Ankara could activate Russian-made S-400 air defence systems in Libya to engage Rafale fighters, allowing it to increase its military capabilities on the Sirte-Al-Jufra axis, currently defended by Cairo

Turkey may deploy the S-400 defence system in Libya in anticipation of Egypt's military intervention

photo_camera PHOTO/REUTERS - A Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system

Turkey will "possibly" deploy Russian-made S-400 air defense systems in Libya, in order to have the capability to engage the French Rafale model fighter planes, which are part of the French nation's and Egypt's fleet. This was revealed by the Eurasian Times on Tuesday. 

Ankara is said to have taken the decision after a week-long attack on its positions at the Al-Watiya base, which caused extensive damage to the military equipment installed there. Already in June, local Turkish media Yeni Safak revealed that the country led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan intended to build a permanent military airbase in Al-Watiya, mainly to house unmanned aircraft.

Now, reports after the offensive indicate that the facility contained Turkish F-16s, Bayraktar B2 and S Anka drones and two batteries from the MIM-23 Hawk air defence system, which were unable to stop the attack launched by Rafale fighters. It has not yet been identified which fleet they belonged to, whether it was the French, Egyptian or even the United Arab Emirates, which also has this type of fighter aircraft in its arsenal. "The fact that the Rafale planes were able to bomb the Al-Watiya base with relative ease has generated discussions in Turkey to deploy the formidable Russian S-400 missiles in Libya," the Eurasian Times reports.

The analyst Paul Iddon recalled in Forbes after the attack that "Turkey has deployed a formidable array of air defense missiles in the west of the country and has also made significant progress in establishing an 'air defense bubble' around Tripoli," the capital of the North African country. According to the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy, Turkey has created a combined structure of U.S.-made medium-range MIM-23 Hawk missile systems, short-range SAMs and Korkut anti-aircraft guns, which has allowed it to generate a layered defense for critical infrastructure and reduce the threats to its ally in the Libyan civil war, the Government of National Unity (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, a faction that opposes the National Liberation Army (LNA), commanded by Marshal Khalifa Haftar and supported by Paris, Cairo and Moscow.

However, this defence has its limitations. According to analyst Metin Gurcan, although Turkey has managed to secure the low, medium and high altitude, which "is vital for the air domination of the Sirte-Al-Jufra axis" [the two geostrategic enclaves in the hands of the LNA that Ankara aspires to conquer], it remains a "problem", which could be solved with the activation of the S-400 systems, although at the time the expert assured, at the beginning of July, that this was "out of the question".

Therefore, the attack against Al-Watiya could have motivated the Turkish decision to deploy the Russian-made air defence, with a defensive role, but also taking into account that these missiles could play an offensive role in the more than foreseeable attack to be launched by Erdogan on Sirte, in the north of the country, and Al-Jufra, in the centre, which may happen soon.

France's Rafale aircraft are currently defending the latter location, which is considered the country's largest air base. In addition, Russia has deployed MiG-29 fighters and Sukhoi Su-24 bombers to this facility since March in support of the LNA. Meanwhile, Egypt is trying to dissuade Turkey from its possible intervention in Sirte with massive military exercises, where the fighters of this model are also involved. In addition, the Parliament based in Tobruk, Haftar fiefdom, issued a statement on Tuesday in which it legitimised Cairo to intervene militarily in Libya if it assessed a threat, "in what could be the prelude to military action", according to analyst Samer Al-Atrush. "If anyone had any doubts about the Egyptian intervention, this statement should dispel them. It is a formal invitation that would have been discussed previously with Egypt and it means that a [Turkish] offensive on Sirte will meet with Egyptian intervention," he says.

The Rafale fighters are making it possible to secure both enclaves to date, but the entry of the S-400s would change the rules of the game. "Thanks to the advanced Rafale aircraft, the bubble has burst and the limitations of Turkey's current air defence systems have been exposed, and the need to use the S-400s seems to be emerging, which would not only be able to neutralise the Rafale fighters, but also allow Turkey to evade US sanctions," the Eurasian Times reports. 

It should be recalled at this point that U.S.-Turkish relations cooled off a year ago when Ankara decided to buy the S-400 system from Moscow, which, according to Washington, posed a threat to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since Russian military hardware is not "compatible" with Alliance systems. When Turkey decided to continue the operation, the US made the decision to expel the Eurasian nation from the F-35 fighter development program. In order to include it again and avoid a split in NATO between the two major powers, Washington asked Ankara to sell the S-400s to a third party, to commit in writing not to activate the systems or to deploy them in another country, the latter premise to be fulfilled by moving them to Libya. 

Therefore, this move for Turkey would be a strategic success not only in the Libyan war, but also in its relations with the USA and Russia. "Given that there is more at stake than a single missile system, Ankara wants to maintain a balance between Moscow and Washington, and prefers not to risk its relations with either side at the expense of the other," they say in the publication.

Un avión de combate Rafale de la Fuerza Aérea Francesa sobrevuela la base aérea 118 de Mont-de-Marsan, en el sur de Francia, el 9 de junio de 2017
French-Russian tension?

"It remains to be seen whether the French Rafale fighters will dare to engage Russian defence systems," they write in the Eurasian Times. Both Paris and Moscow support the same side in the Libyan fight, the LNA, so if there are confrontations between the French planes and the Moscow batteries used by the Turkish side it could open a breach in the relationship between the two partners, who are currently jointly defending the enclave of Al-Jufra. Furthermore, it should be remembered that Russia has slightly disassociated itself from France by beginning to negotiate an imminent ceasefire with Turkey with a possible sharing of spheres of influence included, in which Paris would apparently remain outside, as would the other powers involved.

This potential focus of dispute has, in fact, been exploited by the rival faction, the GNA, to try to destabilize the relationship between the two allies, as reported recently by The Arab Weekly. 

In any case, for this to happen, Turkey would have to launch the offensive against the Sirte-Al-Jufra axis, provoking Egypt's military intervention in the North African country, now that it is legitimised by the Tobruk Parliament. However, the chances of an open war between Ankara and Cairo are remote for some analysts, because it could lead to "mutually assured destruction".

Others say it will not happen because Turkey's military capacity is superior to Egypt's, and Egypt is aware of this. "In reality, there is a big gap in capacity and effectiveness. Egypt has not been tested in any external confrontation for a long time and for almost half a century it has been fighting weak armed groups at home. Its clashes with Daesh's forces on the Sinai Peninsula over the past seven years have shown its ineffectiveness in eliminating an insurgency limited to less than 700 fighters. In contrast, Turkey is experienced and effective in dealing with a rebellion: its army has been involved in Syria for years and deals with the Kurdish forces of the PKK. Turkish forces also approached Daesh at his strongest point. The conclusion is that a war between Egypt and Turkey is therefore unlikely," explains analyst Hassan Abu Haniyeh in Arabi 21.

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