By Ferhat Polat
Turkey’s involvement in Libya is based on humanitarian grounds, which allows it to play a positive role in finding a resolution to the conflict in the country.
More than seven years since Gaddafi was toppled, Libya still faces severe political and social difficulties of the democratic transition. The toppling of the Gaddafi government created a number of domestic, regional and international problems.
Turkey has a strong desire to establish good political, economic and cultural relations with all African nations. Libya is one of the gateways to Africa, stretching from the north to the middle of the continent. Therefore, Turkey has always tried to maintain a strong relationship with Libya.
Turkish investors have poured billions of dollars into the construction sector in Libya. According to Turkish newspaper Hurriyet the total value of the 304 contracts that Turkish business firms are involved in, and could not complete due to the civil war, is around $15 billion. However, some of the projects were at the stage of completion, but Turkish companies could not collect their dues and left the country.
The Turkish government had a reasonably good relationship with the Gaddafi government, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan was Prime Minister, he stated that the Libyan internal problems must be solved internally through dialogue and consultation.
The Turkish government showed an interest in maintaining the existing balance with the Gaddafi government. Initially, Ankara objected to NATO’s intervention, however, this approach changed as Turkey witnessed the deteriorating situation. As a consequence, Turkey took part in the operation with NATO.
Libya’s complex political and security environment has presented a number of difficulties. Libya now has three centres of power. The first is the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) which is based in Tripoli and headed by Fayez al-Sarraj. In spite of being internationally recognised as Libyan’s legitimate political entity, the GNA has failed to extend its authority much beyond its base in Tripoli.
The second power centre is a compromise between Tobruk and Bayda-based authorities which also function under the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). The Tobruk and Bayda authorities are under the control of General Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA), who considers himself as an ‘anti-Islamist’ figure backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and ever-increasing Russian support.
Military influence is equally fragmented with Haftar who has been holding a divisive position in eastern Libya. The last in the power struggle is the Tripoli-based Government of National Salvation (GNS) which is under the control of Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell.
The stabilisation of Libya must be the primary goal of any international engagement. However, many countries that are involved in the peace process have pushed their interests to manipulate developments on the ground. Such self-serving actions led to greater uncertainty and impeded a quick resolution to the crisis.
Many Libyan dissidents have fled to Turkey with many living in Istanbul. Turkey seems to be a favoured destination for those at risk in countries like Libya, Syria and even those from the Gulf States.
Istanbul may host as many as 1.2 million Arabs. Many Arab websites, satellite-TV stations and think tanks are based in Turkey. Istanbul’s Arab Media Association now counts 850 journalists as members.
Turkey wants to be part of the peace process in Libya. The Turkish government seems to be concerned with other countries exploiting Libya’s instability for economic gain. Ankara’s efforts are aimed at encouraging the international community to help de-escalate tension in Libya, as well as finding a way to establish stability. Thus, the Turkish approach to the Libyan issue is distinctive because it stems from a humanitarian perspective, not just from economic interests.
The Palermo Conference was a two-day long conference in 2018 to discuss the United Nations policy concerning the Libyan peace process. The event was an opportunity for Italy to try to take a leading role in the Libyan peace process.
Turkey, which plays a crucial role in the region was invited. Its delegation was headed by Vice President Fuat Oktay. However, the event ended on a sour note for Turkey, who withdrew from the conference after finding out that there was a meeting hosted by the Prime Minister of Italy in Palermo, to which the Turkish delegation was not invited.
Vice President Fuat Oktay walked out after Libyan warlord General Haftar joined a meeting on the side of the conference with his United Nations-backed rival Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al Sarraj and other leaders, but not Turkey.
Such petty politicking is counterproductive. Ankara has been willing to work with all Libyan protagonists, as well as European countries, NATO allies and more particularly with neighbouring countries, such as Algeria, Tunisia, Chad, Sudan, and others.
A pragmatic approach is essential to find a political resolution to the conflict, but equally important is the representation of all forces in this process. Excluding any regional actors will only diminish the prospects of a comprehensive peace deal in Libya.
Ferhat Polat is a Deputy Researcher at the TRT World Research Centre. He is a PhD researcher in North African Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Exeter with a particular focus on Turkish Foreign Policy.