Tag: Bayraktar

Flashpoint Snake Island: Why Russia Wanted the “Rock” in the Black Sea

Snake Island, or Serpents Island (Ostriv Zmiinyi in Ukrainian; Insula Serpilor in Romanian) is an islet off Ukraine’s southwestern coast and near the Danube Delta in the Black Sea. With…

Snake Island, or Serpents Island (Ostriv Zmiinyi in Ukrainian; Insula Serpilor in Romanian) is an islet off Ukraine’s southwestern coast and near the Danube Delta in the Black Sea. With a surface of 17 ha, the islet became a major flashpoint between the Ukrainian Operational Command-South and the Russian Navy, following the Russian seizure of Snake Island on 24 February 2022. Persistent Ukrainian counterstrikes forced Russia to retreat on 30 June 2022, ending a 127-day occupation. Following Ukraine’s victory, many have questioned the military and political value of the bitterly contested island. Our analysis seeks to shed light on Snake Island’s multilayered significance in the Black Sea and Odesa theaters of operations. 

KEY JUDGEMENTS 

I. Occupied in the opening hours of the invasion on 24 February 2022, Snake Island held, and still holds, kaleidoscopic importance for Moscow’s objectives in southwestern Ukraine and the Black Sea, including against NATO. Snake Island’s significance spans across all three levels of war – tactical, operational, and strategic – and serves three goal lengths, as follows: 

A.Short-term: Support the Odesa Offensive and Anti-Shipping Mission. 

  • Secure the seaway to the Ukrainian shoreline in preparation for Russia’s planned amphibious assault on Odesa- part of the failed Operational Direction-Southwest (OD-SW). 
  • Seize key maritime terrain to support the interdiction of the Odesa-Bosphorus shipping lanes and subsequent blockade of Ukraine’s port. 

B. Medium-term: Become a thorn in NATO’s Southeastern Flank. 

  • Establish a SIGINT listening station (COMINT and ELINT included) to monitor NATO activities in SE Romania. 
  • Expand offensive potential: kinetic effectors and electronic warfare (EW) systems. 

C. Long-term: Seize lucrative offshore gas platforms located in NATO member Romania’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). 

  • Contest and claim parts of Romania’s EEZ, which has an estimated potential of 200 billion cubic meters of natural gas. The XIII Pelican, EX-27 Muridava, and EX-28 EST Cobalcescu concessions are likely targets. The development of the Black Sea gas fields would make Romania the European Union’s biggest natural gas producer and, inherently, a competitor to Russian gas. 
  • Russia has similarly captured all energy-rich parts of Ukraine’s EEZ since “little green men” annexed Crimea in 2014. Extending into new reserves aligns with Russia’s plans to assert military and economic dominance over the Black Sea.

II. Ukraine’s constant barrage of missile and artillery strikes successfully extirpated the Russian presence on Snake lsland. Bayraktar TB-2 combat drones conducted at least ten kinetic operations and were involved in a number of ISR and fire control taskings. The R-360 Neptune and Harpoon anti-ship missiles (AshMs) also played a key role, countering the Russian Navy’s sea-lines-of-communications (SLOC) and sinking at least six vessels, including the Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) flagship Moskva. At least one manned aircraft strike was recorded and featured a low-altitude bombing by a pair of Su-27s (AFIC/NATO Reporting name: Flanker). Artillery systems such as the Czech-made Bohdana were responsible for putting the last nail in Russia’s coffin, decimating the man-made infrastructure on the island until the occupiers were left with no physical cover. 

III. It is imperative that Russia does not re-capture Snake Island, even at the cost of the island becoming “no man’s land .” At the time of writing, Snake Island is in limbo – vacated by the Russians, re-claimed by Ukraine, but not yet re-garrisoned. Even if Ukraine does not create an outpost on the island, keeping the key maritime terrain from Russia’s hands is enough to deny Moscow’s original objectives. 

Change detection analysis of Snake Island pre-invasion (Google Earth imagery from 2016) and post-withdrawal of Russian forces (30 June 2022). Imagery credits: Maxar Technologies; annotated by T-Intelligence.


SHORT-TERM OBJECTIVES: ODESA OFFENSIVE AND ANTI-SHIPPING MISSION

SECURE SEAWAY FOR ODESA OFFENSIVE a.k.a OD SW

1. Russia seized Snake Island from Ukrainian forces to secure the SLOC in preparation for an amphibious assault on Odesa- part of the Odesa offensive, designated Operational Direction Southwest (OD-SW). A Russian Navy (RuN) surface action group led by the now-sunk Slava-class Moskva was in charge of the operation, which took place in the early hours of February 24. Immediately after the takeover, Russian marines garrisoned the island to deny key maritime terrain to Ukraine and exploit its tactical-operational value.

2. Russia started to turn Snake Island into an expeditionary outpost in support of the maritime component of OD-SW. Russian forces had anchored patrol boats near the island and, also pressed by Ukrainian air strikes, deployed short-range air defenses (SHORAD). In addition, Snake Island could have been used to base forward arming and refueling points (FARP) to boost sortie rate and repetition during air-naval attacks on Odesa and naval intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets. 

3. The collapse of OD-SW in the steppes of Kherson operationally “orphaned” Snake Island. Ukraine’s Operational Command-South (OC-S) defeated the Russian Southern Military District (MD) grouping at Mykolaiv and Voznezensk and drove the invaders down to Kherson city in mid-March 2022.

Assessed Russian OD-SW map, reprinted from “Target Transnistria: Russia’s Maskirovka and Pathways to Escalation (Threatcast)” (T-intelligence)

4. Russia’s follow-on plans for Snake Island largely depended on capturing the Odesian littoral. Russian control of the shoreline would have secured Snake Island from land-based threats. But with OD-SW in shambles and the Odesian coast still under Ukrainian control, the Russian garrison on Snake Island became a fixed, vulnerable target. The new situation likely prompted Sevastopol commanders to effect a cost-benefit analysis of abandoning versus defending the island, with the top brass opting for the latter. As Ukraine’s OC-S started lashing back with air, artillery, and anti-ship missile strikes at Snake Island, the Russian forces were forced on the defensive. 

Sevastopol’s attempt at holding Snake Island despite the terrain entering a state of tactical limbo indicates operational stubbornness, continued interest in the Odesa offensive as a later option, and commitment to longer-term political objectives. The latter point rendered Snake Island a politically-charged issue, which most likely influenced Sevastopol’s decision to stay. 

TOLLBOOTH TO INTERDICT MARITIME SHIPPING

6. The secondary objective of Russia’s designs on Snake Island was to augment the BSF in interdicting the shipping lanes to and from Ukraine. Part of this plan was to deploy land-based anti-ship missiles, coastal surveillance radars, and naval ISR assets on Snake Island. There were also indications of plans to base fast patrol craft out of the island. While BSF warships and naval aviation are primarily conducting the anti-shipping mission, a sensor-effector pair on Snake Island could have provided an additional layer to Russia’s maritime construct.

Annotated screenshot of MarineTraffic.com density map (T-Intelligence). As the map shows, Snake Island overlooks the main trade artery in the western half of the Black Sea.

7. Snake Island never got to contribute to the anti-shipping mission as the Russian occupants were busy surviving Ukraine’s constant barrage of missile and artillery strikes. Based on open-source reporting, Ukraine conducted at least 16 separate attacks on Russian positions between March and late June. Bayraktar TB-2s initially spearheaded ten kinetic operations and were involved in a number of ISR and fire control taskings. The R-360 Neptune and Harpoon anti-ship missiles (AshMs) also played a key role, countering the RuN’s SLOCs, and sinking at least six vessels, including the BSF flagship Moskva. At least one manned aircraft strike was recorded and featured a low-altitude bombing by a pair of Su-27s (AFIC/NATO Reporting name: Flanker)

Artillery systems such as the Czech-made Bohdana were responsible for putting the last nail in Russia’s coffin, decimating the man-made infrastructure on the island until the occupiers were left with no physical cover. 

8. In response to Ukraine’s hammering, Sevastopol rushed 9K35 Strela-10 (SA-13 Gopher), Pantsir S-1 (SA-22 Greyhound), and Tor-M2 (SA-15 Gauntlet) SHORADs along with ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft (AA) guns to the island, but with little effect. Ukraine destroyed most of the AA guns and SHORADs, especially the first batches of Strelas. With just 17 ha to rove around to escape Ukrainian targeting, the SHORADs were likely more offline than active and therefore suppressed. 

9. The loss of Snake Island had little effect on Russia’s anti-shipping mission, which continues to be spearheaded by BSF surface action groups and naval aviation. Ukraine’s increasingly diverse and lethal coastal artillery and multi-rocket launcher systems (MLRS), often paired with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have re-shaped the BSF’s risk assessment. Early signs indicate that Russian vessels are now forced to operate at arm’s length from the Ukrainian littoral. 


MEDIUM-TERM OBJECTIVES: LISTENING STATION AND OFFENSIVE POSTURE

LISTENING STATION

10. Left unchecked, the Russian occupation could have filled Snake Island with antennas, direction-finders, and other technical equipment to collect Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) on key military facilities in NATO member Romania’s southeast (SE). Just 40 km from Romania, the unrealized Snake Island listening station would have likely pointed its antennas at Mihail Kogalniceanu and Fetești air bases and command & control (C2) nodes to collect Communications Intelligence (COMINT). Electronic intelligence (ELINT) would have been an equally valuable objective, with specialized equipment attempting to collect, analyze and classify Romanian and NATO radar emissions to paint what is known as EOD, or electronic order of battle. An EOD typically contains the location of radars, frequencies, and operating bands used by said radars, emission signatures, etc. 

11. Russia had already deployed some SIGINT equipment to Snake Island, according to the Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council (RNBO) Oleksii Danilov. The same source says that Russia already leveraged Snake Island’s position to monitor communications in Odesa province and Transnistria – read more about the breakaway region in our recent threatcast

ENHANCED OFFENSIVE POSTURE

12. It is likely that Russia would have also sought to expand the island’s offensive potential with the deployment of a few but suitable systems in time. MLRS could have been a likely candidate to build up the island’s offensive posture, providing an attritable but effective firing solution. The BM-30 Smerch, with its assortment of 300mm rockets and warheads, can strike areas 90 km away. More high-end systems such as the K-300P Bastion (SS-C-5 Stooge) could have also been considered. Packing a double-punch against land targets and ships 300 km away, Bastion is uniquely suited for coastal-based engagements. However, the island’s small and complex surface would have posed a continuous limitation regarding build-up potential (i.e., number of systems) and system survivability (limited shoot-and-scoot).

13. Besides kinetic effectors, Electronic Warfare (EW) systems would have been some other logical candidates for beefing up Russia’s offensive posture. Examples are the Krashuka, 1L22M Avtobaza-M, and Repellent-1. With a powerful electronic attack (EA) capability, Russia’s EW systems can jam communications, navigation systems such as GPS, and drone down/up-links, to ranges in excess of 250 km. Some systems like the Krashuka-4 can even jam spy satellites in the Low-Earth orbit (LEO). Russian EW systems have been present in Ukraine since the early days of the invasion, with some being captured and destroyed by Ukrainian forces. 


LONG-TERM OBJECTIVE: BLACK SEA ENERGY THEFT

14. The Kremlin’s long-term goal was, and likely still is, to leverage Snake Island’s position to contest Romania’s energy-rich exclusive economic zone (EZZ), which holds an estimated 200 billion cubic meters of gas. We assess with a high degree of confidence that Russia would have rejected the 2009 Hague ruling on the Ukrainian-Romanian Snake Island dispute. 

ICoJ litigation maps. Left shows the Romanian vs Ukrainian claims / Right shows the ICoJ agreed maritime boundary between the Romanian and Ukrainian EEZs (All rights reserved ICoJ 2009)

Key Background: In 2004, the Romanian government asked the Hague International Court of Justice (ICJ) to rule on the maritime boundary between Ukraine and Romania. The decision depended on whether the ICJ defined Snake Island as an island, part of Ukraine’s continental shelf, or an islet (i.e., “a rock” in Romania’s terms). In 2009, the ICJ ruled that Snake Island was too far from the seashore (Odesa) and small to constitute a benchmark in setting boundaries. The ICJ ruling satisfied 80 percent of Romania’s claims over the continental shelf and placed 9,700 square kilometers of waters under Bucharest’s control.  

15. Russian claims over Romania’s EEZ are difficult to threatcast but would most likely include at least the gas fields closest to Snake Island: 

  • XIII Pelican: gas potential confirmed (discovery wells are yet to be appraised). Black Sea Oil & Gas (BSOG), which is owned by Carlyle International Energy Partners and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, holds the majority package to XIII Pelican.
  • EX-27 Muridava: gas potential confirmed and estimated at 169 billion cubic feet. British company Petroceltic holds the majority package. 
  • EX-28 Nicolae Colbacescu: gas potential confirmed and estimated at 404 billion cubic feet. Muriadava and Colbacescu are underexplored and believed to hold more oil and gas deposits. Estimates for the two concessions are extracted from the 2013 Petroceltic annual results presentation and could be dated. 

 

Gas concessions in Romania’s and Bulgaria’s EEZ (all rights reserved IHS Markit). Snake Island is seen as a small dot north of the XIII-Pelican concessions.

Key Background: The development of the Black Sea gas fields would make Romania the European Union’s biggest natural gas producer, according to the Oil and Gas Employers Federation (FPPG). Romania would not only become self-sufficient* but also compete in the natural gas market with Russia. Romania currently imports less than most European Union members (nearly 21 percent). 

16. The most likely course of action would have been for RuN warships to ascertain de facto control over the targeted gas fields and escort Russian drillships to start exploitation. Sevastopol can profit from the Romanian Navy’s inability to police its waters following decades of underinvestment. From a political standpoint, the Kremlin would most likely leverage the grey zone nature of EZZs in the context of NATO’s Article 5. EEZs do not constitute territorial waters, and disputes over offshore energy deposits exist even within the Alliance (e.g., Turkey-Greece). However, Russia will probably tread lightly and probe NATO unity and Western European/North American commitment to the Black Sea states. 

17. Due to the Montreaux Convention, NATO cannot establish a permanent, large-scale naval presence in the Black Sea. However, NATO assists Romania (and Bulgaria) through periodic port visits by individual warships or joint fleet units called NATO Standing Maritime Groups. NATO Enhanced Air Policing is another means to protect Romanian interests in the Black Sea, especially if the fighter units are also outfitted for anti-shipping. Despite continuous Allied support, local allies must do the heavy lifting through defense procurement to be able to police their territorial waters and EZZs. 

18. Russia took over all energy-rich parts of Ukraine’s EEZ in a similar manner since “little green men” annexed Crimea in 2014. The Tavrida gas platforms, nearly 10 km east of the Snake Island, are one of the most forward-positioned offshore energy platforms that Russia has stolen from Ukraine. Ukraine recently hit the Tavrida gas platforms with two AshMs. Extending into new reserves aligns with Russia’s plans to assert military and economic dominance over the Black Sea.

19. Russia can still deter Bucharest from extracting gas from the Black Sea and attack (overt or cover) Romanian offshore energy infrastructure and drillships. RuN Spetsnaz units, subordinated to the Main Intelligence Directorate (GU), are uniquely qualified to conduct deniable attacks against drillships, offshore platforms used for housing and logistics, and oil rigs. Russian warships can stage shows of force and engage in a slate of other intimidation tactics, for example, exercises with subsequent notice to mariners/airmen (NORAM/NOTAM) that cover parts of Romania’s EEZ. If such provocations continue, Russia may discourage foreign investments in Romania’s offshore gas fields and prevent drilling activities completely. 

20. Russian warships have already shadowed Romanian gas platforms in June 2022, telegraphing a not-so-veiled reminder of Moscow’s ambitions in the Black Sea. It is imperative that Russia does not re-capture the island at any given time. Even if Ukraine does not establish an outpost on the island, keeping the key maritime terrain from Russia’s hands is enough to prevent Moscow from achieving its medium to long-term objectives in the western Black Sea. Snake Island is a fitting example of how even a tiny Russian land grab has far-reaching implications for Euro-Atlantic security. 


by HARM

This assessment was made using Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) techniques and resources. Visit Knowmad OSINT to learn more about our online OSINT training. 

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Is Turkey Sending Syrian Rebels to Libya?

Mounting evidence shows that Turkey is deploying “Syrian National Army” (SNA) militiamen to Libya by using commercial airlines. In December 2019, major media outlets broke the news that Ankara plans…

Mounting evidence shows that Turkey is deploying “Syrian National Army” (SNA) militiamen to Libya by using commercial airlines. In December 2019, major media outlets broke the news that Ankara plans to send SNA militants to reinforce the “Government of National Accord” (GNA). Since then, there has been a growing number of indicators and reports that confirm the deployment. In addition to the SNA personnel, Turkey is also in the process of dispatching regular troops to Libya.

BACKGROUND: THE LIBYAN CIVIL WAR

Since the overthrow of dictator Qaddafi in 2011, Libya has been experiencing a civil war between the GNA, which is recognized by the United Nations (UN), and the self-styled “Libyan National Army” led by renegade Gen. Khalifa Haftar. The GNA currently controls less than 20 percent of Libya, but its territory includes the capital Tripoli and the densely populated Tripolitania region. The GNA’s armed forces consist of Islamist militias linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. They are backed by Turkey, Qatar and Italy. 

Led by Gen. Haftar, the LNA is a hotpotch of Arab nationalists (including some Qaddafi loyalists), foreign paramilitary units (e.g. Russian, Sudanese, Chiadian), Madkhali salafists and tribal militias based in Eastern Libya. The LNA receives political and military support from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Jordan, Russia and France. The LNA controls the vast majority of Libya’s territory, including the oil-rich southern and central regions. 



Despite the international arms embargo, which bans all weapons transfers to Libya (UN Resolution 1973), the GNA and LNA have received an abundance of military capabilities from foreign backers, including aircraft and air defense batteries.

Thanks to the wholesale influx of sophisticated military hardware from its supporters, the LNA is currently the most capable fighting force on the battlefield:

  • The UAE deployed Chinese-made “Wing Loong II” UCAVs, Pantsir S-1 (NATO Reporting name: SA-22 “Greyhound”) and MIM-23 HAWK air defense systems as well as support personnel (e.g. missileers, UCAV and radio-electronic operators). 
  • Jordan and Egypt provide armored vehicles and spare parts for the legacy MiG and Sukhoi aircraft that the LNA has inherited from Qaddafi’s regime. The Egyptian Air Force donated five MiG-21MFs (NATO Reporting name: “Fishbed-J”) to the LNA’s air wing.
  • Russia provides political support and has sent hundreds of Wagner contractors and a Pantsir S-1 air defense systems (NATO Reporting name: SA-17 “Greyhound”) to reinforce Gen. Haftar’s camp. 

France is secretly supporting Gen. Haftar. Beyond the provision of several US-made Javelin anti-tank missiles, the extent of French support is nevertheless unclear.

COMPILATION: Advanced foreign weaponry in service or support of the LNA

On the GNA side, Turkey provides the bulk of military equipment. Ankara has been supplying the GNA with infantry fighting vehicles (e.g. Kipri 8×8), unmanned aerial combat vehicles/UCAV (e.g. Bayraktar-2TB), small arms and ammunition for years. Turkey’s “partner-in-crime” and fellow Muslim Brotherhood supporter Qatar provides the bulk of finances that keep the GNA functioning, including the salaries of most militias. Italy is also providing direct support to the GNA in the form of medical assistance, diplomatic outreach, and intelligence. 

THE LNA GAINS THE UPPER HAND

In early 2019, Gen. Haftar announced Operation “FLOOD OF DIGNITY” with the objective to capture western Libya and eventually Tripoli. After successive victories, the LNA reached Tripoli’s suburbs by mid-April 2019. In Ghuryan and southern Tripoli, the LNA encountered a stiff GNA defense augmented by Turkish UCAVs. With the ground advancement blocked, the LNA focused on aerial warfare and targeted GNA airfields that support UCAV operations. However, due to its prolonged forward deployment, the LNA’s supply lines became overstretched and therefore untenable for offensive operations. Gen. Haftar was forced to de facto halt the offensive until the LNA  air wing neutralizes the enemy’s aerial capabilities.

Operation “Flood of Dignity” (operational map) by Rr016

INCREASED TURKISH MILITARY ASSISTANCE TO TRIPOLI

As Gen. Hafar’s forces were threatening to gain the upper hand in the civil war, Turkey has found that only direct intervention can save the GNA from collapse. 

Turkish President Erdogan and GNA Prime Minister al-Sarraj signed two memorandums of economic and military cooperation in late November 2019. Based on these agreements, the GNA submitted a formal request for Turkish military assistance in the form of air, land and maritime forces. President Erdogan ratified the request for assistance and ordered the Turkish Joint Chiefs of Staff to draft deployment plans. 

By the time the Turkish Parliament approved the military mission on January 5, 2020, President Erdogan revealed that Turkish troops are already in Libya in a non-combatant capacity and that “other units” will fight on the battlefield. By “other units’, President Erdogan is believed to hint at Syrian militamen.



REPORTS OF SNA DEPLOYMENT TO LIBYA

Quoting senior Turkish and Libyan sources, Bloomberg was the first outlet to report that Ankara will send SNA groups to reinforce the GNA. In January 2020, The Guardian confirmed the presence of around 2,000 SNA militants in Libya and recorded that their numbers are expected to grow to 5,000 over the next weeks. SNA fighters had signed six-month contracts directly with the GNA, rather than with the Turkish military, The Guardian’s sources say. The Syrian rebels will earn $2,000 (£1,500) a month – a vast sum compared to the 450-550 Turkish lira (£52-£72) they earn in Syria. All fighters have been promised Turkish passports, medical care and repatriation to Syria in case of death. 

These reports are consistent with the claims of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which estimates that 300 Syrian rebels are already in Libya. 

The Sultan Murad Division, Suqour al-Sham Brigade, Faylaq al-Sham, Sham Legion and Mutasim Division are the SNA groups headlining the Libyan deployment. These groups, which are dominated by Syrian Turkmens, have spearheaded all of Turkey’s previous offensives in northern Syria. The U.S. government and Amnesty International have accused some of these groups of war crimes against Kurdish civilians during Operation “OLIVE BRANCH” and Operation “PEACE SPRING”. 


VISUAL EVIDENCE OF SNA PRESENCE

Besides media reports, two phone-recorded videos of military-age males (MAMs) with Syrian accents, claiming to be in Libya to fight against Haftar, provide visual evidence.

Geolocation of the video allegedly showing SNA fighters in Libya

We managed to geolocate the footage, assuming that it was shot in very close proximity of the second video that surfaced on social media, which was geolocated by @S_Corsto in southern Tripoli.

While this confirms the videos’ geographical location is indeed the GNA-held Tripoli, we cannot vouch for the authenticity of the MAMs’ claims or that they are SNA fighters. 

Another piece of hard evidence is a “selfie” taken by a group of five MAMs in front of a fixed-wing cargo aircraft (identified as an Airbus Atlas-400M), supposedly on their way to Libya. Judging by the color scheme and visual elements, the Airbus A400M belongs to the Turkish Air Force. This adds credibility to reports that the Turkish Air Force, together with civilian Libyan airlines, is transporting SNA forces to Libya.

A group of unidentified MAMs pose in front of a Turkish Air Force Airbus A400M

UPDATE January 18, 2019: A video that emerged on social media allegedly shows dozens of Syrian rebels on board an Airbus 320 operated by the Tripoli-based “Afriqiyah Airways.”

TURKISH-LIBYA AIR-BRIDGE

Evidence of the Turkish “air-bridge” to Libya started to surface on social media in late December 2019. It involves the Turkish Air Force and a few Libyan commercial airliners. 

At the beginning, SNA fighters are bused from northern Aleppo province to Gaziantep, a major city in southeastern Turkey. From Gaziantep, the Turkish Air Force flies SNA militiamen into Istanbul by the Turkish Air Force, using Airbus Atlas-400M fix-wing cargo aircraft. For example, call signs “ESEN 01”, “ESEN 02”, “ESEN 03” and “ESEN 04” have been regularly spotted between Gaziantepe and Istanbul, since the air bridge reportedly started on December 27, 2019. As military flights, their ADS-B/Mode-S information, namely origin, destination and flight history, are hidden or incomplete. 

After arriving in Istanbul at Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) or Ataturk International (IST), the SNA militiamen board “friendly” Libyan civilian airliners that regularly fly to the two GNA-held airports in Libya, Tripoli Mitiga International Airport (MJI) and Misrata Airport (MAR). In particular, one “Libyan Airlines” Airbus A330-202 fixed-wing aircraft (registration number 5A-LAT/ LIMA-ALPHA-TANGO) is believed to be spearheading the covert airlift operation. In addition, one Libyan Wings Airbus 319-112 (registration no, “52-WLC”) and another Boeing 737-8GK (registration no, “5A-DMG”) operated by Buraq Air are believed to be involved. 

While all three aircraft are regular operators of Turkish and Libyan destinations, only the Libyan Airlines’ 5A-LAT is of particular interest due to its nefarious flight pattern that is consistent with counter-surveillance measures:

  • LOW PROFILE: 5A-LAT has almost exclusively chartered Istanbul-MJI/ MAR flights for the past months. As a regular operator of this route, 5A-LAT should be the aircraft that attracts the least attention for illicit airlift operations between Turkey and Libya.

SAMPLE: Recent flight history of the Libyan Airways aircraft with registration number 5A-LAT

  • DECEIVE AND COMPLICATE: 5A-LAT has frequently spoofed its ADS-B data to name Tripoli (MJI) as a destination, when it actually landed at Misrata/ MAR.

SAMPLE: 5A-LAT descends for landing at MAR despite filing MJI as its destination, on January 8, 2020

In some instances, the aircraft even took off from Istanbul without transmitting any official destination. The technique is used to deceive and complicate adversarial intelligence collection efforts. 

SAMPLE: 5A-LAT leaves IST without a transmitting a destination on January 9, 2020

  • DENY: 5A-LAT has almost always disabled its ADS-B transponder, when it entered Libyan airspace en route to MJI or MAR. In some instances, the aircraft also deactivated its transponder during its departure from Libya or Turkey, despite having stated its destination. We assess that this is not a deceptive act, but a security measure, when transiting Greek and Egyptian flight information regions (FIRs) or when in range of the LNA’s aerial systems. With foreign assistance, the LNA has conducted air strikes against GNA-held airports, which destroyed aircraft and infrastructure, in the past. Due to their ability to carry military equipment, weapons or fighters, cargo planes are high-value targets on the Libyan battlefield.

SAMPLE: 5A-LAT reactivates its transponder after clearing out of Greek and Egyptian FIRs, only to “go dark” again before landing in MJI, on January 15, 2020.

The Boeing 747-412 with registration number ER-BBJ is another aircraft of interest for the Turkish-Libyan airbridge. The ER-BBJ is operated by the Moldovian company “AeroTransCargo” and is exclusively used for cargo deliveries. AeroTransCargo’s sub-company “Airstok” has managerial links with a Libyan charter Global Aviation Services Group (GASG), which was reported by the United Nations for smuggling pistols to Tripoli (MJI) in 2017. According to C4ADS, at least four AeroTransCargo aircraft – registration numbers ER-JAI, ER-BBJ, ER-BAJ, and ER-BAM – traveled between Turkey and MJI under GASG call signs between April 19, 2017 and May 5, 2019. 

The ER-BBJ made at least 5 flights from Istanbul (SAW) to MJI in December alone. 

SAMPLE: ER-BBJ disabled its transponder while passing through Greek airspace and FIR, and before entering Libyan airspace, on December 15, 2019.

During its flight, the aircraft used the same counter-surveillance techniques as 5A-LAT, deactivating its transponder (Mode-S in the ER-BBJ’s case) when nearing Egyptian/Greek FIRs and while approaching Libya. The ER-BBJ deliveries were sometimes succeeded by increased military activity between the GNA and LNA.  However, AeroTransCargo firmly denies allegations that it is smuggling weapon systems into Libya. 


ROLE OF SNA, TURKISH INTENTIONS UNCLEAR

The introduction of SNA groups reflects a quantitative increase in Ankara’s commitment to  Tripoli and their mutual economic interests. The move is designed to reverse the setback that GNA forces suffered in 2019, by injecting several thousand battle-hardened fighters in the GNA’s ranks. Depending on the exact troop number, the influx of several hundreds to thousands of Syrian rebels will have a minimal to moderate impact on the battlefield. Ankara hopes that the new contingent will break the deadlock in southern Tripoli and Guryanh and push Haftar’s offensive back. 

Besides acting as “canon fodder,” the SNA could serve in external security roles, guarding Turkish military garrisons and forces in Libya. Notoriously undisciplined and poorly trained, the SNA fighters are however unlikely to be tasked with training and advising missions, which will be exclusively performed by regular Turkish troops. 

The status and timetable of the SNA deployment remains unclear and very fluid. Turkey has likely calculated that the increased military support to the GNA will force Gen. Haftar to sign a ceasefire. It is likely that Ankara’s latest threats were exclusively aimed at pressuring the LNA to halt its operations against Tripoli and that President Erdogan did not seriously plan to conduct a prolonged military campaign in Libya.

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