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.

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Part (II)

II.The View from Ankara: Why Turkey Intervened in Libya

When Turkey decided to intervene in the Libyan conflict, its leadership claimed that the main purpose was to rebalance the situation on the ground and force Haftar to the negotiating table.

Yet Ankara’s objectives in protecting the Serraj government are also part and parcel of its broader aspirations to safeguard its geopolitical interests in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and preserve a sphere of influence in North Africa.

Turkey also has vested economic interests in maintaining an ally in Tripoli. 

A. Protecting the Tripoli Government

Libyans see that Turkey is their only friend. There are MPs in the east who tell us privately: ‘Don’t just save the west [of Libya], save us in the east also from Haftar’s persecution; we are compelled to publicly appear to support him, but we do not’.

Most importantly, Turkish officials emphasise that their actions in Libya are legitimate and in full compliance with international law.

Turkey’s special adviser to Libya, Emrullah İşler, explained: “We foresaw there would be criticism [from abroad] of our intervention, so our president told us, ‘we will only go to Libya if we are invited’”.  

Prime Minister Serraj made the request on 20 December, calling on the U.S., UK, Italy, Algeria and Turkey, all of which had previously supplied security and anti-terrorism assistance to the Tripoli government, to help fight “foreign mercenaries, armed groups and formations who refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the state, and threaten security and peace in defiance of state sovereignty”.  

Soon afterward, Turkey formalised its military support to Tripoli: on 21 December, the Turkish parliament approved a security cooperation memorandum of understanding that Erdoğan and Serraj had signed on 27 November.  

On 30 December, Erdoğan sent a request to parliament to approve sending Turkish armed forces to Libya for a period of one year, which the legislators passed on 2 January.

Ankara argues that, since Turkey responded to an invitation, its support for Tripoli does not constitute an illegal external intervention, thus sidestepping the fact that its supply of weapons and military equipment to the Tripoli government, covert or overt, violates the UN arms embargo.

Ankara officials say Turkey is merely bolstering the defensive power of Libya’s UN-recognised government, which has the right to self-defence but lacks the capacity. In addition, Erdoğan has frequently underlined the legitimacy of Turkey’s intervention, compared to that of others.

Officials in Ankara also lament what they term the hypocrisy of other international actors, such as Russia, the UAE, Egypt and France, which officially recognise the Serraj government but provide military aid and thereby indirect legitimacy to the Haftar camp.

As a foreign ministry official put it, “if they support an armed attack against the GNA [the government in Tripoli], they should at least officially announce that they no longer recognise the GNA’s authority”.

Turkish officials also decry as two-faced the positions of Brussels and Washington, which claim to promote democracy and rule of law in the world but are ambivalent about an armed attempt to overthrow Libya’s political leadership.

They contend that this stance will discredit the West in the eyes of Arab societies.  

Others in Ankara are convinced that the UAE has been spreading propaganda, accusing Turkey of supporting political and militant Islamists against secular forces, charges that they fear Europeans accept uncritically.  

Turkish officials also express frustration at Europeans who, they say, without specifying which country, are mistakenly convinced that Haftar can establish strong rule and thus curb migration flows, which they claim is all Europeans care about. 

Turkey viewed the EU’s launch of a naval mission, Operation Irini, to monitor the UN arms embargo as unfair, because the EU will not be monitoring land or air delivery routes, which are used by Haftar’s backers, whereas Turkey delivers weapons mainly by sea.  

Accusations that oil interests are at the core of Western positioning are also rampant in Ankara. As one official put it: “Russia is totally interest-driven. So is the U.S. Trump called Haftar right after 4 April. Why? Because of oil interests. Turkey, on the other hand, is not hypocritical and will end up on the right side of history”.

Ultimately, Ankara believes that Turkey’s military support to Tripoli, by balancing out the forces on the ground, will convince Haftar that he cannot count on military victory and, as a result, will have to accept a negotiated political settlement.

As an Ankara official said: “Haftar has no interest in negotiations and, without Turkey’s presence, he would have stopped the offensive only if the Tripoli government had surrendered and accepted his terms”.

He added: “Due to the Turkish involvement, he saw that it would not be possible [for him] to get easy results”.

Turkish officials underscore that they intervened to force Haftar to the negotiating table and say they are willing to support the Tripoli-based forces indefinitely.

In February, Ankara officials exuded confidence that Turkey would do “whatever is necessary” to prevent Haftar from taking Tripoli: “Either his backers tell Haftar he must engage in negotiations and accept a political settlement, or the war will be prolonged because Turkey will not back down from defending Tripoli”.  

Some officials have called on the U.S. to exercise its leverage over Egypt and the UAE to stop their military and financial support of Haftar’s operations.

If Haftar attempts an all-out attack on Tripoli, they say, Ankara is ready to deploy its own offensive forces.

B. Strategic Ambitions

Ankara’s decision to protect the Tripoli government from military defeat is part and parcel of Turkey’s geostrategic ambitions, which it increasingly advances, including by projecting military power.

This stance has its roots in a relatively new conception of national defence, in which the Turkish “homeland” (vatan) no longer solely denotes land but also sea, or the “blue homeland” (mavi vatan), an expression first used by a navy admiral, Ramazan Cem Gürdeniz, in 2006.  

It was popularised in March 2019 when the Turkish navy named an exercise in the eastern Mediterranean “Mavi Vatan”. Turkey’s ruling coalition of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) is aligned around this more assertive regional foreign policy, which also reinforces Turkish nationalism and helps the Ankara leadership maintain domestic support.

1. The maritime jurisdiction dispute in the eastern Mediterranean

In keeping with the “blue homeland” concept, Erdoğan signed a Memorandum of Understanding “on the delimitation of the maritime jurisdiction areas in the Mediterranean” with Serraj on 27 November 2019; the Turkish parliament ratified it the following week.  

Turkey had long sought this agreement as a critical tool to begin redrawing maritime borders in the eastern Mediterranean and mitigate what it sees as disproportionate advantages accruing to two of Ankara’s historical foes – Greece and the Republic of Cyprus.

Turkish officials claim there is no connection between Turkey’s Libya intervention and this maritime pact, and that it is “merely a coincidence” that Erdoğan and Serraj signed it on the same day they inked the security cooperation deal.  

Many Turkish experts, however, agree that the sequencing of events suggests that the maritime deal was a gateway for increasing Turkish military support.  

At the time, public debate focused on the maritime deal, largely neglecting the security agreement, which parliament took longer to ratify.  

Opposition parties that voted in favour of the maritime deal subsequently criticised the government for linking it to its decision to send Turkish troops to Libya, which they opposed.

The maritime border agreement establishes an 18.6 nautical mile (35km) maritime boundary between Turkey and Libya.  

In line with this agreement, both Turkey and Libya claim for themselves cone-shaped Economic Exclusive Zones (EEZs) respectively north and south of the boundary line.  

Most of the Turkish EEZ and part of the Libyan EEZ overlap with waters Athens considers part of Greece’s continental shelf.

For over a decade, Ankara has sought maritime boundary delimitation agreements with Egypt and Libya that would challenge Athens’ assignment of large maritime jurisdiction areas to Greek islands and Cyprus, leaving a narrow strip of water and seabed to Turkey.  

Turkish officials and experts have long contended that the Greece-claimed continental shelf and its EEZ amount to an “imprisonment” of Turkey, “the country with the longest coast” in the Mediterranean.  

In 2011, the Arab uprisings interrupted Turkish plans to sign agreements with Muammar al-Qadhafi’s Libya and Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt that would have staked Ankara’s own claims.

The Cyprus Republic’s EEZ agreements with Israel (2010), Lebanon (2007) and Egypt (2003) for natural gas exploration and drilling follow Athens’ demarcation lines.

In 2019, the stakes rose with the discovery of large natural gas reserves off the shores of Cyprus. The big find led in January 2020 to the signing of the EastMed Pipeline Project agreement by Israel, Greece and Cyprus, bypassing Turkey, to transport natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe via Greece.

Turkey hopes that reinforced ties between the two countries in the wake of the bilateral security and maritime agreements will create further economic windfalls.

Underscoring such expectations, the same day that Ankara unveiled its intention to intervene militarily in support of the Tripoli government, Turkey’s independent Industrialist and Businessmen Association (MÜSİAD) announced that it hoped to boost exports to Libya by over 500 per cent, reaching around $10 billion compared to $1.49 billion in 2018.  

Turkey’s defence industry, which is providing most of the weapons shipped to the pro-government forces, will likely account for a sizeable portion of these exports. 

Turkey is also seeking to recoup business losses that its companies have suffered in Libya since 2011.

For example, of the estimated 100 construction contracts awarded to Turkish companies during the Qadhafi era, many could not move forward after the start of the 2011 conflict, leaving building projects incomplete at a value of $19 billion. 

Turkish construction companies contend that they have already spent $2 billion in equipment and other costs toward these projects, and therefore consider this amount a debt that the Libyan state owes them.

Likewise, the Turkish Petroleum Corporation sank more than $180 million into Libya before the conflict, and from 2011 onward was unable to make its drilling investment productive.

Turkey is not the only country with pending incomplete and unpaid contracts awarded during the Qadhafi era, when Libya signed more than $100 billion worth of contracts with foreign companies.  

But Turkey is the only country so far to make progress in its efforts to obtain compensation. In April 2019, Ankara and the Serraj government established a working group to agree on compensation for these past contracts and establish financial guarantees for future Turkish investments.

Turkey is reportedly seeking to formalise a memorandum of understanding, still in draft form, which envisages $500 million in compensation for lost machinery and equipment, another $1.2 billion for debts and a further $1 billion as a letter of guarantee against future purchases.

It is not known how exactly the Libyan government will make such payments and to whom. Some sources in Libya claim that discussions are under way between Libyan and Turkish officials to deposit a total of $4 billion in a Turkish bank.  

It is unclear whether this sum is solely aimed at covering the abovementioned compensation package or if the additional $2 billion deposited would serve as financial guarantee for future acquisitions, such as the purchase of the military equipment Turkey is providing.  

Other Libyans are sceptical that this financial scheme exists, or that other such designs will crop up. Instead, they claim that there is no plan to add further funds to Libyan public deposits in Turkey, which according to them stood at around $1.5 billion in 2019.

They claim that the Tripoli government has spent less than half this amount to cover the purchase of Turkish military equipment for its war effort since April 2019.

Aside from these figures, the question of who pays for Turkish military support to Libya is clouded with mystery. Most of it is most certainly paid directly by Tripoli, but Libyan sources close to the establishment in Ankara allege that the GNA is not the only entity footing the bill.

According to a Libyan businessman close to Tripoli and to Turkish officials, “Turkey itself shoulders part of the costs, and Doha also contributes”.  

Qatar has bankrolled various anti-Haftar armed groups and politicians in Tripoli over the years, and it has also funded the supply of defence equipment to Tripoli-based forces allied with the Serraj government, mainly via Turkey, following the breakout of hostilities in 2019.

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