Libya Tribune

The report is based on dozens of interviews with Turkish and Libyan officials and experts, as well as representatives of Western and Arab governments.

.Part (I)

Turkish intervention in Libya’s war stopped the besieged Tripoli government from collapsing. But fighting with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s forces has since escalated, threatening a protracted conflict.

Both Ankara and Haftar’s regional backers should urge their allies toward a return to negotiations and a ceasefire.

UN-backed government of Prime Minister Faiez Serraj, stalling an offensive by forces allied with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Its foray, underpinned by its own strategic, political and economic interests, has further complicated the already multi-layered Libyan crisis.

Why does it matter?

Turkey’s intervention has neither de-escalated the conflict nor yielded productive negotiations between rival political and military factions.

It has instead exposed a different risk: the more outside actors provide military hardware and fighters to their respective Libyan allies, the longer the conflict may last and the deadlier it may become.

What should be done?

As Turkey’s intervention appears not to be producing a ceasefire or a return to negotiations, and since no outside actor is likely to back out unilaterally, Ankara should engage with other external players involved in the conflict to explore potential compromises regarding their respective interests in Libya and beyond.

Executive Summary

By intervening militarily in the Libyan conflict in January, Turkey helped forces aligned with the UN-backed Tripoli government of Prime Minister Faiez Serraj stand their ground against an offensive by a coalition headed by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

From Ankara’s perspective, supporting the Tripoli government is necessary to confront an arc of inimical forces bent on containing Turkey’s strategic and economic influence in the Mediterranean and broader Middle East.

Haftar’s foreign backers likewise see Libya as a key geopolitical battleground and have shown no hesitation to escalate. While Ankara deems its intervention worthwhile as long as it prevents Tripoli’s takeover, the costs may rise if as a result the conflict becomes more prolonged and deadly.

It therefore should be in Turkey’s and Haftar’s external supporters’ interest to explore areas of mutual accommodation, work toward a ceasefire, and find ways to bring their respective Libyan allies around the table to pursue a compromise that would also meet some of their own core needs.

After six months of stalemated war in the Tripoli outskirts, Haftar-aligned forces started to slowly advance toward the city centre in November 2019 in a push to remove the Serraj government and disarm forces allied with it.

Alarmed by this development, officials in Ankara calculated that, by balancing Haftar’s military power on the ground, they could create conditions for a ceasefire and negotiated political solution to the Libyan crisis.

Starting in January, Turkey reportedly sent around 100 officers and at least 2,000 allied Syrian opposition fighters to Libya, as well as aerial defence and other weapon systems.

Ankara’s actions in Libya are also motivated by larger goals. From Turkey’s perspective, Libya intersects with two hostile axes that Ankara must confront.

The first is a perceived campaign by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt (and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia) to contain Turkish influence across the Middle East and North Africa.

The second is what Turkey sees as an effort by Greece and Cyprus (and, by extension, the EU), as well as Israel, to box it into a small corner of the Mediterranean Sea and thus exclude it from hydrocarbon projects that could also be geopolitically significant.

From Ankara’s perspective, its Libya policy is closely intertwined with its desire to break through such imposed barriers.

Turkey is not alone, of course, in viewing Libya through the prism of strategic interests. In doing so, it joins a host of other countries – including the UAE, Egypt, and Russia, which are backing Haftar, and Qatar, which backs the Tripoli government.

Publicly, Western countries have criticised Turkish actions, including its violation of the UN arms embargo on Libya. But the same Western governments (with the exception of France) have also expressed tacit sympathy.

They, too, want to prevent the Serraj government’s collapse. And they, too, hope that Turkey’s direct involvement to bolster the government will first stop Haftar’s offensive and then compel him to negotiate.

Diplomatic initiatives in January, in Moscow and then in Berlin, provided a glimmer of hope that negotiations would indeed begin, but these initiatives faltered, and the resignation of UN Special Representative to Libya Ghassan Salamé further undermined chances of reviving them.

Turkish intervention slowed the advance of Haftar’s forces, allowing the Tripoli government’s forces to regain some of the territory they lost when the war broke out in April 2019.

But it did not halt the war. Haftar’s coalition condemned Ankara’s actions and recast its own efforts as a war against what it terms “the Turkish occupation”.

It intensified artillery attacks on Tripoli’s port and airport, on the grounds that Turkish officers have been using these sites. At least two Turkish army officers and several dozen pro-Turkey Syrian fighters have been killed, although exact numbers are not available.

Meanwhile, pro-government forces lost Sirte, the site of a military base in central Libya that has become an important staging ground for Haftar’s forces.

Finally, and crucially, Haftar-allied tribal groups shut down the country’s oil production and all hydrocarbon exports in January, saying they did not want to see Libya’s oil revenues used to pay for Turkish and Turkey-backed forces.

This shutdown has cut off the funds that were keeping the Tripoli government afloat.

By intervening, Turkey has further enmeshed itself in an escalating conflict with a complex mix of players and stakeholders.

As Ankara’s allies in Tripoli attempt counterattacks against pro-Haftar strongholds in other parts of the country, Turkey risks being dragged into a war well beyond what it originally signed up for.

Further escalation is a distinct risk and could both backfire for Turkey and come at the expense of Libyans at large.

Neither Turkey nor any of Haftar’s foreign backers is likely to make one-sided concessions.

The choice is between further escalation and a search for mutual accommodation that paves the way for peace among their Libyan allies while meeting as much as possible their own interests. They should pick the latter.

I. Introduction

Turkey’s 2 January 2020 decision to intervene openly in Libya to support the UN-recognised, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) of Prime Minister Faiez Serraj did not come out of the blue.

Turkey had covertly been providing armoured personnel carriers and drones to the government since April 2019, when Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar launched his offensive on the Libyan capital.  

In November 2019, it signed two security and maritime memoranda of understanding with Tripoli.

By moving to open military support, Turkey raised the level of its involvement in the Libyan crisis significantly in an effort to slow the advance of Haftar’s military coalition, the Arab-Libyan Armed Forces.

Authorities in Tripoli welcomed Turkey’s military support as a “life jacket” that has saved them from drowning.

Since January, Ankara has deployed at least one hundred Turkish military officers to help the Serraj government coordinate its war efforts, and transferred shiploads of weapons, military equipment and aerial defences to Tripoli and nearby Misrata.

It has used its warships stationed off the Libyan coast as launching pads for missile strikes against Haftar’s forces and sent its jets flying through Libyan skies.

And it has deployed a contingent of at least 2,000 fighters of the Syrian National Army, a Turkish-backed Syrian rebel group, to support militias loyal to the Tripoli government.

If the conflict escalates further, Turkey risks overstretch. It is simultaneously militarily involved in northern Syria against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – which is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – as well as against Russian-backed Syrian government forces.

Turkey is not the first foreign power to intervene in the Libyan conflict, which has already killed over 2,000 people since April 2019, but it is the first to do so openly. 

Turkey’s sometime partner Russia has covertly supported Haftar, as have the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt, Turkey’s foes.  

These countries are backing Haftar mainly to achieve long-term strategic objectives that transcend Libya. For Haftar’s backers in the Gulf, these aims include curbing the role of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups that they classify as terrorist.

They also include support for like-minded governments that take a firm hand in suppressing Islamist opposition movements.

For Russia, they mean establishing itself as a powerful regional player, pushing back against the tumult caused by the 2011 Arab uprisings and getting economic rewards for its trouble.

Conversely, for other backers of the anti-Haftar camp, such as Qatar, these goals entail preventing the fall of the Tripoli government and the consequent emergence of a new power structure allied with Doha’s regional foes.

Turkey’s military intervention and deployment of Syrian fighters to Libya has had the short-term result of bolstering government forces in the capital, but that there is no end in sight for the military escalation.

This report lays out Turkey’s motivations for militarily backing the Libyan government against the Haftar-led offensive and analyses that support’s effects on both the battlefield and the diplomatic front, assessing prospects for de-escalation.

It argues that Turkey’s military intervention and deployment of Syrian fighters to Libya has had the short-term result of bolstering government forces in the capital, but that there is no end in sight for the military escalation.

The report is based on dozens of interviews with Turkish and Libyan officials and experts, as well as representatives of Western and Arab governments.

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