MiG-29 Fighter Jet Reportedly Appears Over Key Libyan City That Is Now Under Siege
Separately, Turkish warships blocked the Greek Navy from boarding a cargo ship in the Mediterranean suspected of carrying arms to Libya.
There are as yet unconfirmed reports that at least one MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter from a tranche of jets that Russia sent to Libya to bolster forces aligned with strongman Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army last month has now flown a mission over the strategic coastal city of Sirte. This comes as the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord is pushing to retake control of that area after weeks of substantial victories fueled by Turkish military assistance, especially deliveries of armed drones.
The reported sighting of the MiG-29 over Sirte also follows a Greek Navy frigate's attempt to board and inspect a Turkish-operated Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship in the Mediterranean Sea that is suspected of carrying a new shipment of Turkish weapons or other military equipment bound for Libya in violation of the United Nations arms embargo on that country. Turkish frigates escorting the vessel rejected the request and warned off the Greek warship, which is now reportedly shadowing the flotilla. This all underscores the growing spillover of broader geopolitical competition in the Mediterranean region emanating from the Libyan civil conflict.
Images purportedly of the MiG-29 flying over Sirte first emerged on social media on June 10, 2020. They came after a similarly unconfirmed sighting of an Il-76 transport plane landing in the city.
The Government of National Accord (GNA), which sits in the country's internationally recognized capital Tripoli, announced the start of its offensive to take Sirte on June 6. This included airstrikes against elements of Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) in the city. The appearance of the MiG-29 overhead could be an effort to deter further strikes, especially against any aircraft, such as the Il-76, bringing in supplies and reinforcements, which would be particularly vulnerable while unloading on the ground at Sirte's airport.
GNA-aligned forces have been steadily routing the LNA, including contingents of Russian mercenaries with very close, if not direct ties to the Russian government, for weeks now, seizing various important locations in western Libya. The included the re-capture of the city of Tarhuna, which had served as a major node in Haftar's logistics network, including as part of the supply chain to Al Jufrah Air Base, where one of the Russian-supplied MiG-29s was spotted on May 19.
The GNA is now pushing into the broader Al Jufrah district. If forces aligned with the government in Tripoli seize that air base it could force the LNA to shift its air operations further west to less vulnerable locations, such as Al Khadim Air Base, where Su-24 Fencer combat jets that Russia also sent to Libya had been spotted previously. You can read more about the Kremlin's dispatching of these aircraft to Libya in these recent War Zone pieces.
GNA forces have already destroyed a substantial amount of LNA armored and unarmored vehicles, as well as UAE-supplied Russian-made Panstir-S1 point defense air defense systems, as they have pushed east. Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, which Turkey first supplied to the government in Tripoli last year, have made a mockery of the Pantsirs and contributed substantially to the GNA advances.
The LNA left behind significant amounts of weapons, ammunition, and other military hardware for the GNA to capture as it retreated, too. This includes Mi-35 Hind gunship attack helicopters and Chinese FN-6 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, also known as man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS.
As is clear, the flow of arms and other military equipment to both sides of the conflict has been steady despite the arms embargo. In the past year or so, Turkey has emerged as the primary ally of the government in Tripoli, while Haftar continues to enjoy the support of Russia, the UAE, and Egypt, among others. He has also been more recently linked to the regime of Venezuela's dictatorial President Nicolas Maduro, who may be working with the rogue general in Libya to circumvent sanctions, especially on the export of Venezuelan gold.
International efforts to enforce Libya's arms embargo have been, at best, mixed. Just today, the Greek Navy's Hydra class frigate Spetsai had failed in its attempt to board the freighter under escort by Turkish warships in the Mediterranean. After it did not receive a response from that cargo ship, Spetsai had sent out its Sikorsky S-70B-6 Aegean Hawk helicopter, an export variant of the SH-60 Seahawk, to fly over the vessel and attempt to make contact. One of two unnamed Turkish Navy frigates, possibly members of the Gabya class that have been spotted off Libya in recent months, declined the request and told the Greek warship to stay.
Spetsai is presently operating in the Mediterranean as part of Operation Irini, a European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) that began on Mar. 31, 2020. The Italian Navy has been designated as the lead entity in charge of the entire operation. An Italian naval officer is also presently in charge of day-to-day activities, with plans to rotate that post with the Greek Navy every six months.
This effort is primarily focused on enforcing the arms embargo, but with additional authority to help stem illicit oil exports and human trafficking coming out of Libya. "European force vessels cannot intervene on ships accompanied by third-country warships – which makes European business even more difficult," a piece from CNN Greece reported.
Germany, Luxembourg, and Poland have all, at times, contributed land-based maritime patrol aircraft to the effort. France had also previously sent a Cassard class frigate, the Jean Bart, to support the operation. That warship prevented the Gabon-flagged UAE-operated tanker Jal Laxmi from entering Tobruk in eastern Libya, in May. Tobruk is the Haftar's main hub.
All told, the situation in Libya is now much more fluid, after it had looked like the LNA might finally capture Tripoli earlier this year. What's happening in and around libya also underscores how the North African country has become a central point in a growing multi-faceted geopolitical struggle across the region.
Over the weekend, Egypt attempted to broker a major ceasefire deal, which the GNA rejected. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had implied that his country's military could intervene directly in an attempt to enforce this halt in the fighting. Video footage, some of which is seen below, circulated widely on social media purportedly showing Egyptian heavy armor, including M1 Abrams tanks, and other forces heading to the border between the two countries.
Sisi has now distanced himself from the ceasefire plan, which he says Haftar proposed, and any imminent threat of Egyptian forces publicly entering the conflict has subsided. For its part, the government in Tripoli has indicated that it will stop its advances after it re-takes Sirte, which is in an immensely strategic location situated along the central Libyan coast on a major highway that links both sides of the country.
Russia and Turkey, who have repeatedly sparred over Syria, as well as worked together when it has been convenient, have now clearly expanded that competition to include Libya, as well. Those two countries attempted to get the GNA and the LNA to agree to a peace plan earlier this year, which Haftar rejected. Barring some sort of power-sharing agreement, which seems extremely unlikely given the rhetoric coming from both sides, any such deal could easily lead to a more formally divided Libya.
Beyond that, a deal between the government in Tripoli and Turkey last year precipitated a still-ongoing maritime boundary dispute in the Mediterranean between Libya and Turkey and other countries in the region, including Egypt, Greece, and Italy. Just yesterday, the Greek and Italian Prime Ministers signed their own competing maritime agreement.
Its perhaps no surprise then that the Greeks and the Italians are leading the European Union effort to try to stop the flow of arms into the conflict, which, so far, has largely benefitted Turkish ambitions. Turkey, Italy, and Greece are all members of the NATO alliance, but Turkey is not a member of the European Union.
The myriad competing interests at play look set to continue making it difficult to bring Libya's civil war to an end that satisfies all the parties involved. How the ongoing fight for Sirte plays out now could have a significant impact on how the conflict continues to evolve in the coming months.
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