By Mustafa Gurbuz

Turkey’s preparations to deploy troops in Libya to buttress the United Nations-supported Government of National Accord (GNA) against General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) have sent shockwaves in all directions.

The Turkish parliament has indeed approved the government’s request to send troops to the North African country.

Ankara and Tripoli have signed two separate agreements: one on maritime boundaries that strengthens Turkey’s posture in the eastern Mediterranean, and another on military cooperation that provides support to the GNA. 

The agreements have angered not only the material supporters of the LNA’s armed campaign—namely Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates—but also Greece, Cyprus, the European Union (EU), and Israel, all of which accuse Turkey of unlawfully blocking Cyprus’s right to explore gas reserves and trying to drill within the Greek Cypriots’ exclusive economic zone. 

Turkey is also accused of introducing new dynamics to the Libyan question.

The competitive diplomacy on both sides is extraordinary. With support from France and Italy, Greek officials met with General Haftar while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan made a surprise visit to Tunisia.

The issue will receive even more global attention in the near future: the EU’s High Representative and the foreign ministers of Italy, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom will meet with the GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli.

President Donald Trump will host the prime minister of Greece; and a critical meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdoǧan is forthcoming.

Next month will also witness the United Nations’ peace conference on Libya for which the major stakeholders are planning to convene in Berlin.

For the warring parties, creating new realities on the ground with military muscle may trump diplomacy. 

The GNA insists on the withdrawal of Haftar’s forces before any ceasefire can be announced. In the past few years, diplomatic meetings on the Libyan crisis have barely yielded fruit. 

Turkish boots are now fully mobilized in the service of the Government of National Accord but escalating tensions in the Mediterranean over energy resources may actually harm both Ankara and Tripoli.

Turkish boots are now fully mobilized in the service of the Government of National Accord but escalating tensions in the Mediterranean over energy resources may actually harm both Ankara and Tripoli.

What Does Turkey Really Want in Libya?

General Haftar’s push to capture Tripoli with the help of Russian mercenaries as well as Emirati-supplied drones has cornered the GNA leadership, which perceives Turkey as a lifeline.

In the past year, Turkey has provided a dozen combat drones to the Tripoli government for conducting counteroffensives. In addition to geopolitical calculations, Turkey has long pursued economic interests in oil-rich Libya.

Turkish companies want to save their outstanding contracts—worth $19 billion—which were threatened by the conflict. In addition, Tripoli’s war cartel economy encourages illicit transfers and money laundering in Turkey.

Although Russian intervention in the Libyan war is not new, Moscow’s recent escalation bid looks like a strategic calculation—reminiscent of its heavy intervention in the Syrian conflict to change the trajectory of the conflict there.

Wagner, a military contractor company that operates under the directives of the Russian security services, along with other mercenary-suppliers have helped to invigorate the LNA’s attacks on the outskirts of Tripoli. Despite strong warnings from Washington, Haftar has chosen to intensify the attacks in the past few weeks.

Seizing the opportunity to fill another vacuum in the geopolitical power game, Putin may lead an Astana-like process in Libya thanks to Erdoǧan. By also driving a deeper rift between Turkey and European Union, Russia is also a geopolitical winner in such a scenario.

Seizing the opportunity to fill another vacuum in the geopolitical power game, Putin may lead an Astana-like process in Libya thanks to Erdoǧan.

Accordingly, Russia and Turkey may expect to benefit from their protective status over the conflicting parties. 

Given that Ankara-Moscow transaction deals over Syria are still ongoing and Turkey appears to be the weaker side in what is transpiring in Idlib province, such an engagement would primarily serve Russia’s interests.

For Erdoğan, who is always prioritizing the short-run benefit calculations, opening this Libya chapter may provide what he urgently needs from Moscow: to postpone the looming border refugee crisis in Idlib and to gain ground against Kurds in northern Syria. 

Moreover, Erdoǧan may enjoy positive domestic outcomes as a national leader against the “united enemies” in the Mediterranean Sea. 

By also driving a deeper rift between Turkey and European Union, Russia is also a geopolitical winner in such a scenario.

In his opening ceremony for Turkey’s first locally produced submarine, Erdoǧan’s emphasis was not on Islamic brotherhood with Libyans in Tripoli. Instead, with a nationalist tone, he offered a justification for getting involved in the Libyan war by referring to modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, and criticizing Greece’s policies and its allies in the eastern Mediterranean. 

Showing their strength, Turkish naval forces recently held exercises with the Algerian navy and conducted a commemoration ceremony for a former Ottoman governor of Algiers.

With the new agreements, and by establishing a maritime axis between Turkey’s southwest coast and the Derna coast in Libya, Ankara seeks to block the pipeline projects of the Cyprus-Greece-Egypt-Israel nexus while securing its interests in the Libyan war dynamics.

Given that the Derna coast is under the control of Haftar’s forces, however, Turkey will face real challenges as Ankara’s assumption that the GNA is the only legitimate representative of the Libyan government does not match with the realities on the ground.

Ankara seeks to block the pipeline projects of the Cyprus-Greece-Egypt-Israel nexus while securing its interests in the Libyan war dynamics.

Can Libya Help Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean Power Game? 

In the past few years, Turkey has increasingly found itself isolated in the Mediterranean due to an emerging block of energy cooperation led by Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel.

Soon after becoming president, Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has been holding meetings with Greek and Cypriot officials to reach a deal on importing natural gas from Cyprus.

With strong cooperation with Israel, Cairo recently led the efforts to establish the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, which particularly excluded Turkey.

The politics of natural gas in the Mediterranean is relatively recent.

Since 2009, a series of large natural gas discoveries have revived the Turkish-Greek dispute regarding the status of the island of Cyprus.

Turkey does not recognize the government of the Republic of Cyprus, rejecting the unilateral representation of the island by Greek Cypriots.

On the other hand, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which was formed following Turkey’s military intervention in 1974, is not officially recognized in the international arena.

Ankara insists that Greek Cypriots can neither conclude gas pipeline agreements nor issue licenses for exploration of natural resources without the consent of Turkish Cypriots on the island.

In 2011, Turkey signed the Continental Shelf Delimitation Agreement with TRNC to declare the “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) of the Turkish side, claiming most of the EEZ that was already claimed by the Republic of Cyprus.

Turkey has regularly conducted naval exercises in and around Cypriot drilling sites to show its commitment to the rights of Turkish Cypriots.

In 2018, Turkish warships blocked the drilling vessel of an Italian energy company that was hired by Greek Cypriots, angering Greece.

Turkey has also started to send drillships to operate in the contested zones. The EU was quick to condemn Turkey’s military activities and responded with some sanctions for its “illegal” drilling.

The EU financially supports the construction of a gas pipeline that connects Cypriot and Israeli gas through Greece to southern Europe.

Such a pipeline, however, may not be feasible after the recent Ankara-Tripoli agreement. The agreement aimed to defend Ankara’s long historical thesis that Turkey should be allocated a maritime space commensurate with the length of its longest coast line in the eastern Mediterranean.

From the Turkish perspective, three Greek islands—Rhodes, Karpathos, and Crete—do not have a continental shelf and, therefore, Greece cannot claim EEZ rights for these islands.

Turkey’s Libya agreement is based on these premises, ensuring that Turkish and Libyan EEZ join together south of the island of Crete, thus effectively cutting the connection between Cyprus and Europe.

Still, this is contingent on the GNA’s ability to control the country’s east.

Turkish Boots in Libya: A Slippery Slope?

The Ankara-Tripoli pact may turn into a slippery slope for Turkish military involvement in another endless war.

In defense of Tripoli, Turkey has been delivering armored vehicles and armed drones with a contract of $350 million worth of military equipment. 

Sending Turkish soldiers and navy personnel to Libya, however, is a serious commitment. But convincing Syrians to fight for Libya’s freedom is not an easy sell for the Turkish government, especially when Idlib is currently under intense fire by the Assad regime.

The Syrian Revolutionaries Association, for example, declared that “this deviation is tantamount to mercenary work and a betrayal of the blood of the martyrs and of the Syrian revolution.”

The Ankara-Tripoli pact may turn into a slippery slope for Turkish military involvement in another endless war.

It is still unclear how Turkey will handle the air power dominance of the United Arab Emirates in the Libyan war. Compared to the Turkish Bayraktar drones, the Chinese-made Wing Loong II version supplied by the United Arab Emirates has stronger capabilities, delivering heavier payloads of explosive ordnance against ground targets.

In the ongoing competition for air superiority, Turkey better not fail to supply an effective air defense capability for the GNA; otherwise, Tripoli may not be able to escape Haftar’s onslaught.

Beyond the UAE, Turkish ground operations will be challenged by a number of countries including Egypt, Jordan, France, and Russia—all of which provide substantial military support to Haftar’s LNA. 

Saudi Arabia is also positioned on Haftar’s side, pledging tens of millions of dollars for his success. Although securing Qatar’s help is a win for Ankara, the Turkish economy may face troubles in a prolonged civil conflict, as the Turkish army is already overstretched due to the Syrian war.

Unlike in Syria, Turkey does not have a territorial proximity advantage—such escalation dominance obviously belongs to Egypt in the Libyan context.

Declaring the matter as “a national security” issue, Egyptian President el-Sisi issued strong warnings to Turkey. Cairo may offer strategic locations for the UAE’s fighter jets to bomb the opposition targets, and if needed, to intercept Turkish arms shipments.

Washington’s Critical Weight

The trajectory of Ankara-Tripoli relations will be shaped by Washington’s policy line on two fronts. First, Turkey welcomes the Trump Administration’s increasing warnings against General Haftar to stop his assaults on the GNA. 

Washington is especially troubled about the role of Russian mercenaries and Moscow’s military involvement to exercise more control over Haftar’s LNA. 

These worries have outweighed earlier sentiments of Trump’s White House to support the general’s war against so called “extremism.” 

By equating the Muslim Brotherhood affiliation with terrorism, Egypt and United Arab Emirates previously found their echo with former National Security Advisor John Bolton and like-minded US officials who are not happy with the Tripoli government. 

While Ankara may benefit from Washington’s recent skepticism of Haftar, Turkey’s military support to the GNA will raise eyebrows in the United States—as the Turkish involvement could exacerbate the tensions on both sides and, thus, provide Russia a bigger role to play in Libya.

Similarly, on the Mediterranean politics front, Washington-Ankara relations will have yet another test. Trump recently signed the congressional resolution that ends the arms embargo of the Republic of Cyprus—which was in place since 1987.

The careful reading of the legislation—which was passed as part of an annual appropriations budget package—indicates a desire for a broader policy blueprint in the Mediterranean.

References were made to:

(1) making the United States a key player in the natural gas market; (2) supporting deliberations among Israel, Greece, and Cyprus; and (3) warning against Russia’s ambitions.

Such a rapprochement between the United States and Greek Cypriots is most worrisome for Turkey, especially in light of its commitment to the Tripoli government.

Ankara began to consider establishing a naval base in Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus and is now surveying a suitable location.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s upcoming visit to Cyprus for “unification talks” of the island will also stir Turkey as Ankara is not empathetic to the idea in the current context.

The same congressional resolution also introduced US sanctions to impede “TurkStream,” a Russia-Turkey natural gas pipeline across the Black Sea to Europe, by penalizing pipe-laying vessels and conducting asset freezes and the revocation of US visas for the contractors.

On their critical meeting over Libya on January 8, Erdoǧan and Putin inaugurated the TurkStream pipeline. Despite strategic and limited cooperation, however, Moscow is no ally to Ankara on energy geopolitics; from Cyprus to Libya, Russian interests clash fully with Turkish interests, especially considering the Russia-Syria joint exploration for hydrocarbons in the Mediterranean. 

Ankara is likely to get more heat from both Moscow and Washington in the new power game over energy resources.

From the Johnson Letter of 1964 to the American arms embargo on Turkey in 1975, US-Turkey historical relations were most challenged by Turkey’s frequent clashes with Greece over Cyprus.

The Trump Administration faces yet another test to draw a fine line as anti-Americanism has been growing in Turkey.

Risky Business

By doubling down in Libya, Ankara shows that it firmly believes in its right to defend Turkish national interests in the Mediterranean.

With the current heightened tensions, however, the Turkish government’s bid may backfire. Provoked by Turkish involvement, outside supporters to Haftar’s LNA may choose to up the ante as they enjoy escalation dominance over Turkey.

Moreover, if Italy—as the key European supporter of the GNA—considers the natural gas pipeline dynamics outside the Libyan context, the Tripoli government’s legitimacy may be threatened.

As a beneficiary of the Israel-Greece-Cyprus energy nexus, Rome’s interests do not align with Ankara. Thus, despite good intentions, Turkey’s risky move may cause harm to the Tripoli government.


Mustafa Gurbuz is a non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC (ACW). His research examines political violence and terrorism, ethnic/sectarian politics in Syria and Iraq, countering violent extremism, Turkish foreign policy, and Kurdish movements. He is a policy fellow in the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University and teaches Middle East politics at American University in Washington, DC.


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