By Heba Saleh & Laura Pitel
Heightened Turkish presence in Libya would stoke tension between Ankara and rivals such as Egypt.
The UN-backed government based in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, announced on Thursday that it was deepening military relations with Turkey in a move expected to heighten tensions in the North African oil exporting country.
The government of national accord, headed by Faiez al-Sarraj, the prime minister, said in a statement that its council of ministers had agreed to the “activation” of a memorandum of understanding on military and security co-operation signed with Turkey last month.
Although the UN considers the GNA to be the legitimate authority in Libya, the government has little authority on the ground and has since April been relying on militias to fight off an offensive against Tripoli by forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, the military strongman who controls most of the country.
Libya has been divided since 2014 and Gen Haftar is allied to a rival government based in eastern Libya.
Turkey is already a main supplier of weapons such as drones and armoured vehicles to the GNA, according to UN experts. But analysts say the move to formalise what had so far been a clandestine arrangement will be seen as a provocation by other regional powers — notably Egypt, which backs Gen Haftar.
Jalel Harchaoui, research fellow at the Clingendael Institute think-tank at The Hague, said the strengthening of the military alliance between Turkey and the GNA could trigger “a dangerous reaction by Egypt” which might feel forcedinto “a response that will have to be visible”.
Relations between Cairo and Ankara have been tense since 2013 when Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president and a former defence minister, ousted his elected Islamist predecessor Mohamed Morsi and launched a crackdown against his Muslim Brotherhood group.
Many Brotherhood officials sought refuge in Turkey, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, has been a vocal critic of Mr Sisi over his treatment of the Islamists.
Gen Haftar’s opposition to all Islamists is a leading reason for Cairo’s support.
Mr Erdogan has said repeatedly in recent weeks that he would be willing to send military assistance to Tripoli if the government formally requested it — an offer he repeated again on Wednesday.
“We told them that we are always ready to help if they need it,” he said. “From military and security co-operation to steps taken regarding our maritime rights: we are ready.”
At the end of last month, Turkey and the Sarraj government signed a security and military accord that included provisions on intelligence-sharing, arms provision and the prospect of creating a “quick reaction force” to assist the Libyan military and police.
The memorandum of understanding is expected to be approved by the Turkish parliament on Saturday.
Mr Erdogan has not specified what type of military support he would be willing to send to Libya.
Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper, citing an unnamed Turkish diplomat, reported this week that Ankara would not dispatch combat troops, but rather soldiers who would provide training and advice.
A decision to send troops would normally require separate approval from parliament. But Unal Cevikoz, an MP with Turkey’s largest opposition party who sits on parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said the government might seek to send military personnel to Libya under the guise of the recent agreement.
“Under the present wording, they probably don’t need a separate motion,” he said.
A heightened Turkish presence would stoke tensions between Mr Erdogan and other backers of Gen Haftar, including Turkey’s regional rivals Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Russia, which has emerged as an increasingly important partner for Ankara in recent years.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, said on Thursday that his country was in constant dialogue with foreign partners on Libya, including Turkey and European countries.
A Turkish delegation is expected to visit Moscow to discuss Libya in the days ahead.
Heba Saleh – Cairo and North Africa Correspondent of the Financial Times.
Laura Pitel is the FT’s Turkey correspondent.