Libya’s al-Watiya airbase was hit by airstrikes on Saturday night, drawing condemnation and a promise of retaliation from the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) headquartered in Tripoli.
The GNA claimed a “foreign air force” attacked the base, recently recaptured by GNA forces from the rival Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar.
Turkish forces helped the GNA repel Haftar’s attack on Tripoli this year and Turkey has plans to establish its own military base at Watiya, a strategic asset whose capture was seen as a major turning point in the effort to break the siege of Tripoli.
The GNA did not specify which “foreign air force” carried out the attack on the base, located about 90 miles southwest of Tripoli. GNA Deputy Defense Minister Salah al-Namrush on Sunday described the attack as a “miserable and desperate attempt to achieve a morale-boosting victory” on behalf of the “war criminal” Haftar.
Namrush said the GNA will deliver a “response” to the Watiya attack “in the right place and at the right time.”
The LNA has not identified the aircraft that hit Watiya or formally taken responsibility for coordinating the attack. Turkish sources also described the planes as “unidentified.”
The LNA’s most active foreign supporters include Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, which has lately been threatening to intervene in Libya if the GNA and its extremist militia allies push too close to the Egyptian border. Egypt and the UAE have both conducted limited airstrikes in Libya, while U.S. intelligence believes Russia has provided advanced warplanes to the LNA with their Russian air force markings removed.
Turkey’s contributions to the GNA war effort included enhanced anti-aircraft defenses for the Watiya base. According to the Turkish military, Saturday night’s airstrike targeted those defenses and inflicted significant damage against them.
Turkey’s Anadolu Agency news service on Monday accused Russia of sending 300 more “mercenaries” to shore up Haftar’s forces, many of them taken from Syrian extremist militias, plus Iranians, Afghans, and even at least eight former members of the Islamic State.
“It is estimated that the number of mercenaries sent by Russia to fight for Haftar from various provinces of Syria has neared 2,000 so far. Foreign warriors in Haftar’s ranks include Russian mercenaries, ‘Cancavid’ militias brought from Sudan, as well as armed rebels from Chad,” Anadolu wrote.
While Turkish media seems inclined to portray Russia as the prime suspect, the Arab Weekly on Monday cited “informed sources” who said the Watiya attack was conducted with French-made Rafale warplanes, which “limits the identity of the attacking power to France and Egypt, the two countries within the range of the base that possess this type of aircraft.”
These sources said the airstrikes were a direct response to Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar’s visit to Tripoli last week and were meant to underscore Egypt’s “red line” for the GNA and Turkey. Egyptian media ran stories over the weekend that implied Egyptian air forces carried out the raid, including photos of the air defense equipment in Watiya that was targeted.
According to this hypothesis, Watiya was hit to send the GNA a message that it should not allow fighters or drones to fly out of the airbase in support of GNA forces or their militia allies if they attack Sirte, the city Egypt has said must not fall into GNA or Turkish hands. France has also argued against giving Turkey more of a presence in Libya and would prefer the Watiya airbase be handed off to NATO, the international military alliance which Turkey nominally belongs to.
Arab Weekly’s sources included a retired Libyan military officer who said that contrary to initial reports, there were casualties on Saturday night at Watiya, including a number of Turkish soldiers who were quartered at the base.