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 (IV)

C. The Syrian Factor and Public Opinion

The deployment of thousands of Syrian fighters is particularly controversial in Libya, stirring vocal opposition within pro-Haftar tribal groups and other constituencies, who refer to them as “terrorists”. 

Haftar’s foreign backers echo these views. According to a UAE official, the direct Turkish military intervention was not only a hit to the Berlin process and a violation of UN Security Council resolutions but “led to a big escalation in violence, especially by repositioning foreign terrorist fighters from Syria to Libya and affording weapons and drones to militias in Tripoli”.  

UAE officials are also concerned that the provision of weapons and financial support to these fighters will make Libya a base for groups that they consider terrorist and could, they say, threaten neighbouring and European countries.  

Meanwhile, Turkey’s allies in western Libya have largely welcomed Ankara’s assistance with open arms, without questioning its form or the nationality of the fighters who have been sent. In the words of a businessman in Misrata:

We were ready to accept whoever was willing to help us, as long as they allowed us to push back Haftar and his men. Turkey offered help and Syrian fighters joined the fight. So be it. Better this than nothing.

Nevertheless, not everyone in western Libya is uncritical of the deployment of Syrian combatants. Tripoli government officials say they were caught by surprise when the Syrians began to arrive in late December, having expected only Turkish army officers.  

Some fighters on the ground in Tripoli expressed reservations, or “unease”, about the deployment as well. One of them said: “while we wouldn’t have had any problem with Turkish soldiers, we see these Syrian fighters but don’t really know what their ideological inclination is or their objective”.

Speaking in early February, Ankara officials denied any knowledge of these deployments. Questioned on the issue, a Turkish official said, referring to the Tripoli authorities, “maybe the Accord government invited them”.

Another said, tongue in cheek, “just like Russia is not aware [of its nationals in Libya], Turkey is not aware of the Syrians”.  

The reference is to officials in Moscow denying their role in the dispatch of the Russian private military company Wagner Group, whose personnel are operating in Libya on Haftar’s side.

By late February, however, President Erdoğan had turned vocal about Syrian rebels supporting the Turkish military in Libya, although he also referred to a private Russian company in parallel.

From Ankara’s perspective, there is a silver lining in international criticism of the deployment of Syrians. “Before Syrian combatants went to Libya, the international community wasn’t talking about the foreign fighters there.

Now attention is drawn to this issue”, a Turkish official said, referring to Russian and Sudanese fighters whom “the international community has been overlooking”.

The matter has stirred some debate in Turkey. Leading opposition parties have been critical of the deployment of Syrian combatants.  

A Libyan analyst pointed out that the Syrians have been serving a practical purpose: they translate from Arabic into Turkish for Turkish officers. Turkish analysts have claimed that deploying Syrian fighters can help keep the Turkish death toll lower.  

Erdoğan has further deflected criticism by inviting the opposition to question the presence of Sudanese, Russians and other non-Libyan fighters supporting Haftar’s side.

Irrespective of the debate about the Syrian fighters, Turkey’s intervention in Libya has little buy-in among ordinary Turkish citizens. While the intervention fell off the agenda due to the Idlib escalation in January-February, and the COVID-19 pandemic thereafter, many observers worry that Turkey could get bogged down in an unwinnable war.

Libyans who prior to Turkey’s intervention were sitting on the fence and did not claim allegiance to either side in the war also have criticised Turkey’s intervention. In the words of one such individual, the main problem is how Turkey has essentially taken charge of Tripoli’s war:

There is a big difference between the way Haftar uses his foreign military support and what the Tripoli government is doing with Turkey. The Haftar camp taps into his foreign backers and gets them to give him what he needs.

In the eyes of the Libyan public, Haftar retains the role of the commander. But the Government of National Accord is doing quite the opposite.

Serraj is officially telling Turkish officers ‘you are welcome to Libya’ and ‘go ahead please, lead this war for us’. The Turks have the driver’s seat in the war.

The Turkish officers are perceived as directing the GNA’s war. This is completely unacceptable to us Libyans.

Among Libyans, even “those who wanted Turkey involved, did not want Turkey this much involved”, another said.  

Libyans who are critical of Serraj and Turkey have said they are baffled by how much Erdoğan publicly slams Haftar, “as if it is his or Turkey’s own war, and not one between Libyans”.  

They are likewise concerned that Ankara, by constantly demonising the field marshal, ends up underestimating the considerable popular and tribal backing he enjoys.

IV. A Way Forward

Four months since the official announcement of its intervention in Libya, Turkey has succeeded in preventing Tripoli’s takeover by Haftar’s forces.

Yet odds remain poor that the Libyan war will end in the coming months, especially since global concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic have disrupted diplomatic initiatives aimed at pressing Libyan parties to accept peace talks.

Looking ahead, Turkey will have to make some difficult choices. For one, it will have to gauge how much military support to Libya it can afford, financially and politically.

If fighting continues or escalates further, Ankara may have to scale up both military supplies and personnel just to maintain the balance it helped create.

Recruiting foot soldiers may become harder for both sides, due to the COVID-19 outbreak. An official in Tripoli said: “Some Turks have asked to leave Libya, and some Syrians are demanding the same”.  

(Foreign fighters on Haftar’s side will face the same challenge.)

If Turkish fatalities in Libya rise, the deaths will surely feed the intervention’s unpopularity within Turkish society. As Turkey’s economic conditions deteriorate, it is likely that opposition parties will also further question the financial costs of the deployment in Libya.

Although Ankara is betting on winning the hearts and minds of Arabs antagonistic to monarchies and coups, it may have neither the capacity nor the influence to rally popular support in the region. 

Ankara will also have to re-evaluate the extent to which it will be able to use its strategic involvement in Libya and alliance with the Tripoli-based government to rebalance regional relations.

Although Ankara is betting on winning the hearts and minds of Arabs antagonistic to monarchies and coups, it may have neither the capacity nor the influence to rally popular support in the region.

All that being said, and for the time being at least, Ankara seems to be convinced that Turkey’s core geostrategic and economic interests would be undermined if it were to pull back military support from the Tripoli government.

Turkey is, of course, only one of many foreign parties that have intervened in Libya’s war. As Crisis Group has emphasised in the past, any such foreign military intervention inevitably damages prospects for a political solution.  

In particular, by supporting their respective local allies and feeding the warring sides’ conviction that they can be victorious, Turkey and other foreign powers competing in Libya have discouraged compromise.

A wiser course would be for all foreign backers to stop pouring fuel on the fire. Instead, they ought to try to bring the two warring sides together, press them to accept a ceasefire and embark on negotiations.

At the current juncture, a ceasefire would require concessions from Turkey and the Tripoli-based authorities, such as agreeing to halt any further offensives while Haftar’s forces and their foreign supporters would need to desist from strikes on Tripoli.

These preliminary steps could lay the groundwork for more comprehensive arrangements, including removal of military forces and heavy artillery from residential areas, departure of foreign fighters, and possibly agreement on a ceasefire monitoring mechanism.

Beyond that, any comprehensive political agreement will need to accommodate the two warrying parties’ primary goals: for Haftar backers, these are disempowering militias, ensuring transparent management and distribution of Libya’s oil revenues and securing appointment of a new unity government with buy-in from the east-based authorities.

For those standing behind Tripoli, the goals are ensuring civilian oversight over security forces and warding off a power grab by Haftar or any other military leader.

The foreign powers that have become involved in Libya have been vague about their red lines, and their interest in compromise may well change with time and events, both in Libya and beyond. But some broad conclusions appear possible.

Ankara in particular likely will insist on a solution that maintains a key role for its allies currently part of the Tripoli government in a viable power-sharing agreement that also helps cement Turkish influence, provides Ankara with assurances that its maritime deal will remain intact until and unless a democratically elected Libyan government declares otherwise, and pursues compensation for Turkish companies that operated in Libya prior to 2011.

Likewise, any prospective resolution will need to accommodate the equally critical interests of Haftar’s supporters, to ensure that they are on board.

In particular, they likely will want a reset of the international governing arrangements for Libya, including a new UN-backed government that is not dominated by pro-Muslim Brotherhood and/or pro-Turkish representatives as well as security arrangements that make room for Haftar’s forces.

To reconcile these reciprocal interests, both sides will need to make concessions. Ankara will have to accept that a future unity government might not be explicitly pro-Turkey and that interim security arrangements should include Haftar-led forces.

On the other hand, Haftar’s backers will have to accept that politicians and military officials who have been on the opposite side will be part of the transitional governing and security arrangements.

All should agree to stop using foreign fighters in Libya and refrain from actions that fuel the war.

V. Conclusion

By intervening militarily in the Libyan conflict, Ankara hoped to help the UN-backed Tripoli government stand its ground against Haftar’s offensive and to speed up the political process.

This decision was driven by Ankara’s concerns that a Haftar victory would result in strategic losses for Turkey in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.

To some extent, the gambit paid off: the Turkish intervention contained Haftar’s forces’ advance into Tripoli. But it also incurred undeniable costs.

It spurred a strong counter-mobilisation and triggered an escalatory cycle that, far from promoting a political settlement, prolongs and exacerbates an already deadly war.

To break it, external supporters of local warring parties should seek mutual accommodation and encourage their allies to agree to a ceasefire.

If all involved foreign parties seek ways to bring their respective Libyan allies around the table to pursue compromise, they may find ways forward that better meet their own interests as well.

___________