Turkey’s deepening involvement in the Libyan conflict

Summary: A maritime rights agreement between Turkey and the besieged Tripoli Government of National Accord draws Turkey deeper into the civil war in Libya.

We are again grateful for the article below to David Barchard, a writer on Turkish history and politics.

When newspapers and think tanks in Turkey began circulating maps of the Eastern Mediterranean around the beginning of October, showing the sea-bed largely dominated by two large and contiguous Turkish and Libyan zones, observers in other countries rubbed their eyes. Was a Southern European problem about to gain an Arab dimension? When Turkey and Libya went on to sign an extensive maritime rights agreement – which appears to conflict directly with most other country’s views on seabed rights, Greece eventually proceeded to expel the Libyan ambassador from Athens in early December, though it has not done this to his Turkish colleague. In return, Turkey and Libya both claim that it is Greece which has intruded into Libyan areas.

It is unclear how the idea of  involving Libya in the maritime disputes of Greece and Turkey first arose. But the motivation for it arises directly out of the conflicts of the Libyan civil war between the Government of National Accord  (GNA) in Tripoli and the Tobruk/Bengazi-based House of Representatives. The GNA looks to Turkey and in particular to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It is headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, a family of Turkish origin (the name means ‘saddler’ in Turkish). Like President Erdoğan and his AKP (Justice and Development Party), the GNA is broadly identified with the Muslim Brotherhood, which, along with Naqshbandi Sufism, is the main Islamic intellectual and political current inside Turkey’s ruling party.

On 15 December, al-Sarraj met Erdoğan in Istanbul just as Turkey was agreeing a defence co-operation agreement with the GNA and the Turkish president was answering questions from journalists about whether he would send troops to Libya, pointing up the uncertainties over how far Ankara will be called upon to go in protecting the GNA.

On 14 Dec Turkey released a text of its security agreement with Libya

Though it enjoys international recognition as the legitimate government of Libya and holds the capital, Tripoli, the GNA controls less than a quarter of Libya. Crucially, it does not control the country’s main prize, its oil wells. These are in the hands of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army(LNA) which backs the House of Representatives. Since April Tripoli has been under attack from Haftar’s LNA.

Haftar exacerbated antagonisms between himself and Turkey in June by kidnapping six Turkish technicians and threatening Turkey with further measures. This was a serious mistake. It jolted Ankara into more explicit cooperation with Haftar’s rivals in the GNA. Haftar responded on 19 August by bombing and destroying an airbase Turkey was building at Misrata, 200 km east of Tripoli – and coincidentally famous as the site of a major battle by combined Turkish and Libyan forces against invading Italian imperialists in 1911.

At several points since the spring it has looked as if the LNA might be poised to take Tripoli, and for nearly two and a half  months it closed Tripoli’s airport to traffic, though it was   reopened on 12 December.

In this situation, Turkey appears the best source of assistance to the GNA leadership which is aware that both the USA and Russia have some links with Haftar. In other ways, the Libyan civil war presents some broad parallels to the conflict in Syria. Turkey and the GNA believe that the power behind Haftar comes from support by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt—Turkey’s main political rivals in the Arab world and in Syria.

There are other factors which make Tripoli and al-Sarraj look a natural ally to Ankara. In many ways, Libya is the Arab country Turkey knows best. Militarily, economically, and administratively (under the Libyan monarchy Turkey supplied some administrative help to Libya), Turks and Libyans have repeatedly worked together since 1911 when Italy snatched Libya from the Ottomans. After 1980, scores of Turkish companies worked on construction and infrastructural companies in Libya and their managers and personnel know the country well. However, when Qaddafi was brought down by Western intervention in 2011, Turkey carefully kept at arm’s length despite, or perhaps because of, its stock of experience in Libya.

The UN has imposed an embargo on arms supplies to the two sides, though this is being widely violated with Turkey, the UAE, and Jordan named as the chief offenders. The current diplomatic goal of the UN is to arrange an international conference which might broker a deal and achieve a political solution. But this looks like being difficult, if not impossible, and the conference has been several times postponed. It is at least in theory due to take place in Berlin by the end of this month.

To outside observers, Turkey’s growing involvement with the GNA and al-Sarraj seems likely to be disruptive for the conference, i.e. it will stiffen the position of al-Sarraj and Tripoli against a deal with Haftar.  This view is being expressed by Russian commentators as well as Western ones. The Russians also appear concerned by the Islamist nature of the GNA. For Turkey however, the GNA’s Muslim Brotherhood political colouration is probably precisely what is most attractive about it as a partner.

If the GNA could somehow become the sole or main government in Libya, it would be a new friend and partner for Turkey in the Arab world. A decade ago Ankara was dreaming of being a regional hegemon in the Islamic countries. Posters in AKP-controlled Turkish cities still sometimes proclaim  ‘If Turkey collapses, then the world of Islam will collapse too’. Today however Turkey is on bad terms with every Arab state except Qatar, a country which is also friendly towards the Muslim Brotherhood.

The defence partnership which Turkey signed with Qatar in 2014 and 2015 and which has led to the construction of two Turkish bases there seems to be the model for the Sarraj-Erdogan deal presented to Turkey’s Grand National Assembly on 15 December. Like the Qatari agreement, it provides for cooperation in training and supply of defence forces, joint command centres, exercises and perhaps the stationing of Turkish troops in Libya. Turkey’s position is that this will happen if and when Libya, i.e. the GNA, asks for it.

In practice the question is a very sensitive one at home and abroad. Turkish public opinion has not been noticeably enthusiastic about the deployment of troops in Syria, but they are seen as fighting a recognisable enemy – Kurdish nationalists which the government deems terrorists. Involvement in the Libyan civil war would look rather different. Further, Turkey would have to weigh up the possible international diplomatic consequences of intervening directly in Libya. Greece and Israel would certainly press for EU and UN sanctions. Given the importance of Libya’s oil, that is surely likely. However, even inside the EU some people think not much might actually happen. Efforts to bring the various parties involved to the table for discussions look more likely.

Turkish military support for the GNA looks set to build though it may consist partially of drones and forces in a ‘private military company’ i.e. army, called SADAT. This some Turks believe would be the appropriate foil to counter Russian private military forces in Libya belonging to the Wagner Group, a company with close ties to the Kremlin.

Even before the December 15 agreement was signed, Turkey had defence links with the GNA. Arms shipments, including armoured cars, were already travelling to Tripoli last spring. TB2 Turkish drones, a major defence industry priority, are flying in support of the GNA forces – and some have been shot down by the forces of General Haftar. Some Turkish troops, perhaps officially designated advisers or contractors are already working in connection with both the arms shipments and the drones. If there is to be a troop build-up in Libya, perhaps it will happen that way.

Meanwhile the alliance with Tripoli over maritime rights is the bonus godsend Turkey believes it gains from this deal.  Its dispute with its Greek and Greek Cypriot neighbours over seabed rights, which began in the eastern Aegean in the 1970s, is now centred on the waters around Cyprus. As the continental country with a much larger population than either Greece or Cyprus, Turkey believes that it is entitled to the lion’s share of seabed rights.

Unfortunately for Ankara, the letter of the International Law of the Sea, perhaps unfairly, does not endorse that position. Turkey has never recognised the convention; its interpretation, and the seabed prospecting operations it has been carrying out around Cyprus, are rejected elsewhere. This has led to the imposition of some sanctions by the EU on Turkey, and the crystallising of an energy alliance already mentioned, of Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, Israel and Egypt, against Turkey.

Turkey’s new Libyan policies possibly cast a light on much wider changes.  The territorial waters and seabed rights issue is acting as a catalyst in the process of speeding up the detachment of Turkey from Europe and the West. Western attempts to deter the Turks, especially when the US Congress is involved, generally put pressure on exactly the wrong spots and simply harden attitudes, as for example with Congress’s recent decisions to endorse Armenian century-old  historical claims against Turkey.

Similarly the polarisation and growing instability of the eastern Mediterranean is ultimately the consequence of the EU’s fateful decision since the 1990s to abandon Western neutrality between Greeks and Turks – taken for granted in the 1950s and 1960s – and back Athens and Nicosia against Ankara. Turkey’s engagement with the GNA may be a foretaste of what lies ahead elsewhere, and its foray into Libya could perhaps simultaneously embroil both Europe and the Arab world in conflicts without a quick resolution.

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