As a ceasefire suddenly brings a pause to nine months of fighting for control of Libya’s capital, Turkish President Erdogan’s promise of military aid and even boots on the ground to the besieged UN-backed Tripoli government appears in a new light: not becoming involved in an endless war but perhaps bringing it to an end, with an improved strategic position.
Erdogan’s stepped-up intervention in the Libyan conflict comes four years after the formation of the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli on December 17, 2015. Turkey has backed the Tripoli government from the start, but in the last month, the GNA has been concerned that the tide of the war has turned against them, and so GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj asked for a new level of support from Erdogan.
Consequently, Turkey and the GNA have recently signed two agreements at the end of 2019. First, Turkey agreed to send the Turkish military to Tripoli to help the GNA against eastern Libya strongman (and American citizen) General Khalifa Haftar. Second, both countries agreed on a maritime delimitation line establishing a new maritime boundary in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea between Turkey and Libya, causing a deep disturbance in the international community.
Turkey’s intensified involvement in the Libyan conflict has been motivated by Erdogan’s economic and strategic ambitions, including the possible interruption of the EastMed pipeline between Greece, Israel, and Cyprus and the promotion of the TurkStream between Russia and Turkey. Erdogan also personally benefits from the conflict in Libya as his son in law produces and sells military drones to the GNA.
Libya has a significant place in Turkish history because the Ottoman Empire ruled it from 1551 to 1864 as the Eyalet of Tripolitania (Trablus in Turkish). Furthermore, the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, was assigned as a young officer to defend Tripoli against an Italian invasion between 1911 and 1912. Mustafa Kemal first won the Battle of Tobruk against the Italian forces and then was appointed as Commander-in-Chief in Derna.
The GNA was formed as an interim government under the terms of a UN-led initiative on December 17, 2015, designed to end the east-west civil war four years after Qaddafi was deposed. The GNA took over Tripoli on March 30, 2016, however, the real power still rested with the militias. Soon after the takeover, the Tobruk-based Libyan House of Representatives (HoR) withdrew its recognition of the GNA, provoking further conflict between the parties. While the UN and U.S. still recognize the GNA as the legitimate government of Libya, it has failed to unite the country, to govern the western area nominally under its control or even to disband the Tripoli militias.
In April 2019, on the verge of a UN reconciliation conference to be held in Ghadames, Haftar lost patience and attacked Tripoli with his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA). Since then, he has advanced on Tripoli in a seemingly endless stalemate between two roughly equal forces, each with its foreign backers.
Who Supports Whom in Libya?
The Libyan conflict is becoming another proxy war, with different states backing and supporting each of the two parties. While the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, Qatar, and Turkey support the GNA government, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and France support the LNA. Italy nominally supports the GNA but has antagonized Sarraj with feelers to Hafter.
It seems that Russia and Turkey are at odds in Libya, just as in Idlib. Explaining the Turkish help, Erdogan said, “Russia is there with 2,000 Wagner (fighters)”. “Is the official government inviting them? No.” So far, however, both Putin and Erdogan have been able to balance their differences very carefully. In fact, during the opening ceremony of the TurkStream pipeline, both Erdogan and Putin called for a cease-fire in Libya, presenting themselves as a potential route to an agreement. Given that Russia and Turkey are backing opposite sides in Libya, it looks as if there is a powerful support to bring an end to the conflict.
What’s in it for Turkey?
By the end of 2019, Turkish President Erdogan was very vocal about becoming involved in the Libyan conflict and said that if the GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj requested help and invited Turkey, Turkey would accept his invitation.
On December 27, 2019, Erdogan announced that Libya was inviting Turkey to help the GNA government and said as soon as the Parliament approves, the Turkish military will start serving in Libya. GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha told Reuters that “The decision by the GNA to request military support from Turkey follows a dangerous escalation in the conflict from Haftar and his backers, including bringing in Russian mercenaries.” Erdogan stated that Turkey would help the GNA against Haftar and claimed that Turkey was being forced out of the Mediterranean Sea, which was not acceptable. However, President Trump warned Erdogan via a phone call, pointing out that foreign interference was complicating the situation in Libya. Nevertheless, on January 2, 2020, the Turkish Parliament authorized the deployment of Turkish troops to support the U.N.-backed GNA government against the forces of Haftar.
There was an economically important add-on to the defense cooperation agreement between Turkey and Libya. Or perhaps the defense cooperation was the price for Erdogan to obtain “what he regards as a fairer distribution of offshore resources in the Eastern Mediterranean,” as Turkey’s agreement with Libya also involved a new maritime boundary line between Turkey and Libya. This agreement gave Turkey an entitlement to a massive part of the eastern Mediterranean, including large reservoirs of natural gas worth $700 billion according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, and Lebanon also eyed. Ankara’s agreement with Libya also included a plan to explore gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean through the lines drawn from Northern Cyprus.
The deal immediately triggered a reaction from other Mediterranean states – Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, and Italy – and prompted EU leaders to issue a statement unequivocally siding against Turkish ambitions. Particularly, the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was very vocal about his opposition. Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said that it was a little bit astounding how Turkey and Libya split up the Mediterranean among themselves.
The reason behind this outcry was the possible interruption of the EastMed pipeline agreement worth €6-billion signed in March 2019 between Greece, Israel, and Cyprus in Jerusalem with the presence of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The Economist reported that the Turkish-Libyan agreement threatened Greece’s sovereignty and the mineral rights in the Cretan Sea, by jeopardizing plans for the construction of the EastMed pipeline. The EastMed pipeline also would have to cross the planned Turkey-Libya economic zone.
Earlier in 2019, Turkey sent oil and gas drilling ships to the disputed areas off Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, raising tensions between Turkey, Greece, and EU and resulting in EU foreign ministers agreeing to prepare a list of economic sanctions against Turkish oil and gas drilling activities in waters off Cyprus on October 14, 2019.
Turkey and Russia officially launched the TurkStream pipeline on January 8, 2020, during a ceremony in Istanbul with Presidents Putin and Erdogan. This pipeline is planned to carry Russian natural gas to southern Europe through Turkey, reducing shipments via Ukraine. The TurkStream deal between Turkey and Russia has a strategic role in reinforcing the ties and cooperation between these two neighbors, further tying Turkey to Russia. This is on top of Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense systems, which were delivered by Russia this summer and fall despite the protests of Washington and NATO.
What are Erdogan’s Long-Term Objectives in Libya?
For many, it felt like the president of Turkey didn’t know what he was doing when Turkey signed the December agreement with Libya. However, the Libya deal seems to be strategically crafted to boost Erdogan’s influence not only internationally but also domestically and to help Turkey’s economy when he needs it the most.
First of all, Erdogan’s military apparatus has already been operating in Libya via SADAT International Defense Consulting, founded and directed by a former Turkish general, Adnan Tanriverdi, who served as the chief military advisor to Erdogan. SADAT is said to include Turkish officers fired for their political Islamist leanings and it trained ISIS and Nusra front fighters in Syria, according to a Pentagon official. Tanriverdi had to resign at the beginning of 2020 after saying during a speech that SADAT was paving the pathway for the coming of the Mahdi.”
Erdogan’s Libyan involvement is supported by his base, as his 2019 mini-war in Syria was while it lasted. Turkey’s operation in Syria against the YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Units) helped Erdogan to overcome some of the political and economic hurdles amid his declining approval rates. However, with the Russians stopping Turkey, Erdogan’s Syrian operation came to an end very fast.
With the Libya operation, Erdogan again was able to rally his base and the political Islamists in Turkey, claiming that the Turkish military was going to Tripoli not only to assist the Libyan government but also to recover an old Ottoman legacy. Responding to criticism, Erdogan asked if Libya had nothing to do with Turkey, then what was Ataturk doing there, reminding his audience that Mustafa Kemal risked his life in Libya.
The Libya intervention also has an ideological angle. Prime Minister Sarraj and his local Libyan allies are widely regarded as pro-Muslim Brotherhood and, therefore, pro-Turkey and Qatar, while the supporters of General Haftar, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are known for their stance against the Muslim Brotherhood. For Erdogan, advancing the Muslim Brotherhood elements in the region, particularly building up a military presence in a country neighboring anti-MB Egypt, may mean a lot because his supporters consider him as the “leader of the Ummah.”
Additionally, Turkey has already started to move some of its proxies in Northern Syria, mainly the Free Syrian Army forces equipped and trained by Turkey, to Tripoli by promising high salaries ($1500 monthly) and allegedly Turkish citizenship after fighting more than six-months. This was subject to a parliamentary question in Ankara on January 7, 2020, a constitutional mechanism of parliamentary control usually practiced by the opposition. Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA) source told TIJ contributor Lindsey Snell on January 12, 2020, that a TFSA commander was offering $100 to each mercenary who refers someone willing to go to Libya. At least 70 TFSA members have already signed up to leave on January 13; however, the source said they were trying to secure 90 more.
The Turkish presence in Libya also brings an economic benefit to Turkey. First of all, despite the UN arms embargo, Turkey sells military equipment, armored vehicles, and arms to the UN-backed Libyan government. Furthermore, Turkey has already sold military drones produced by Erdogan’s son in law Selcuk Bayraktar to the GNA government. In fact, the LNA targeted and destroyed some of Turkey’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and other Turkish military equipment at the construction site of a Turkish base in Misrata.
The economic benefits to Turkey also include oil and gas. Turkey now claims a larger swath of the eastern Mediterranean Sea with the new agreement, which can easily interrupt the EastMed pipeline. Such interruption would increase Turkey’s profits through the TurkStream, too. Turkey also continues its gas and oil drilling efforts in the area. Turkey is theoretically gaining access to massive gas reserves off the southern coast of Cyprus through the Turkish-Libyan deal.
Also, Turkey has huge business interests in Libya and exports $2 billion in goods there annually. Turkish companies’ construction projects were halted due to the conflict in Libya, resulting in the loss of over $19 billion. Turkey also has an eye on future construction projects in Libya. Erdogan is reportedly planning to sign a deal with Libya by February on behalf of Turkish companies to get $2.7 billion for the incomplete construction work they carried out in Libya before the 2011 civil war during the Qaddafi era. Many of these construction projects involved kickbacks to Libyan infrastructure contracting officials as well.
Erdogan is trying to use the agreement between Libya and Turkey to improve Turkey’s footprints and policies in the region against its rivals, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE. Assisting the GNA government will ensure Turkey’s future involvement in the region. If this is the case, Turkey might have several strategic advantages by aligning with an oil-rich North African country. But it’s a gamble: if Hafter wins, Turkey loses.
It is difficult to foresee the implications of the involvement of Turkey in Libya. Erdogan, through the double agreement Turkey signed with the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, seems to be obtaining what he wanted at the cost of further alienating the EU and some of its states, including France and Italy. It also increases the discomfort and hostility between Turkey and Haftar’s backers Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Meanwhile, President Trump seems to be closing his eyes to Turkey’s aggressivity not only by opposing the sanctions the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed against Turkey on December 11, 2019, but also by failing to persuade Erdogan against the purchase of S-400 Russian missiles.
Erdogan keeps doubling down recklessly on his domestic and international agendas. At this point, nobody can judge clearly what awaits Erdogan in the near future with possible tragedies in Syria and Libya, all the while struggling domestically with politics and the economy.