In recent months, Turkey has deployed an array of air defense missile systems in both Syria and Libya to deter and defend against air and drone attacks mounted by its rivals in these war zones.
On February 27, airstrikes killed 34 Turkish soldiers deployed in Syria’s northwest province of Idlib during clashes between the Turkish military and pro-regime forces there. It was the largest single loss of Turkish troops in a single incident in years.
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Turkey responded ferociously, launching Operation Spring Shield. It used its formidable armed drones to devastate Syrian ground forces and armor. Turkish Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighters shot down three Syrian warplanes with long-range AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles without having to leave Turkish airspace.
A Russian-brokered ceasefire ended the clashes in early March. However, Turkey quickly realized the importance of air defenses in the volatile region. It had already requested the U.S. deploy MIM-104 Patriot missiles on its southern border shortly after launching Operation Spring Shield.
Aside from its controversial purchase of S-400 air defenses from Russia, which it hasn’t activated yet, Turkey’s air defenses are mostly short- and medium-range and relatively antiquated.
The U.S. did not deploy any Patriots in Turkey this year. The only NATO country to have a Patriot battery deployed in Turkey this year is Spain.
Ankara has since deployed its own MIM-23 air defense missiles in Idlib. However, that system is much older and much less effective than the PAC-3 Patriot.
The Turkish press also cited an official in early March saying that Turkey would deploy its domestically-built Hisar low-altitude air defense missiles to Idlib. However, it’s unclear if any of these missiles were actually deployed.
It’s also been claimed that Turkey even deployed old Soviet-era S-200 air defense systems, acquired from Ukraine, in northern Idlib. This claim is unverified and also highly unlikely.
The Turkish military is also becoming more deeply involved in the civil war in Libya where it’s supporting the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), based in the capital Tripoli that controls the west, against General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), based in Benghazi that controls the east.
In Libya, Turkey has deployed a formidable array of air defense missiles in the country’s west and has also made significant headway in establishing an “air defense bubble” around Tripoli.
As The Washington Institute for Near East Policy observed: “The combination of medium-range U.S.-made MIM-23 Hawk missile systems, Hisar short-range SAMs, and Korkut antiaircraft guns created a layered defense over critical infrastructure and reduced the threat to GNA drone ground stations and launch operations.”
“This protection, combined with an increase in Turkish operators and equipment, allowed Libyan government forces to increase the number and effectiveness of their drone operations,” the report added.
While formidable, Turkish air defenses in western Libya have their limitations.
Turkish military analyst Metin Gurcan, recently pointed out that “medium- and high-altitude air defense is vital for air dominance in the Sirte-al-Jufra axis, but this remains a problem for Turkey, though low-altitude air defense has been secured through the deployment of the Hisar air defense systems in Libya.”
Gurcan went on to note that Turkey’s far more advanced high-altitude S-400s haven’t been activated and the prospect of transferring those sophisticated missiles – which could establish a game-changing Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) zone over wherever they are deployed – to Libya “is out of [the] question.”
Turkey also deployed two MIM-23 Hawk batteries at al-Watiya airbase. They did not seem to have hindered an airstrike on July 3 carried out by unidentified warplanes, although they may not yet have been fully set up when that strike occurred.
The jets that attacked al-Watiya – which was captured from the LNA by a Turkish-backed GNA offensive in May that broke the LNA siege on Tripoli and enabled the GNA to go on the offensive – likely belonged to a foreign air force supporting the LNA. One Turkish official said the jets were Dassault Mirage fighters. If true, then they were most likely Mirage 2000 jets belonging to the United Arab Emirates, a key backer of Haftar.
The Arab Weekly publication, on the other hand, cited informed sources who claim the aircraft were Dassault Rafale jets, not Mirages. This would limit the attackers to either Egypt or France, both of which possess those multirole fighter jets and both of which support the LNA.
The LNA wants to prevent Turkey from establishing a base in al-Watiya and further solidify its growing presence in the country by creating more air defense bubbles across the west.
Turkey wants to help the GNA push on its offensive and capture the strategically-important city of Sirte and the al-Jufra region, including the eponymous airbase where Russia delivered MiG-29 and Su-24 warplanes in May.
What happens next in Libya is anyone’s guess. Turkey is likely to retain its presence and increase the number of its air defense missiles in Libya, especially if the GNA advances further eastward in the coming weeks.