Forces loyal to Libya's UN-recognised government parade a captured air defence system in the capital, Tripoli, Libya, May 20 2020. Picture: MAHMUD TURKIA / AFP
Forces loyal to Libya's UN-recognised government parade a captured air defence system in the capital, Tripoli, Libya, May 20 2020. Picture: MAHMUD TURKIA / AFP

Tripoli —  Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar raised the prospect of a dangerous new escalation in the North African country’s war with a threat to target Turkish forces backing the internationally recognised government, prompting Ankara to warn it would retaliate.

The chief of Haftar’s air force, Saqr Al-Jaroushi, vowed to unleash the “largest aerial campaign in Libyan history” with all Turkish positions now “legitimate targets for our air force.” The comments, first made in a statement he later confirmed to Bloomberg, came as the head of security in the Tripoli administration said officials received information that several Soviet-era jets had arrived in Haftar’s eastern stronghold from a Russian base in Syria.

Haftar has been stung by defeats over the past week at the hands of the Tripoli government, effectively foiling his year-long offensive to capture the capital. The strongman’s self-styled Libyan National Army, that is backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russian mercenaries, was dislodged from a key airbase on Monday and is encircled in one of its few remaining bastions in the country’s west.

International concerns have grown as Libya’s conflict drew in regional powers, tipping the country ever deeper into a proxy battle that has collapsed peace efforts to heal the country’s rifts and shuttered 90% of oil production in the Opec member state. The possibility of an all-out military confrontation with Turkey will set alarm bells ringing.

Ibrahim Kalin, spokesperson for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, warned Turkey would respond to any attack in the “strongest way”. A senior Turkish official said the country’s military was well prepared to defend its sites and areas under its protection using Turkish drones and warships deployed near Tripoli.

Turkey has also sent surface-to-air missile defence systems to Libya that have given it an edge over armed drones operated by the UAE, Western and Libyan officials have told Bloomberg. An aerial campaign by Haftar’s forces would first have to neutralise air defences that had effectively ended strikes on the capital since January.

Haftar’s forces had made inroads into the capital’s suburbs and seemed poised to enter Tripoli before Turkey escalated its intervention at the start of the year, including sending in thousands of Syrian militiamen.

Syrian base

The setbacks for Haftar were accompanied by a Turkish armed drone campaign that targeted Russian-made Pantsir air-defence systems. One of the batteries was captured intact and paraded in Tripoli on Wednesday.

Haftar’s foreign backers are not going to accept defeat and would look to dig in, a senior Arab official with direct knowledge of the campaign said. Earlier this week, the UN acting Libya envoy Stephanie Williams warned of a possible escalation in the war for control of the country, which has seen a series of conflicts since a 2011 revolt ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Fathi Bashagha, the security chief in Tripoli, said at least six MiG 29s and two Sukhoi 24s had flown into the east from the Russian-controlled Hmeimim Air Base in Syria, escorted by two SU-35 Russian air force jets. It was not clear whether those were refurbished jets that had belonged to Haftar’s air force or additions to his fleet.

“The Russians will need to show that they are willing to enter a direct confrontation with the Turks in Libya,” said Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert with the German SWP research centre. That did not  necessarily mean a surge in fighting, he said.

“If the Turks believe they are serious about this and can take out air defences, then I think we’re in a situation where the two can again launch a ceasefire.”

Turkey and Russia both pressed their local clients in January to sign a truce, but while the Tripoli-based government signed on, Haftar walked out of the meeting in Moscow. After this week’s losses, his forces pressed for a pause in fighting and said they would withdraw from the front lines in Tripoli, an offer rejected by the emboldened government.

“It’s hanging in the balance,” Lacher said.