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.

PART (II)

IS THERE A WAY OUT OF THE MORASS?

The fiasco of Haftar’s Tripoli offensive showed that there cannot be a military solution to the Libyan conflict.

No one actor can assert control over the whole country. International stakeholders (EU, Russia, Turkey, U.S., UN) should instead use Haftar’s Tripoli fiasco and the impending capture of Sirte by Turkish-backed GNA forces to intensify their diplomatic efforts to find a political solution to the Libyan crisis.

What is needed is a process that reconfigures the current legitimate political institutions (the GNA and the HoR), tackles the security issue by removing the militias from both sides, and puts in place badly needed economic reforms as well.

This three-track process is crucial in order to bring stability and order back to Libya. It should be emphasized that the major flaw of the 2015 UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (i.e. the Skhirat Agreement) was that it did not include security and economic tracks.

Skhirat was only a political agreement: it only created an internationally recognized rump executive (i.e. the GNA) and officially endorsed the parliament that had been popularly elected in 2014 (i.e. HoR).

Apart from that, Skhirat left key security questions unaddressed by leaving out militia representatives from both sides of the conflict and

by not including economic stakeholders. Skhirat even left the tribes out of the talks, which was a major mistake since the tribes are an important social and political constituency in Libya.

In brief, any new internationally mediated political agreement must address all three tracks, namely political, security, and economical.

Actually, the Berlin Conference of January 19, 2020, had already acknowledged this necessity by proposing a three-track negotiation package: political, financial, and military.

Until now, however, different rounds of Geneva-based negotiations on all three tracks have either collapsed or proved to be inconsequential, mainly due to the intransigent behavior of the renegade warlord Haftar.

This suggests that a prerequisite for finding a lasting political solution to the Libyan crisis is “to send the incompetent renegade Haftar and his sons into a comfortable exile.” Indeed, as a GNA colonel recently told Al Jazeera, We will not negotiate with Haftar.

The killing of civilians, displacement of hundreds of thousands, and the destruction of homes and infrastructure is his responsibility. After we win this battle, we must sit at the table and come up with a political solution. But eastern Libya must bring forth other individuals that we can negotiate with.

Russia’s deployment of 14 fighter jets to eastern Libya one week after the GNA’s capture of al-Watiya, although still officially denied by Moscow, is clearly a move to counterbalance the aerial superiority of Turkish-backed GNA forces and increase Moscow’s bargaining power.

Additionally, the recent Russian move also sends the message that Russia wants the Libyan crisis to evolve gradually toward a Syria-like scenario where Ankara would have no other choice but to seek cooperation with Moscow to settle the conflict in Libya.

In such a scenario though, the EU and NATO should stand by Turkey’s side and should not repeat their strategic blunder in Idlib. On the one hand, NATO should realize that “if Russia obtains bases in Libya and introduces long-range weapons systems, it would pose a significant security risk to the southern flank of NATO.”

As far as the EU is concerned, as Tarek Megerisi aptly puts it, European states – particularly Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom – should press France and Greece to escape Haftar’s sinking ship.

Europe’s window of opportunity in Libya is closing. It needs to move fast if it is to forcefully protect its interests and its role as a barrier against Russian encroachment into the country, while preventing the development of another Syria-style conflict in its neighbourhood.

However, France is actually the main obstacle to a unified, common EU and NATO approach toward the Libyan crisis as it staunchly opposes Turkey’s involvement there and continues its support for the putschist Haftar.

Recently, Paris significantly upped its aggressive rhetoric toward Ankara by calling its military support of the Libyan government a “dangerous game” and threatening fresh EU sanctions.

Equally important, on June 20, 2020, France (together with the UAE) is thought to have pushed Egypt to warn that its forces would intervene in Libya if the Turkish-backed GNA crossed the Sirte-Jufra frontline.

This clearly represents only a deterrent move since even Egyptian military experts argue that Egypt will not engage in a major war in Libya just to fulfill the strategic agenda of the UAE and/or France.

Finally, regardless of the form of the final political settlement in Libya, Ankara should have two main priorities, which are actually interrelated.

First, to ensure that the GNA retains the key role in any future political and security arrangement in Libya, and second, to be assured that the maritime delimitation deal it signed with the GNA remains intact.

It would be of course highly desirable if Turkey can establish a long-term military presence at al-Watiya Air Base and a naval presence in Misrata, since the most certain way Turkey can secure its geopolitical interests in the Eastern Mediterranean in the long term is by having a long-term military and naval presence in western Libya.

Last but not least, as already mentioned above, the solution process in Libya must also include an economic track (in addition to the political and military/security tracks), and Turkey must make sure it takes a leading role in the post-conflict economic reconstruction of Libya.

Indeed, as both President Erdoğan and Libya’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj agreed upon during their recent meeting in Ankara on June 4, 2020, the postconflict cooperation between Turkey and Libya shall not be limited to energy, but shall be “multidimensional,” including Turkish investments in various areas of civilian infrastructure.

Such a commitment was reconfirmed during the of-ficial visit of a high-level Turkish delegation to Tripoli two weeks later, on June 17, 2020.

CONCLUSION

On May 27, 2020, on the 60th anniversary of the brutal military coup that executed then Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and two of his ministers, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan officially opened the “Democracy and Freedoms Island” (the new name of Yassıada Island in Istanbul where the shameful tribunals took place 60 years ago) as a platform to condemn the legacy in Turkish history of illegitimate usurpations of power by the military.

Breaking the tutelage of the military, judiciary, and bureaucracy (i.e. the three unelected components of any political system) over elected officials in Turkey is undoubtedly one of the major achievements of President Erdoğan.

Another major achievement of the Turkish president is transforming Turkey into a formidable military power.

The Libya intervention of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) is Turkey’s fifth successful transborder military operation since August 2016, the other four being Operation Euphrates Shield (August 2016-March 2017), Operation Olive Branch (January 2018), Operation Peace Spring (October-November 2019), and Operation Spring Shield (February-March 2020) in northern Syria.

The TSK’s stunning military successes on the ground have leveraged Turkey’s hand at the negotiating table concerning Syria.

Now, in Libya, Turkey has once more showcased its military capabilities by rolling back the advance of the renegade warlord Khalifa Haftar and by assisting the Libyan government in capturing the strategically important al-Watiya Air Base and Tarhuna.

Thus, Turkey is again in a position to use the military achievements on the ground to influence a political settlement in Libya that protects its geostrategic interests.

Accordingly, Ankara should ensure that the GNA retains the key role in any future political and security arrangement, and that the maritime delimitation deal it signed with the GNA 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 U.S. to its side.

SUMMARY

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 protectingits 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.

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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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