By Giorgio Cafiero
Many analysts and Arab statesmen believe that Ankara is pursuing a “neo-Ottoman” agenda in the wider Islamic world. Although it is unrealistic to imagine the Turkish Republic literally expanding its borders to incorporate any sizeable portion of foreign territory that the Ottoman state once governed, there is no denying that the leadership in Ankara sees land and cities that the Ottoman Empire once governed as areas where Turkey has natural influence to assert. The current struggle for Libya’s Tripolitania is increasingly relevant to this point.
With Libya bogged down in a nightmarish civil war that erupted in May 2014, Ankara is becoming increasingly involved in the conflict and proving that Turkey can make a significant difference in its outcome. Today, Libya’s U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) struggles to stand on its own feet as General Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) continues its westward offensive, making Turkey the one power that is truly helping the GNA survive.
On December 19, the GNA issued an official statement confirming the cabinet’s unanimous approval of a memorandum of understanding (MoU), which Tripoli and Ankara signed in late November, that seeks to enhance bilateral military and security cooperation. Also, another accord both governments signed in November established a maritime boundary between Turkey and Libya. Late last year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began vowing to step up Ankara’s military support for the GNA.
On December 21, Turkey’s parliament approved the security and military MoU with Libya’s U.N.-respected government. Five days later, Erdogan announced in a speech delivered in Ankara that he will present his country’s legislators with a bill on deployment legislation. On January 2, by a vote of 325-184, Turkey’s parliament passed a bill approving the deployment of Turkish troops to Libya in defense of the GNA.
Against the backdrop of the LNA receiving strong support from Egypt, France, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — plus mercenaries from Chad and Sudan, along with Russia’s Wagner Group — Turkey is essentially the only state providing substantial military backing to the GNA. Ankara’s view is that by coming to the GNA’s defense during this period, Turkey can prevent Haftar’s LNA forces from usurping control of Tripoli while also putting sufficient pressure on the eastern commander so that his side comes to the negotiating table. Haftar, meanwhile, would like to achieve a military victory that enables his side to avoid the need to strike a political settlement with the GNA.
Indeed, while the international community recognizes the GNA as Libya’s one legitimate government, the lack of hard-power support for militias fighting in defense of the Tripoli-based administration has served the interests of Haftar, who has successfully acquired significant backing from major foreign powers. Such external support has convinced the renegade general that a military victory is within reach.
Turkey’s Interests in Countering Haftar
Doubtless, the Turkish troop deployment to Libya is set to significantly escalate Ankara’s tensions with Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and other regional capitals along with Moscow. On December 30, French President Emmanuel Macron’s office put out a statement calling for “greatest restraint” as the world waits to see what actions the Turks take vis-à-vis Libya. One day later, the Arab League held a meeting in Cairo and passed a resolution emphasizing the need to stand against foreign (meaning Turkish) intervention in Libya’s crisis.
From Ankara’s perspective, the LNA taking over Tripoli would mark a painful setback with the Muslim Brotherhood suffering another significant loss in the region and Turkey’s regional foes — chiefly Egypt and the UAE — achieving major geopolitical gains in a conflict where Turkey has its own vested interests. Put simply, for Erdogan’s government, Tripoli is a red line.
Beyond geopolitical competition with Turkey’s rivals, other factors from dealing with refugee issues in the Mediterranean Sea to energy interests will continue to drive Ankara’s agendas in relation to Libya. Without question, when it comes to Turkish actions in Libya, energy- and commercial-related variables in the equation cannot be dismissed as insignificant.
Turkey has much at stake in Libya when it comes to unresolved disputes with Greece and Cyprus over questions about sharing the body of water’s gas wealth. With Turkey dependent on imports for nearly all the country’s energy requirements, the outcome of power struggles that are heavily shaped by energy competition among Mediterranean states will continue to concern Ankara. There are also billions in business deals that Turkey can benefit from if/when the conflict is resolved on terms friendly to Ankara, meaning that if Turkey “loses Libya,” such commercial opportunities will disappear.
Turkey realizes that the GNA is receiving virtually no hard-power support from any other country while Libya’s weak government in Tripoli is particularly vulnerable to Haftar’s offensive. Therefore, Turkey is in a strong position to secure its position as the power that it indispensable to the GNA. Naturally, this gives Ankara higher stakes in doing what is necessary to ensure the survival of Libya’s U.N.-respected administration.
Bloomberg reported last week that Ankara is prepared to send Turkish-sponsored Syrian forces, which until now have been fighting the Assad regime in northern Syria, to combat the LNA in Libya. The article said that the GNA “had initially resisted the idea of such a deployment but eventually accepted it as Haftar’s forces began to advance on Tripoli” according to an anonymous Libyan official. Naturally, such a development only contributes to growing fears in Abu Dhabi and Cairo about Ankara’s sponsorship of non-state actors which the Emirati and Egyptian governments consider extremists.
Dangerous Game of Power Politics
The Libyan conflict’s end appears nowhere in sight. As 2020 begins, the Turkish leadership will have to make major decisions about its plans, tactics, and strategies for Libya as Ankara further involves itself in this multifaceted civil war. As Turkey moves forward with plans to decisively shape the outcome of Libya’s crisis, it will be important to monitor how the Emiratis, Egyptians, and Saudis respond as the bifurcated Maghrebi country becomes an increasingly important battleground in what they perceive to be a pan-Arab struggle against “neo-Ottomanism.”
At the same time, with Russia aligning itself more closely with the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia in supporting Haftar’s side, Turkey’s bold moves will add further complications to Turkish-Russian relations. Against the backdrop of the dire crisis in Idlib, which is testing the Astana Process’s sustainability, the extent to which Ankara and Moscow will be able to find common ground vis-à-vis Libya will heavily impact bilateral affairs between Turkey and Russia at a sensitive time. Of course the U.S. and Russia are the main countries that could likely contain Turkish actions in Libya, and if either attempts to do so in any meaningful or decisive way, Turkey will almost inevitably continue trying to capitalize on Washington and Moscow’s geopolitical competition in the Middle East and Africa to suit Ankara’s own interests and agendas.
Ljubljana/Doha/Tripolis, 6 February 2020