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Turkey increases military presence in North Africa amid conflict with Greece

This post was published in Izvestia. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.

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MOSCOW, (BM) – Ankara is expanding its military presence in North Africa. In parallel with the increase in its forces in Libya, it agreed with Niger on the deployment of a Turkish military base in the country.

This is taking place against the backdrop of the aggravation of the conflict with Athens due to the start of geological exploration on the disputed shelf area. Experts believe that an armed conflict with Greece is unlikely, but Turkey is using the Libyan foothold to strengthen its influence throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.

Outposts in the Mediterranean

Recently there has been an increase in the Turkish group in Libya and an increase in the number of flights there by military transport aircraft from Turkey, sources familiar with the situation told Izvestia. Ankara’s fleet and aviation are also stepping up in the eastern Mediterranean.

On Monday, August 10, there were reports of the signing of an agreement between Turkey and Niger on the establishment of a military base in the African republic. Earlier, during a meeting between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Nigerian President Mahamad Issufu, they announced threats to security from unstable Libya and their intention to jointly fight terrorism in the region. The size and number of the Turkish contingent, which will be sent there, have not yet been disclosed.

In Libya, in exchange for the support of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in the ongoing civil war, Ankara hopes to obtain two long-term military bases. According to Turkish media reports, the location of a naval base in the port of Misrata and an aviation base at the Al-Watiya airfield are being discussed.

The latter suffered relatively little damage during the NATO bombing in 2011. Most of the four dozen aircraft shelters are operational. Satellite images show that the runway and taxiways have already been repaired there. Turkish military transport planes have regularly landed at the base since mid-July. It was reported about the intentions to deploy on it and combat aircraft, including F-16 fighters.

The exact number of Turkish soldiers in Libya remains unknown. President Erdogan received permission from his parliament to use the army, but refrained from sending a large contingent there. The official task of the military is to coordinate the actions of the GNA.

Nevertheless, in the battles against the Libyan National Army (LNA), numerous Bayraktar TB2 attack drones were intensively used. Heavier weapons, including self-propelled artillery mounts and electronic warfare (EW) weapons, have been spotted. To protect the contingent bases and airfields, the Turkish military deployed several medium-range air defense systems MIM-23 Hawk XXI and small Hisar.

Instead of sending their own ground forces, the stake was made on the use of mercenaries in battles. In July, the Pentagon released a quarterly report on counterterrorism in North Africa. According to its estimates, from January to March alone, Ankara sent to fight for the GNA from 3.5 thousand to 3.8 thousand fighters recruited from the ranks of the Syrian opposition. They were offered generous financial rewards and the opportunity to acquire Turkish citizenship.

Since the beginning of the year, Turkish frigates have been constantly on duty off the coast of Libya, but do not enter ports. It was noted that they used missile weapons against air targets of the LNA of Khalifa Haftar. They also cover the delivery of supplies to the GNA forces by sea.

In June, Paris announced that the frigate Courbet had been targeted by Turkish warships. The incident occurred when a French ship was trying to inspect a Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship bound for Libya under their escort.

Earlier, France has repeatedly accused Turkey of illegal arms supplies to this country and violation of the international embargo.

“Turkey is now the most dynamic force in the region, promoting its interests actively, rigidly and systematically, not paying attention to the interests of other countries,” Boris Dolgov, a leading researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Izvestia. – Ankara has significantly increased its influence in Libya, in Syria in the Idlib region and in the region as a whole. She has military bases in Qatar. Erdogan has consistently pursued a policy aimed at making Turkey not only a regional center of power, but also to strengthen it globally. This certainly aggravates the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean”.

Dangerous maneuvers

After the conclusion of an agreement with GNA, Turkish companies began searching for gas fields in the disputed area of ​​the seabed with Athens. At the same time, the safety of the seismic survey vessel is provided by at least five Turkish warships. Combat units of the Greek fleet also patrol next to them.

Aggressive maneuvers around a Turkish seismic survey vessel on Wednesday have already led to a small clash between Turkish and Greek frigates, media reported from those countries. The damage was minor. Both the Greek and Turkish commanders was quick to confirm the insignificance of the incident with photographs of the ships continuing to carry out their missions.

Nevertheless, the visibly tense situation between the two NATO members forced France to temporarily strengthen its military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. On Thursday, President Macron announced that he was sending the frigate La Fayette from the Navy and two Rafale fighters to the Greek island of Crete to “monitor the situation.” Aircraft of this type can carry the most modern suspended reconnaissance containers and effectively monitor sea and land targets.

It behaves more and more ambitiously in the Eastern Mediterranean and Ankara. The most notable were the exercises held in June off the coast of Libya, in which eight frigates and corvettes, as well as 17 aircraft, took part. F-16 fighters, supported by air tankers and early warning aircraft, simulated strikes against Libyan targets and in the disputed shelf area directly from Turkey.

Nevertheless, a military clash between Turkey and the European countries – Greece and Cyprus, behind which France stands – should not be expected, says orientalist Boris Dolgov. But there may be conflicts between Turkey and Arab countries. Perhaps in the form of an aggravation of the civil war in Syria and the involvement of other parties in it, primarily Egypt.

“How far Erdogan will go depends on how other countries will oppose him: Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Greece and, possibly, France,” the expert concluded.

The incident between the Greek and Turkish military is far from the first. The parties often accuse each other of border violations. Pilots from the two countries regularly meet in contested airspace and simulate air combat, trying to capture each other in missile sights. In May 2006, Turkish and Greek aircraft collided during such maneuvers and fell into the Aegean Sea. This did not lead to further escalation of the conflict.

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