By Semih Idiz
Ankara has thrown in its lot with the Government of National Accord for reasons that have more to do with its own interests than Libya’s.
The consensus among Libya watchers is that Turkey’s involvement in the North African country has tipped the military balance in favor of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord headed by Prime Minister Fayez al Sarraj.
Reports that the renegade general Khalifa Hifter is on the defensive, after months of speculation regarding what some saw as his imminent grab of power over the whole of Libya, are encouraging for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on multiple levels.
This development comes at a time when his successes on the foreign policy front have been few and far between in recent years. Developments in Libya also tie in with Erdogan’s Islamist ideological ambitions.
Ever since the 2013 coup in Egypt against President Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, Erdogan has seen the Muslim Brotherhood being rolled back across the Middle East.
Erdogan stands close to the Brotherhood and is providing strong political support and shelter for its beleaguered members. Turkey’s intervention in Libya promises to prevent further losses by the Brotherhood in the region.
The Brotherhood-backed Justice and Construction Party in Libya, whose name closely resembles that of Erdogan’s own Islamist Justice and Development Party, maintains a strong position within the Government of National Accord.
With the military backing it got from Turkey, under a memorandum of understanding arrived at between the sides in November, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord gained a major boost against Hifter’s self-styled Libyan National Army based in Tobruk.
These gains also score points for Erdogan against Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which are the main regional supporters of Hifter and the Libyan National Army.
All three countries vehemently oppose the Brotherhood, which they have listed as a terrorist organization.
Turkey’s support for the Brotherhood is one of the main driving forces behind the growing cold war Ankara has with these countries as the sides vie for regional influence.
Ankara decries as “illegal” the military support these countries are providing Hifter.
Turkey argues that its military support for the Government of National Accord is legal as the entity, which asked for Ankara’s support, is recognized by the UN Security Council as the “legitimate executive authority in Libya.”
Political and military analyst Nihat Ali Ozcan said the biggest advantage Turkey has had for its overt and covert operations in Libya has been the “legitimacy” provided to the Sarraj government by the UN.
“Following the weight that Turkey brought to bear in the game, Hifter not only felt the absence of such legitimacy but also started losing his military and psychological edge,” Ozcan argued in his column for the Turkish daily Milliyet.
Military successes by the Government of National Accord also enabled Ankara to score “brownie points” against France, which is supporting Hifter politically, and against Russia, which is backing the Libyan National Army indirectly by means of the Wagner group, a Russian mercenary outfit with links to the Kremlin.
Erdogan is still smarting over the loss of face he suffered in Moscow in March, when he was forced by President Vladimir Putin into accepting a cease-fire agreement in Idlib that fell far short of Ankara’s expectations.
Putting these factors aside, what is equally if not more important for Erdogan is the fact that successes by the Government of National Accord on the battlefield also bolster the demarcation accord Ankara arrived at with Tripoli for the eastern Mediterranean in the memorandum of understanding signed in November.
Under the “shore to shore” accord, Turkey and the Government of National Accord have delimited a large swath of the eastern Mediterranean as their exclusive economic zones.
The accord cuts right through the region where Cyprus, Egypt and Israel are cooperating for energy exploration and exploitation.
Ankara says these countries are disregarding the rights that Turkey and the Turkish north of the divided Island of Cyprus have over the natural resources of the region.
Turkey has vowed to stymie the efforts of Cyprus, Egypt and Israel by any means, including military ones.
Ankara’s demarcation pact with the Government of National Accord has been condemned by the European Union and the United States, which have declared it invalid under international law, as have Egypt, Cyprus and Israel.
Turkey has disregarded these warnings and continues with its own exploration activities in the region under the protection of its navy.
The EU has imposed some minor and ultimately insignificant sanctions on Ankara, which — to the annoyance of EU members Greece and Cyprus — amount to less than a slap on the hand.
The demarcation agreement with the Government of National Accord also strengthens Erdogan’s hand against domestic critics who have criticized Turkey’s military engagement in Libya.
Meanwhile, this engagement has also provided Ankara another opportunity to showcase its military technology, especially its domestically made drones that also have been used by the Turkish military to great effect against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria.
Nevertheless, these relative successes for Erdogan have to be qualified with some important caveats regarding the long haul in Libya.
If and when international efforts for a political settlement kick in, Ankara could find itself losing the advantages it gained on the battlefield, given that its hand in Libya is unlikely to be as politically strong as its military hand appears to be today.
Ankara’s advantages in Libya are contingent on the fact that no other country is prepared to engage in that country militarily in the overt manner that Turkey has.
“Another difficulty for Hifter is his awareness that it is hard for the countries supporting him, namely Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Russia and France, to engage directly in the military conflict,” Ozcan wrote.
However, these countries, as well as others in the West and the region, are not enamored of the idea of seeing oil-rich Libya fall into the hands of Islamists.
There is the distinct risk for Ankara, therefore, that a secular government of national reconciliation negotiated for Libya under UN auspices could easily annul Turkey’s shaky memorandum of understanding with the Sarraj government.
Turkey can still try to manipulate such negotiations through its strong influence over Sarraj and his supporters, but in doing so it will become a “spoiler” rather than a proactive player that contributes to regional stability.
Such a position could undermine Turkey’s long-term interests, whatever gains it may appear to be securing in Libya today unilaterally.
Consequently, it is imperative for the Sarraj government to remain at the helm in Libya if Ankara is to maintain the advantages it secured with the memorandum of understanding it signed with Tripoli.
The only thing Erdogan can rely on in this respect, at least for the time being, is the fact that a political settlement for Libya is nowhere in sight due to the clashing interests of outside powers with a finger in the Libyan pie.
A far more immediate threat to Erdogan’s ambitions in Libya is the possibility that the country will be divided into two — or even three — now that Hifter appears to be having difficulties with domestic groups that have supported him.
Mehmet Ali Guller, a foreign policy commentator for the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, believes developments on the ground are pointing at a division. “Such an outcome will effectively annul the demarcation accord Turkey arrived at with the Sarraj government,” Guller wrote in reference to the division of the Mediterranean.
“The reason is that the line of demarcation that has been drawn does not fall on the Sarraj side but on the other side [which is controlled by Hifter]. This is why the unity of Libya is important mostly for Turkey,” Guller added.
To help maintain this unity, however, Turkey has to be an impartial player in Libya. It has, however, thrown in its lot with the Government of National Accord for reasons that have more to do with its own interests than Libya’s.
This could be the rock that Erdogan’s plans and expectations in Libya founder on in the end.
Semih Idiz is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse. He is a journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years. His articles have been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.