Recent Turkish military activity in airfields in Azerbaijan and Libya raises questions about Ankara’s goals in those countries and the conflicts in which they are presently mired.
Satellite photos taken on Oct. 3 showed two F-16 fighter jets parked at Ganja International Airport in Azerbaijan.
Analysis of the Planet Labs satellite images by the New York Times concluded the jets most likely belong to the Turkish Air Force. Azerbaijan’s air force does not possess any F-16s.
The images also showed what looked like a CN-235 transport plane that the Times concluded also may belong to Turkey.
Turkey is backing Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, which flared up again on Sept. 27 and has seen the most ferocious fighting to afflict that region since 1994.
The extent of Turkey’s military involvement in this conflict is unclear.
An unnamed source cited by Middle East Eye claimed that the F-16s were “there as a deterrent against any Armenian attacks on civilian populations and military installations within Azerbaijan.”
“The jets haven’t participated in Azerbaijani operations in the Karabakh region nor they have shot down an Armenian jet as Yerevan claimed,” the source said.
Another one of Middle East Eye’s sources also said that the F-16s were moved out of the airport on Oct. 4 following a rocket attack on Ganja. The source stated that their presence did not deter Armenian attacks.
Turkey deployed F-16s to Azerbaijan on July 31 for participation in the TurAz Qartali-2020 training exercise with Azerbaijan’s military. That exercise was scheduled to end on Aug. 10. However, other satellite images from Planet Labs showed six F-16s and a possible CN-235 (most likely the same transport plane that appeared in the Oct. 3 images) in Ganja on Sept. 10.
The Oct. 3 images were more significant since they seemingly confirm that Turkey still had at least two F-16s on the ground in Azerbaijan since this latest conflict began.
Turkey may well have kept those F-16s there, as the Middle East Eye sources claim, to deter Armenian attacks against Ganja. If this was indeed the case, then their presence might have been an attempt to replicate Russia’s covert deployment of unmarked MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jets and Su-24 Fencer bombers to Libya’s Al-Jufra airbase, which is controlled by its Libyan National Army (LNA) ally, in May. After all, that Russian deployment was clearly made to warn the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) forces not to advance on Al-Jufra and the town of Sirte, which was their stated goal.
However, Turkey doesn’t seem to have deployed any air defenses to protect these jets while they are on the ground. Relying entirely on Azerbaijan’s air defenses for protection would likely prove quite risky.
In late September, Vardan Toganyan, the Armenian ambassador to Russia, warned that Yerevan is prepared to use its Russian-built 9K720 Iskander (NATO reporting name SS-26 Stone) short-range ballistic missiles in Nagorno-Karabakh if Turkey deploys F-16s into the conflict in support of Baku.
What those F-16s were doing in Ganja remains unclear. It also remains to be seen how directly involved Turkey is willing to get in this conflict militarily.
In early October, as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict raged on, Turkey continued its build-up at the GNA-controlled al-Watiya airbase in western Libya near that country’s borders with Algeria and Tunisia. A Turkish Air Force C-130E Hercules transport plane was tracked flying from Etimesgut Air Force Base near Ankara to al-Watiya.
What the Hercules was carrying remains unclear. What is clear is that Turkey seems to have big plans for al-Watiya, which its GNA ally captured from the LNA in an offensive backed by Turkish drone strikes back in May. It is presently extending the length of the base’s runway to accommodate larger planes more easily.
Ankara delivered U.S.-built MIM-23 Hawk short-range air defense missile systems to strategically-important airbase over the summer. In early July, those air defense batteries were damaged in an airstrike. It’s unclear which country carried out the airstrike. The attackers likely used long-range Storm Shadow cruise missiles, possibly launched from either French-built Egyptian Dassault Rafales or Emirati Mirage 2000 fighter jets operating from western Egypt. Both Egypt and the UAE are major supporters of the LNA and staunchly oppose Turkey’s military presence in Libya.
A truce has been in place in Libya and fighting between the GNA and LNA has markedly decreased over the last 2 months.
How far Turkey wants to push ahead with its military build-up in Libya, which decisively helped turn the tables in the conflict in favor of the GNA, remains unclear. The al-Watiya strike was most likely a warning by the LNA’s foreign backers that they won’t tolerate a larger and more advanced Turkish military presence in the country.
Ankara may have contemplated establishing such a presence. Writing in the pro-government Sabah newspaper back in June, Turkish columnist Okan Müderrisoğlu speculated that Turkey might even deploy F-16s to western Libya. “Nobody should be surprised if Turkish F-16s and attack helicopters are seen at the military bases in this country,” he wrote. In July, after the al-Watiya strike, another Sabah columnist, Hasan Basri Yalçın, even argued that Turkey needed to deploy F-16s to Libya to protect the GNA’s gains in the conflict and fend off any potential Egyptian military intervention.
However, without an established formidable air defense network in western Libya, such a deployment would be extremely risky for Turkish aircraft, as that al-Watiya attack aptly demonstrated. Nevertheless, Turkey showcased its air force’s reach by carrying out an eight-hour drill in June in which Turkish F-16s flew by Libya’s coast.
While only time will tell the extent to which the Turkish military will ultimately become involved in these two conflicts its recent activities demonstrate that Ankara certainly seeks to shape the outcome of both.