By Ali Bakeer
On December 19, the UN-recognised government in Libya [GNA] led by Fayez al-Sarraj, issued an official statement citing that the cabinet “unanimously approved the implementation of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) on security and military cooperation (SMC) between the GNA and the Turkish government signed on November 27”.
This development comes only days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued his country’s readiness to offer military support for the GNA if it receives an official request in this regard. In turn, the Turkish parliament ratified a motion on the approval of SMC-MoU.
For more than eight months, General Khalifa Haftar, the warlord and the head of the self-styled Libyan National Army [LNA], has been launching a war against the capital Tripoli and the legitimate GNA.
An ideal model of the notorious Arab dictators such as Gaddafi, Assad, and Sisi, Haftar has been using the “fighting terrorism” pretext to justify his strong lust for power. He proved that he is willing to do whatever it takes to be in charge of Libya.
One of his latest moves in this regard is his opposition to the maritime agreement between the GNA and Turkey by which Libya was able to reclaim around 39,000 km2 from Greece.
Basically, Haftar expressed his willingness to relinquish Libya’s rights if this is what it takes to be in power.
For quite some time, several regional and international powers have been playing a double game in Libya. The UAE, Egypt and France in particular (known as the FUE group) have been claiming to endorse the internationally recognised government GNA while at the same time supporting efforts of Haftar to topple it by force.
The FUE group has been intensifying its military support for the Libyan warlord since the GNA signed two MoUs with Turkey last month.
The aim is to topple the UN-backed government in Tripoli, nullify the MoUs with Turkey, and install Haftar as the sole leader of the country.
Unlike Haftar, the GNA is getting nothing substantial from the international community beyond the verbal support.
Turkey believes that bringing balance to the conflict in Libya would help block the plans of the FUE group, force Haftar to negotiate, and put an end to the prolonged crisis via a sustainable political solution.
It is with this frame that Ankara decided to lend logistical and military support for the legitimate government GNA last May and June.
However, two emerging factors in the Libyan theatre are threatening to tip the balance in favour of the Libyan warlord.
First, the Greek effort to widen the support given by the FUE group for the LNA against the GNA in return of relinquishing Libya’s rights in the eastern Mediterranean.
Second, which is probably more important, the growing role of Russia in the Libyan crisis.
Recently, several reports have shed light on the increasing number of Russian mercenaries fighting along with Haftar forces against the GNA.
While the involvement of Russian mercenaries asserts the inability of the LNA forces to prevail in the battle despite the unlimited military support from the FEU group, it also exposes the intention to achieve a decisive victory that would spare Haftar and his backers the political solution.
Turkey thinks that the Russian factor can become a game changer in Libya, and unless something critical is done to bring back the balance to the equation, Moscow’s involvement will increase the violence and civilian casualties in the north African country before putting an end to Ankara’s interests there too.
According to the latest estimates, around 1,500 mercenary of the Fagner Group – the Russian version of the notorious American Blackwater – are fighting with Haftar in Libya.
President Erdogan voiced his concern over this issue when he stressed that Turkey will not stay silent over Russian-backed mercenaries supporting the LNA.
To address this matter, Ankara is currently running a dual policy, one that is based on negotiating with Russia’s Putin to convince him to drop the support for Haftar. The other one is based on the possibility of sending military troops to Libya.
The first option is highly dependent on what can Erdogan offer to Putin. On December 17, Erdogan and Putin held a phone call where they discussed developments in Libya and Syria.
The following day, Ankara announced that it will be sending a senior delegation composed of the deputy foreign minister, the deputy defence minister and officials from the intelligence and national security with the aim of “accomplishing a constructive result in a short time”.
The two men are set to meet next month where Libya and Syria are expected to top the agenda of their talks.
Parallel to this, Ankara has been asserting its readiness to consider sending troops to Libya if it receives an official request from the GNA.
During his participation at the Doha Forum 2019, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Libya has not made a request yet. However, military sources revealed to a local newspaper that the government asked the Turkish armed forces to equip ships and warplanes in preparation for the transfer of Turkish forces to Libya.
Whether such a decision will be enforced or not will depend on a cost-benefit analysis.
Historically speaking, Turkey has vast interests in the oil-rich north African country. Turkish officials know that, once put on the right track, Libya has the potential to turn into another “Gulf-rich country”.
Obviously, Turkey believes that letting the GNA down will certainly leave serious disastrous implications, not only for Libya but also for Ankara. Allowing Haftar to take control of Libya by force will have geopolitical implications too.
In addition to the fact that Turkey would lose a regional ally, the maritime agreement, which is of high importance to Ankara because it asserted its rights in the eastern Mediterranean, will become null.
Accordingly, after signing the Maritime MoU with the GNA, Turkey has a greater motivation and interest to empower the UN-recognised Libyan government and stabilise the country.
The SMC-MoU signed along with the maritime one last month indicates that it is heading in this direction. The SMC-MoU builds on the security agreement signed between Turkey and Libya in 2012.
It offers a legal basis for substantial cooperation in the fields of security, military, and defence, including training, allocating of air, ground, and naval vehicles and holding joint exercises and intelligence exchange of information.
It also focuses on developing the relations between Ankara and Tripoli in these fields in particular, and help the Libyan government and the related institutions to build its own capacity in terms of combating terrorism, illegal immigration, crime activities, and achieve stability in the country.
Contrary to popular belief, the SMC-MoU does not include any clauses on sending Turkish military forces or establishing a Turkish military base in Libya.
However, Articles number four and five might offer the proper entrance to execute such a thing. Also, point two of Article four of the MoU clearly states: “If requested, establishing a joint office of defence and security cooperation in Turkey and Libya with enough experts and personnel”.
Although Turkey’s possible decision to send troops to Libya might seem a radical measure, such decision should be assessed in the light of the available options and alternatives.
In the last few years, Turkey has been increasingly relying on hard power. Forward military bases and foreign operations have become an integral part of Ankara’s defensive posture.
Unlike other regional countries, Turkey not only has the strongest army in the region, but also it has the will to utilise it in a way that would influence the geopolitical configurations and secure the country’s national and regional interests if necessary.
Accordingly, operations in Syria and Iraq, in addition to military bases in Somalia and Qatar, are a clear example of what Ankara is capable and might willing to do in Libya.
Furthermore, by relying on hard power, Turkey is focusing on building an image of a regional power that wouldn’t relinquish its allies. Such perception is very essential in the context of building regional alliances, influence, and asserting the credibility of its deterrence power as well.
However, sending troops and establishing a military base in Libya would require devoting a lot of resources that Ankara might not be able to afford in the current situation. Moreover, it would be highly dangerous to send troops away from home to settle in unstable environment.
Unlike Qatar, the situation in Libya is highly volatile, and contrary to Iraq and Syria, Libya is geographically not close to Turkey and connected with hostile regimes such as the one in Egypt.
Yet, from Ankara’s perspective, the alternative is to turn a blind eye on the support given to Haftar by the FUE and Russia and let the GNA down.
This would result in losing everything.
Given the seriousness of the situation, it is highly unlikely that Turkey decides to send troops before exhausting the negotiating option with Russia’s Putin.
That’s why the statements of the Turkish president should be understood as a warning against further attacks by Haftar and his backers against the GNA.
Accordingly, Ankara’s flexing muscles is meant to be an expression of deterrence rather than an active plan to send troops.
Yet, it would be a mistake to interpret it as a bluff or a manoeuvring step, because ignoring the Turkish warning might compel Ankara to send troops to Libya as a last resort.
Until then, logistical and military support to the UN-recognsied GNA is expected to continue and accelerate.
Ali Bakeer is an Ankara based political analyst/researcher. His interests include Middle East politics with a particular focus on Iran, GCC countries and Turkey.