Russians rapidly up stakes in Libya with MiG deployment
FILE PHOTO: A destroyed and burnt tank that belonged to the eastern forces led by Khalifa Haftar, is seen in Gharyan south of Tripoli Libya June 27, 2019.
(photo credit: REUTERS/ISMAIL ZITOUNY)
Russia deployed MiG-29s and other aircraft to Libya in what appeared to be throwing down a gauntlet to Turkey and other countries that might think Moscow is ending its support for the eastern Libyan government of Khalifa Haftar. It is a big play for Russia, doing it in broad daylight to show off after around ten Russian Pantsir air defense systems were reportedly destroyed by Turkish drones in Libya.
Libya has rapidly become an expanding proxy war as Turkey has poured mercenaries and drones into Tripoli to support the western Libya government in a civil war. Turkey signed an energy deal that gives it claims over the Mediterranean in November last year. Since then, Ankara’s clandestine support, including armored vehicles, has grown for the Government of the National Accord in Tripoli. Turkey prayed off the GNA’s weakness to get it to sign a deal and then Ankara swept in to pose as the winner. Ankara has got Western media to herald its great victory over the Russian backed Libyan National Army in the conflict. Turkey has social media armies to retweet videos posted online that show its drones hunting Russian hardware. Moscow, which is selling Turkey air defense systems, has a bizarre love-hate relationship with Turkey and sent its fighter jets to Libya to show that two can play at the public relations game.
The real story in Libya is more complex. Libya has been at civil war since 2011. The US and Western powers walked away from Libya after US ambassador Chris Stevens was murdered in 2012 by Islamist extremists. Later ISIS got a foothold in Libya. In Tripoli, the GNA government looked like an almost-failed state. But Turkey and Qatar stepped in to shore it up. Meanwhile, Egypt and the UAE backed General Hafter in eastern Libya. Haftar said he would take Tripoli last year, but his siege fell apart in recent weeks. Russian-made Pantsir air defense had bolstered Haftar’s ability to shoot down Turkish drones. Turkey appears to have supplied GNA with intelligence on how to defeat the Pantsir system. On May 18, with Turkey’s backing, the GNA destroyed numerous Russian Pantsir air defense systems and took the Watiya air base near Tripoli.
The May 18 offensive led Haftar to retreat. Turkey invited reporters to see its great victory, including its Bayraktar drones it said turned the tide. Ankara also fed media misinformation about Russia withdrawing support for Haftar. Turkey also claimed Western countries were now conspiring against it in Libya. But in fact, Moscow was preparing a new move in Libya. Haftar had already threatened airstrikes on Turkish targets in Libya.
Many mysteries surround what is happening in Libya. Turkey has sent thousands of Syrian rebels to fight them. The Assad regime has also allegedly sent Syrian mercenaries via Russia Khmeimim base in Latakia. They might be flying via Cham Wings. Meanwhile Qatari airplanes, Globemaster 17As, are alleged to fly from Turkey to Tripoli. It seems both Russia and Turkey are pouring in men and material. Now Russia has made that clear with its MiG-29s and Su-24 jets. US General Stephen Townsend of AFRICOM waded into the battle on May 26, accusing Russia of sending the planes. He says it shows the full extent of Moscow’s involvement. “We watched as Russia flew fourth-general jet fighters to Libya, every step of the way.” Sounds like the Cold War.
US diplomats, led by envoy to Syria James Jeffrey, want to make Syria a “quagmire” for Russia. Now Russia is linking Libya and Syria, and so is Turkey. Russia and Turkey are discussing new arrangements for the M-4 highway in Syria. An agreement on Tuesday paved the way for a new deal over the highway where joint Russian and Turkish patrols already operate in some areas. Turkey’s pro-government media that bashes Russia for Libyan involvement, welcomes the M-4 deal in Syria.
The US decision to “unmask” Russia’s role came in the form of revealing photos of Russian jets on the way to Libya. But it was already known that the US has been dueling with the Russians over the Mediterranean. In April a Russian Su-35 flew close to a US P-8. US F-22s also intercepted a Russian Tu-142 last month near Alaska. Now there are Su-35s in Libya too. The US says the Russians conducted an “unsafe” intercept over the Mediterranean on Tuesday. The US 6th Fleet Navy P-8 was nonplussed by the encounter and Russian showboating.
Russia is showing its muscle in Libya now. Russian contractors purposely stroll into local towns negating operational security or plausible deniability. Turkey is operating in a more clandestine manner, likely moving better electronic warfare assets and maybe using its heavier jets for airstrikes. The intel on location of the Pantsir and precise strikes on them, shows a hi-tech state like Turkey, a NATO member, was involved. Russia read this as a test and wants to ante-up. Some postulate that the Russian deployment may be a trap for Turkey and is in line with French support for Haftar. But Turkey seems to be trying to buy US support for its Libya operation, recently hosting an El Al light from Israel to the US and showcasing its capabilities to signal to Jeffrey and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that it can go toe-to-toe with the Russians. The reality is Turkey and Russia also work together.
The question is now what Russia will do with its air assets in Libya. It’s Su-24s are so big they don’t even fit in the hangers at Al-Khadim airbase, 1,000 km from Watiya. The Russians and Turks might look to history for a lesson. In the 1940s, the Italians, Germans and British fought over this same landscape in a back-and-forth conflict. The involvement of the US this week, pinpointing Russia’s alleged escalation, increases the chances for a showdown. But first, Russia has to have its pilots in Libya actually do something than just fly around and show off the flag.