Libya Tribune

By Idlir Lika

The analysis discusses the evolving dynamics of Turkey’s military involvement in Libya, laying out Turkey’s motivations for supporting the UN-recognized government in Tripoli, and examining how Turkey’s recent military achievements on the ground may leverage its hand diplomatically to secure a political settlement that protects its interests in Libya and in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The analysis discusses the evolving dynamics of Turkey’s military involvement in Libya, laying out Turkey’s motivations for supporting the UN-recognized government in Tripoli, and examining how Turkey’s recent military achievements on the ground may leverage its hand diplomatically to secure a political settlement that protects its interests in Libya and in the Eastern Mediterranean.

On November 27, 2019, Turkey signed a maritime delineation and defense cooperation agreement with the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli, and subsequently, in January 2020, deployed troops to Libya with parliamentary approval, becoming the first foreign actor to intervene openly in the Libyan conflict upon the formal invitation of the internationally recognized government.

The primary reason for Turkey’s military involvement in Libya is protecting its geostrategic interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. By backing the Libyan government, the only Turkish-friendly government from a maritime perspective in the region, Ankara aims to break through an “anti-Turkey front” led by France, Greece, and the Greek Administration of Southern Cyprus that seeks to box Turkey in a small corner of the Mediterranean, and thus exclude it from the newly discovered natural gas bonanza in the region.

To a lesser degree, Turkey’s involvement in Libya is also motivated by its commitment to counter dictatorial regimes (bankrolled by the United Arab Emirates) and support majority rule in Middle Eastern countries, and finally, by its goal to recoup billions of dollars in unfinished construction contracts signed by Turkish construction companies under the Gaddafi regime.

In a period of six months (January-June 2020), Turkish intervention in support of the GNA has stunningly turned the tide in Libya’s civil war by rolling back renegade warlord Khalifa Haftar’s Tripoli offensive and by capturing key coastal towns in western Libya and the two main launch pads for Haftar’s offensive, the al-Watiya Air Base and Tarhuna.

Key to this transformation has been Haftar forces’ loss of aerial superiority due to the deployment of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones in the skies over Tripoli and, to a lesser extent, the deployment of a significant number of Turkish-backed fighters in the GNA ranks.

Notwithstanding the most recent deployment of Russian air power in support of Haftar to counterbalance Turkish aerial dominance, Turkey’s military achievements on the ground thus far leverage its hand diplomatically to secure a political settlement that protects its geostrategic interests in Libya and in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The analysis concludes by pointing out that Turkey should ensure that the GNA retains the key role in any future political and security arrangement in Libya, and that the maritime delimitation deal Ankara signed with Tripoli remains intact.

To achieve this end goal, Turkey for the moment should continue to support the advancement of the GNA forces and should try to pull the EU and the US to its side.

INTRODUCTION

On November 27, 2019, Turkey signed a maritime delineation and defense cooperation agreement with the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli, dealing a heavy blow to Greece, the Greek Administration of Southern Cyprus (GASC), and Israel’s common project of constructing an underwater gas pipeline to transport the newly discovered Eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe via Greece (hence bypassing Turkey).

The agreed-upon exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf (CS) delineations cut off the prospective route of the EastMed gas pipeline and thus effectively dash any hopes for its construction.

Notwithstanding Athens and Nicosia’s strong objections (backed by the EU) that the agreedupon delineations infringe upon the Greek and Greek Cypriot CSs/EEZs, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated clearly from the very beginning that “South Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, and Israel cannot establish any natural gas pipeline in this region without Turkey’s consent.”

Ankara then pressed ahead with the defense cooperation agreement and on January 2, 2020, Turkey’s Grand National Assembly (TBMM) approved the bill authorizi to roll back the Tripoli offensive of the easternbased putschist warlord Khalifa Haftar against the Libyan government (GNA).

With the January 2020 bill, Turkey became the first foreign actor to intervene openly in the Libyan conflict upon the formal invitation of the Libyan government led by Fayez al-Sarraj. However, Turkey’s military involvement in Libya is not new.

Ankara has been covertly propping up anti-Haftar forces in the oil-rich North African country since the second half of 2014, particularly during the 2014-2017 war for Benghazi. Likewise, for over a decade, Turkey has sought to sign a maritime delineation deal with Libya to push back against Greece’s maximalist claims in the Eastern Mediterranean that assign an EEZ and CS to Greek islands also.

While the 2011 Arab Uprisings and the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya temporarily interrupted such Turkish plans, since October 2018, Ankara has insisted on concluding a maritime deal with the Libyan government.

Yet, it was only after the Russian and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed Haftar forces besieged the capital Tripoli in November 2019 that the GNA felt seriously threatened and hence asked for Turkish military support.

In return, Tripoli signed a maritime deal and defense cooperation agreement with Ankara on November 27, 2019. Turkey showed its key importance in the developments in Libya by first sponsoring (to-

gether with Russia) two diplomatic initiatives to bring forth a political solution to the Libyan crisis, the Moscow Meeting on January 13, 2020, and the Berlin Conference on January 19, 2020.

In both cases, however, Haftar acted as a spoiler by refusing to sign a cease-fire agreement. One day before the Berlin Conference, Khalifa Haftar even ordered his allied tribesmen to shut down Libya’s oil fields and export terminals in the “oil crescent,” Libya’s eastern coastal area from where around 60 percent of its crude oil is extracted and exported.

Clearly, the move was intended to pressure the Libyan government into submission by cutting its primary source of revenue and only source of foreign currency. Since then, though, Turkey has significantly upped its military supplies (including combat drones, rockets, and armored vehicles) to the Libyan government.

To date, Turkey’s gambit has paid off handsomely in terms of rolling back Haftar’s Tripoli offensive.

WHY IS TURKEY IN LIBYA?

The primary reason for Turkey’s involvement in Libya is protecting its geostrategic interests in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Since the 2010 discovery of substantial offshore natural gas deposits in the region, Turkey has faced a concerted effort by three EU member states (Greece, GASC, and France) to box it in a small corner of the Mediterranean and thus exclude Ankara from the newly discovered gas bonanza.

This “anti-Turkey front” has also been joined by three Middle Eastern states (Egypt, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates), and the two main outputs of their joint efforts until now have been the establishment on January 14, 2019, in Cairo, of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), and the East Mediterranean (EastMed) pipeline agreement signed in Athens on January 2, 2020, between Greece, GASC, and Israel.

Turkey’s intervention in Libya in support of the Libyan government then represents Ankara’s attempt to break through this “anti-Turkey front,” since from a maritime perspective the Libyan government is the only Turkish-friendly government in the region.

Not surprisingly, on the other side, all members of the “anti-Turkey front” provide political and military support to the putschist warlord Khalifa Haftar.

Most recently, the conflict lines in the Eastern Mediterranean were highlighted in a joint declaration adopted by the ministers of foreign affairs of Egypt, France, Greece, GASC, and the United Arab Emirates on May 11, 2020, which “urged Turkey to respect fully the sovereignty and the sovereign rights of all States in their maritime zones in the Eastern Mediterranean” and “strongly condemned Turkey’s military interference in Libya, and urged Turkey to fully respect the UN arms embargo, and to stop the influx of foreign fighters from Syria to Libya.”

While Ankara quickly responded to this declaration by accusing its signatories of forming an “axis of malice” and of “hypocrisy,” what is conspicuous is that Israel is not among the signatories of this declaration. This might be a sign that Turkey’s successful diplomacy and military achievements in the region might have led Israel to backtrack on its partnership with Greece and the GASC.

Indeed, recently, the Israeli chargé d’affaires in Ankara, Roey Gilad, openly declared that shared interests in containing Hezbollah in

Syria and in securing gas supplies in the Eastern Mediterranean can be the basis for re-establishing full diplomatic relations and cooperation between Ankara and Tel Aviv.

Ankara’s aim Ankara in a rapprochement with Israel is breaking through the “anti-Turkey front” in the Eastern Mediterranean (as it did with the agreements with the GNA), and using Israel to improve its relations with the U.S. Congress.

In brief, the primary reason for Turkey’s involvement in Libya is protecting its geostrategic interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. While Turkey’s geostrategic interests in the long term are mostly economic in nature, Ankara aims also to project political power in the region.

As noted in a recent article in the Guardian, “The push for control over any oil and gas in the Mediterranean basin is not really an economic project at all [in the short term]: gas supply is not a pressing need or financial imperative for Turkey yet.

This is really about the projection of political power.” From another point of view, Hasan Basri Yalçın rightly points out that with the decline of U.S. primacy globally and especially with the increasing unwillingness of the United States to become involved in the developments in the Middle East, Turkey should project an autonomous foreign policy to protect its national interests.

Turkey’s involvement in Libya is an example of Ankara’s quest for autonomy in its foreign policy. To a lesser degree, there are also two other motivations for Turkey’s involvement in Libya.

One is countering the influence of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a flimsy union of seven statelets in the Gulf, that for decades has used

and is still using its oil wealth against the democratic aspirations of the people of the Middle East and to wreak chaos in the region. Now in Libya, Abu Dhabi is again the main backer of the putschist warlord Haftar, who has not refrained from indiscriminately shelling residential areas and killing hundreds of civilians in the capital Tripoli.

By intervening in Libya in support of the UN-recognized government, Turkey showed once more that it is actually the only major global power that counters dictatorial regimes and supports majority rule in the Middle East.

Lastly, the third motivation for Turkey’s involvement in Libya, arguably the lesser among the three, is “to recoup billions of dollars in unfinished construction contracts signed under Gaddafi, and get in first when it comes to the reconstruction needed after this bout of fighting.”

Indeed, the International Crisis Group estimates that around 100 construction contracts awarded to Turkish companies during the Qaddafi era were left incomplete after the overthrow of Qaddafi in 2011, thus incurring Turkish construction companies an estimated loss of $19 billion. As such, Turkey is reportedly seeking to formalize a memorandum of understanding with the Libyan government to recoup the business losses.

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Idlir Lika is a scholar of comparative politics of ethnicity and nationalism, with a regional focus on Balkan/Southeast European countries.

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