Events in Libya have escalated rapidly in recent days, accompanied by an information and propaganda war between the opposing sides.
A written statement published on 21 May by Saqr Al-Jaroushi, commander of the Air Force of the Libyan National Army (LNA), hints at a dangerous escalation of the situation in the African country, stating that “the largest aerial campaign in Libya’s history is about to begin. All Turkish positions and interests in all (Libyan) cities are now legitimate targets for LNA planes, and as such the civilian population is urged to stay away from them.”
Turkish media had several days earlier launched a mass information campaign in support of Operation Peace Storm in Libya, reporting how the Libyan army had dealt a “crushing blow to Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s military units” around Tripoli, Al-Watiya and Abu Grein, and on the destruction of LNA military equipment. In demonstration of these victories, GNA supporters triumphantly paraded a captured Russian-made Pantsir C1E, an air defense missile system, around the Libyan capital as a trophy. Admittedly, it must be noted that the Pantsir in question was unable to move on its own; the burnt-out trophy was towed by a tractor, having been heavily damaged during the fighting. Nevertheless, the Pantsir became a powerful propaganda tool for Haftar’s opponents. As for how the Pantsir ended up in Libya, it formed part of an arms shipment sent to Haftar by the UAE, one of the field marshal’s main sponsors. This is indicated by the fact that the missile system is built on the chassis of the German MAN-SX45 off-road truck, which was successfully used in this configuration during the Emirates’ military campaign in Yemen.
Turkish media has over the past few days put particular emphasis on how Haftar’s troops lost control over the Al-Watiya airbase south of Tripoli, “hastily fleeing under pressure from the forces of Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA), which receives robust military support from Turkey.” Turkey’s Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar recently told Turkish information agency Anadolu that the balance of power in Libya is changing and summarized Turkey’s involvement in the conflict, emphasizing that the GNA’s success was made possible by the support of Turkish military consultants and their work with the army in the organization of military training.
Commenting on the events in Libya over the past few days, Turkish media and sympathetic foreign publications have begun publishing materials about how “GNA forces were able to enter the Al-Watiya airbase and take it under their control, definitively changing the balance of power between Libya’s warring factions without a shot being fired.”
The LNA, based in the east of the country, is supported by Russia, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The GNA is backed by Turkey and Qatar.
To determine the truth about the event and the recent developments in the confrontation, television channel 218TV studied the details of what happened in this part of the country that is so strategically important for both the LNA and the GNA. The channel’s findings disproved everything that had previously been reported about the battle at Al-Watiya and demonstrated in video recordings published earlier by the GNA and Turkey, including the “capture of arms at the Al-Watiya airbase.”
It came to light that the capture of the “military facility” by GNA forces and the parading of trophies had been faked. This story began several days before GNA forces “seized control of the Al-Watiya base”, when three days earlier the General Command of LNA forces stationed at the base ordered the gradual withdrawal of troops and military equipment. As a result, the base was left empty, without arms or munitions. All that remained were aged Mirage, Su and MiG aircraft, out of service since 2011, and unusable old equipment, including the burnt-out Pantsir.
On 20 May, the LNA Command announced a unilateral withdrawal of forces from the front line around the Libyan capital, where the GNA is seated, as a gesture of good will ahead of the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan on 23 May and the upcoming festival of Eid al-Fitr. The official speaker of the Libyan National Army, General Major Ahmad al-Mismari, described how the situation with the ceasefire is developing in the country, and on his Facebook page commented on an initiative to create a “zone free of direct confrontations.” He also announced that the LNA Command will redeploy its forces at a distance of 2-3 km behind all battlefronts around the capital, allowing Muslims to celebrate in peace.
However, Haftar’s proposed truce was rejected by al-Sarraj.
It appears that it is this reaction from the GNA, as well as the unfounded media propaganda campaign celebrating the “collapse of the LNA”, that have prompted the marshal to launch an “aerial battle” against Turkey and its ally, the GNA.
It is worth remembering that Field Marshal Haftar announced in a video message at the end of April that the Skhirat Agreement, which was reached in 2015 and led to the formation of the Government of National Accord (GNA), was to be abandoned, and thus the Libyan National Army (LNA) decided to take over the running of the country. Earlier, negotiations between the two sides, which had been initiated by the UN in Geneva, broke down in February after the LNA opened fire at a Turkish ship in the GNA-controlled port of Tripoli. As a result, GNA leader Fayez al-Sarraj refused further negotiations with Haftar. The European Union and Russia condemned the LNA’s April announcement, stating that it would not lead to a sustainable solution to the conflict, which had been agreed upon between the two sides at a January conference in Berlin attended by Russia, Germany, France, Great Britain, Turkey and Egypt, as well as the secretary general of the UN and the president of the European Commission. EU external affairs spokesperson Peter Stano reported that the European Union refuses to recognize the government of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
During a phone call on 18 May, President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey discussed the situation in Libya and ways of de-escalating the conflict in the country, emphasizing that the only acceptable way forward is an “immediate comprehensive ceasefire and a return to the political process.”
Valery Kulikov, political analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.