli to "rebalance" the fight against Haftar.
The conflict in Libya has turned into "a proxy war between two regional axes: on one side the Turkey-Qatar axis... and the other the Saudi-Egyptian-Emirati axis which is battling Islamist forces by supporting the return of authoritarianism to the region", said Jana Jabbour, a Turkish foreign policy specialist.
She said the aim for Turkey was "a regional order which safeguards its interests in the face of the growing assertiveness of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates".
By venting his wrath at Turkey, Haftar hopes to provoke "a more direct involvement of Ankara, which would in turn oblige his sponsors to do the same", said Delalande.
Both the LNA and GNA accuse each other of using foreign mercenaries and receiving military support from foreign powers.
Libya itself has been mired in chaos since a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011, with a multitude of militias vying for control of the oil-rich country.