Erdogan seeks to extend his Libya gains into a foothold in Algeria
Turkey is cajoling Algeria into signing a defense pact with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli after capturing the strategic Watiya air base from Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s (LNA) forces, DEBKAfile’s Mid East sources report. On Sunday, the 1,200-1,500 Russian mercenaries fighting for Haftar were flown to Jufra in southern Libya to regroup and chart their next steps, after the GNA and Turkish-backed troops destroyed the LNA’s air defenses in Watiya, including the Russian Pantsir-1 battery posted there.
Russia, which supports the general’s yearlong battle to conquer Tripoli, responded by transferring half a dozen warplanes from Syria to Libya to enable the LNA to keep on bombing GNA forces and Turkish assets. Erdogan countered with a threat to bring Turkish Air Force warplanes over to bomb Haftar’s troops. The Turks have hitherto used drones.
GNA control of al-Watiya not only puts a stop to Haftar’s use of the facility to mount air raids on GNA forces in Tripoli. It also provides Turkey with a strategic base for building up a military presence in Libya and its Mediterranean coastline. Haftar’s backers, Russia, Egypt and the UAE may have second thoughts about helping the Libyan general’s thrust from his eastern stronghold to seize the capital.
In December, Erdogan signed a military cooperation pact with the UN-recognized Tripoli government’s prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj for countering the offensive mounted by Gen. Haftar.
Algeria has consistently fought shy of foreign adventures and stood aloof from the troubles in Libya – even when Muammar Qadhafi was overthrown, thereby setting off the still-raging civil war.
The Turkish president saw an opportunity in the new Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s apparent openness for abandoning its traditional doctrine of non-intervention under the late Boutefliqa. Article 95 of new constitutional reform bill that Tebboune’s instituted earlier this month allows the Algerian army to intervene for the first time outside its borders. Threats to this huge, largely desert, oil-rich country’s stability abound from its volatile Sahel neighbors, on the one hand, and Libya on the other.
If Erdogan succeeds in harnessing Algeria to the Libyan GNA, which is already tied to the Turkish chariot, he will be able to shift the balance of power in a broad, volatile region. His military gains in Libya already bring him into position to impact the security of its North African neighbors – not least, Egypt – as well as Mediterranean navigation between that continent and southern Europe and the offshore oil projects in between.
The Turkish president is in serious need of success in his foreign adventures to boost his failing fortunes at home. The economy is in free fall, and his former cronies have been able to establish an opposition grouping that could seriously challenge his party at next year’s election. When he talked by phone with President Donald Trump last week, Erdogan boasted that the Libyan conflict was no longer small potatoes among local forces and minor parties like the UAE, but a game led by the big players like Vladimir Putin, his off-and-on ally, and himself.