What lies behind Ankara’s decision to side with the UN-recognised GNA government in Libya’s civil war? Tom Collins investigates the regional ambitions of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
In early January, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Ankara would send troops to Libya to support the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which has been locked in battle with General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) since 2014.
Though Erdogan says his troops will not engage in combat, the provision of specialised military equipment including anti-aircraft weaponry is intended to help the Tripoli-based government thwart an 11-month offensive on the capital. Forces loyal to the internationally recognised GNA have since claimed that Turkish machinery was used to shoot down an enemy fighter drone suspected of coming from the UAE.
In addition, various sources have asserted that Turkey has sent Syrian mercenaries to fight on the side of the GNA. In mid-January the Guardian newspaper of London reported that 650 had already arrived and that another 1,350 were either already in the country or training in Turkey, although the Turkish government and the GNA have denied this.
Can Turkey shift the balance?
Turkey’s decision to side with the GNA, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, puts it in opposition to a growing list of foreign powers that support the rival LNA, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Russia and France.
Though the UN-backed government was initially conceived as a power-sharing body between Haftar’s forces in southern and eastern Libya and Sarraj’s forces in Tripoli, it is increasingly losing international support as the breakdown in mediation efforts leads some countries to quietly hope for a swift military solution.
In mid-January, Russia and Turkey’s efforts to commit Haftar to a ceasefire agreement in Moscow ended with the combative general storming out of the meetings. The international community achieved little more in Berlin when it recommitted to a UN arms embargo and agreed to end military backing for Libya’s warring factions. German chancellor Angela Merkel reported that the differences between Sarraj and Haftar were “so great” that they had even refused to meet and both remained on the sidelines throughout.
In the days that followed, Haftar continued his failed military campaign to capture Tripoli by making a renewed push into the strategically situated city of Misrata, but the attack was repulsed. While the capital remains in GNA hands, Haftar’s troops control a substantial part of the eastern coastline and much of the sparsely populated interior of the country. Haftar also controls most of the nation’s vast oilfields and has the ability to choke off exports, curtailing revenues to the GNA.
“Clearly Haftar will find it difficult to win but also clearly it’s impossible for Sarraj to defeat Haftar,” says Bulent Aliriza, founder of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
In the absence of any clear diplomatic or military victory, it remains to be seen whether Turkey’s involvement will have a significant impact on the outcome of the civil war.
Erdogan’s move into Libya is driven by a number of key ambitions though his support for the weaker side means the audacious Turkish president has much to lose if the gamble doesn’t pay off.
In November last year, Ankara and Tripoli signed a contentious maritime boundaries deal which allows Turkey to search for gas in Libyan waters.
“Turkey decided it needed to get something back for its support of the GNA and that was the maritime deal,” says Hamish Kinnear, Middle East and North Africa analyst at consultancy Versik Maplecroft.
“Now it has a horse in the race it doesn’t want to let the GNA collapse because if it did the maritime deal would probably become null and void.”
The deal, overlapping with Greece’s claims to the jurisdiction, adds to a recent spate of Turkish gas-wrangling in the eastern-Mediterranean which has further isolated the increasingly proactive regional player.
The territorial ambitions block the route for a pipeline to Europe proposed by Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt: long-time adversaries to Turkish ambitions in the Levant.
While Greece is lobbying the EU to dispute the claims, the resource grab may yet damage popular support for the GNA as European powers take issue with its main backer.
Along with gas, Turkey has substantial investments in Libya which it hopes to secure and make profitable through its continued presence.
Erdogan and Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi enjoyed good relations until the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011 when the Turkish president began to distance himself from the north African dictator.
Before Libya’s descent into conflict, Turkey had invested billions of dollars in the country with an estimated 25,000 citizens working and sending remittances home across the Mediterranean.
Proactive foreign policy
Turkey’s entrance into Libya is also driven by an increasingly proactive foreign policy as the country faces regional challenges to its influence. Two major events are responsible for Turkey’s determined search for partners, something that could have far-reaching consequences across the rest of Africa where it has been trying to bolster its influence.
Turkey’s support for Qatar as it was smothered by a Saudi Arabia-led blockade in 2017 has led to worsening relations with the competing regional power bloc which also includes the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Jordan.
The 2013 coup which led to the removal of Egypt’s former president Mohammed Morsi also removed the ace from Ankara’s regional hand.
As a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi was an important ally for Turkey which is seen to support islamist movements – although Ankara invariably denies this.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s strongman president, has since become one of Erdogan’s greatest foes and the two countries look set for further disagreements as Turkey’s maritime deal with Libya blocks Cairo’s ambition of a gas pipeline running to Europe.
In Libya, Egypt is supportive of Haftar’s military background and authoritarian ambitions which it sees as a natural complement to its own style of governance.
Despite autocracy, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have broad support from Western governments which view the Arab countries as guarantors of security and bulwarks against terrorism in the region.
The gulf countries reportedly continue to fly arms to Haftar’s armies despite the UN arms embargo.
Turkey also backed the losing side in Syria as the Bashar al-Assad regime continues its stranglehold over the middle eastern country.
Fearing the loss of its regional clout, Turkey has been keen to search for allies where it can.
The founder of the Turkey Project at CSIS calls this the ‘forward defence’ policy which takes a proactive approach to the loss of allies in the eastern Mediterranean.
The GNA government, which is seen as a broadly islamist entity despite UN-backing, was viewed by Turkey as a natural partner which could give the country a renewed foothold in the Maghreb.
Double or quits?
Though Turkey’s support gives the faltering Tripoli government a lifeline, Erdogan must now decide whether he wants to double down on his investment and ward off Haftar’s forces or concede the loss of another ally and the accompanying gas prospects.
According to an opinion poll published by the Cumhuriyet newspaper on 10 January, only one-third of the Turkish public support military engagement in Libya. The Turkish economy is struggling and many believe another foreign intervention will add to the considerable burden of Turkey’s hosting of 4m mostly Syrian refugees.
Erdogan’s foreign policy often plunges Turkey into risky situations without a well-constructed long-term plan, his critics allege.
Aiming to take advantage of regime change in Algeria and Tunisia, he failed to bootstrap both new presidents into lending support to the GNA.
In fact, the Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune held constructive talks on Libya with his Egyptian counterpart on the sidelines of the African Union summit in Addis Ababa.
“The lack of results from both these visits suggests that Turkey so far has not been able to construct a regional North Africa policy which will allow Erdogan to undertake a projection of force that will overcome all the advantages that Haftar brings,” says Aliriza.
It remains to be seen how far Turkey will go to play kingmaker in Tripoli and to reassert its influence in the region.