Russian MiG-29 seen at airfield in Libya as air war poised to intensify

A Russian MiG-29 fighter jet has been spotted at a Libyan air base held by militants fighting against Turkish-backed forces, suggesting that the air war in Libya could be poised to intensify.

On Thursday, Brian Castner, a weapons investigator on Amnesty International's Crisis Team, posted on Twitter a satellite image taken two days earlier of a MiG-29 Fulcrum on the taxiway of Jufrah air base in central Libya, which is controlled by forces aligned with rebel general Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).

This follows a statement by the security chief of the United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) that six MiG-29s, as well as two Su-24 Fencer combat jets, had also recently arrived to join the LNA’s forces. 

The reported arrival of the jets comes after a major shift in the front lines of Libya's civil war this week and suggests an expanded air war and major escalation of the conflict could be imminent, The Drive news site said. 

Turkey is backing the Tripoli-based GNA in its fight against Haftar’s forces, which are supported by Russia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt, among others.

This week, GNA-aligned forces - backed by Turkish firepower - won a string of victories over the LNA in the west of the country, recapturing a major base along with various weapons and other equipment by using Turkish drones to destroy newly arrived Russian air defence systems and ousting Haftar’s forces from Asaba, a key town south of Tripoli.

Libya is subject to an international arms embargo, but the United Nations has said that backers of both the GNA and the LNA have repeatedly violated the prohibitions, the Drive said.

The GNA’s Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha said this week that the six MiG-29s and two Su-24s had touched down somewhere in the eastern portion of Libya after flying to the country by way of Russia's Hmeimim Air Base in Syria and escorted at least part of the way by Russian Su-35 Flankers, Bloomberg reported. The Drive also mentioned unconfirmed reports that Belarus might have supplied the jets, or that Egypt may have played a role. 

Bloomberg said it was not clear whether the reported arrivals of planes were refurbished jets that had belonged to Haftar’s air force or additions to his fleet. The Drive said it was unclear whether Haftar's forces would be operating them or if a third party - such as mercenaries supplied by Russia or another state - would be flying them.

“All told, it remains to be seen what the full extent of the LNA's aerial reinforcements actually is and whether they are a prelude to a new and more serious burst of fighting or if they will provide a deterrent effect against the GNA that leads to at least a temporary pause in the conflict,” The Drive said. 

However, the appearance of the MiG-29 at the Jufrah air base is in line with a statement this week by Saqr Al-Jaroushi, head of the LNA's Air Force, who said that the "largest aerial campaign in Libyan history" was imminent and that Turkey's forces in the country would be “legitimate targets".

A statement from Turkey’s Foreign Ministry responded: “If Turkish interests in Libya are targeted, we will legitimately target the elements of the coup plotter Haftar."

Turkey has increasingly intervened in Libya’s war since at least May 2019, supplying the GNA with armoured vehicles and heavy weapons, including Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, as well as providing advisory support and mercenaries – some of whom have been recruited from Syria. Turkish naval warships have been patrolling off Libya’s coast. 

The Drive said there were unconfirmed reports that Turkey may now be considering deploying its own combat aircraft to Libya, as well as ground forces. Last year, Turkey's parliament approved provisions that would allow Ankara to send troops to Libya.

The Turkish intervention has turned the tide of the conflict since the beginning of this year, shifting the GNA’s fortunes from being besieged and vulnerable to beating back its foes and capturing key areas. On Wednesday, soldiers loyal to the GNA triumphantly paraded through central Libya with a captured Russian-built air defence system, which had been supplied by the UAE, in a pointed humiliation for Haftar’s two most powerful foreign backers, the New York Times said.

But, the New York Times said that, although Turkey’s dramatic gains this week appeared to change the course of the war, they were by no means conclusive in a conflict that has fluctuated wildly since the ousting of former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

A European official told the New York Times that the arrival of the Russian-made jets had most likely been a signal from Russia to Turkey to slow down its offensive and turn to a negotiated solution.

After a phone call on Thursday between the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, the two countries jointly called for an immediate ceasefire in Libya and the resumption of a United Nations-led political process, the Russian foreign ministry said.

Russia and Turkey made a similar joint appeal in January, but their calls had been ignored by Haftar - who pressed ahead with his offensive to capture Tripoli.

The UN envoy to Libya, Stephanie Williams, warned the Security Council this week that the escalating fighting, driven by foreign-supplied weapons, warplanes, and mercenaries, risked “turning the Libyan conflict into a pure proxy war”.

Tarek Megerisi of the European Council on Foreign Relations told the New York Times that Europe’s window of opportunity to restrain the violence in Libya was closing. 

“It needs to move fast if it is to protect its role as a barrier against Russian encroachment, and prevent the development of another Syria-style conflict in its neighbourhood.”