By Ezel Sahinkaya
Turkey and Libya further strengthened their bilateral ties on Thursday in a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
During a press conference with al-Sarraj in Ankara, Erdogan said Turkey and Libya have agreed on expanding their ties, including in the Eastern Mediterranean region.
In late May, forces of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), backed by Turkey, made several advances in Libya against rival forces led by Khalifa Haftar before both sides agreed this week to return to cease-fire talks.
“History will judge those who cause bloodshed and tears in Libya by supporting putschist Haftar,” Erdoğan told reporters at the press conference.
For his part, al-Sarraj declared a final victory over Haftar forces, saying “you have been defeated in Tripoli; just accept it.”
Some experts call the series of GNA victories a turning point in Libya’s six years of civil war, with Ankara emerging as the potential dominant external player in the north African country.
Experts say Erdogan hopes to shape a Libya that can preserve Turkey’s political and economic dominance in the region.
“Turkey’s main motivation has been to prevent Libya from falling under the sway of Egypt and (the) UAE, which would have been a blow to Ankara’s geostrategic and economic interests not only in Libya itself but also in the East Mediterranean,” Nigar Goksel, Turkey director at the International Crisis Group, told VOA.
Since officially joining the war in January, Turkey has deployed its military forces and allegedly Syrian militias to Libya. Despite an arms embargo on Libya by the United Nations, Ankara has also supplied drones and air defense to the U.N.-recognized GNA.
Their involvement has been strongly condemned by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Greece, Cyprus and France. In a joint statement in May, the five countries asked Turkey “to fully respect the U.N. arms embargo, and to stop the influx of foreign fighters from Syria to Libya.”
Haftar has vowed to launch the “largest aerial campaign in Libyan history” against Turkish targets in the country. In response, Ankara has threatened “serious repercussions.”
“The rise of Ankara’s sense of urgency to secure a maritime boundary delimitation agreement with Libya coincided with the peak of Tripoli’s dire need to stave off Haftar’s forces,” said Goksel, adding that Ankara sees Libya as a gateway for influence over the Mediterranean Sea.
In November, Turkey signed a deal on the delimitation of the maritime jurisdiction areas in the Mediterranean with the GNA. The deal has further added to the frustration of its neighbors, primarily Greece and Cyprus, that contest Turkey’s drilling rights in the waters.
Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu in an interview with local broadcaster 24 TV on Wednesday said the deal provides Ankara with two objectives: “Firstly, to preserve the rights of Turkish Cypriots and, secondly, to protect our interests in our continental shelf.”
Under the deal, Turkish energy minister Fatih Dönmez announced last week, Turkey may start oil exploration in the eastern Mediterranean within three or four months.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the eastern Mediterranean contains natural gas worth approximately $700 billion. Of that reserve, Turkey — despite protest from Europe — has been drilling for natural gas off the northern coast of the divided island of Cyprus.
Meanwhile, Cyprus, Greece, and Israel are working to develop a pipeline at an estimated $7-$9 billion to transport the eastern Mediterranean gas into Europe. Turkey’s deal with Tripoli, some experts say, could obstruct the plan since the pipeline would have to cross the Turkey-Libya jurisdiction.
“The conduct of a memorandum of understanding between the GNA and Turkey recognizing the Turkish interpretation has raised ire and is a factor in the Turkish decision to provide military support for the GNA,” Tim Eaton, a senior research fellow with Chatham House, told VOA.
Turkish construction in Libya
Securing opportunities for Turkish companies in the Libyan market is yet another motive behind Ankara’s intervention in Libya, some experts charge.
Turkish businesses for decades have been involved in Libya, particularly in the construction sector, according to Kadir Ustun, the executive director of the SETA Foundation, a pro-government think-tank based in Washington.
“Turkey tried to broker a solution in the wake of the Arab Spring with the then leader of the country, Moammar Ghadafi, to secure its commercial interests as well as the safety of its more than 20,000 citizens living in Libya at the time,” Ustun told VOA.
Before Ghadafi’s fall, about a hundred Turkish construction companies reportedly signed contracts in Libya. However, due to the 2011 Arab Spring conflict, they had to leave their projects incomplete at a loss of $19 billion.
Economic and geostrategic interests are not solely to be accounted for in understanding Turkey’s extended support to GNA, however.
According to some experts, officials in Ankara hope the triumph of GNA over Haftar could establish a government in Tripoli that is ideologically conservative and in line with Ankara’s ruling Justice and Development Party.
Turkey in the past has reportedly supported the Justice and Construction Party, a Libyan Islamist group with close ties to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, to gain a foothold in the GNA.
The ideological ambition, those experts say, has put Erdogan’s government at odds with the rulers of the Arab countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who see the emergence of Islamist parties a threat to their power.
“The GNA aligned forces contain some Islamist elements committed to defeating Haftar,” said Eaton of Chatham House.
Karim Mezran, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, emphasized that the ideological differences between Turkey and several Arab countries have for years triggered a foreign policy battle not only in Libya but also in other countries such as Egypt and Qatar.
By challenging Turkey’s ideological vision, Mezran said, the Arab countries hope to prevent the establishment of Islamist regimes friendly with Ankara.
“It has been going on since 2011 when they understood that the Arab Spring may alter the political equilibrium in the region, and they decided to intervene first-hand to prevent Islamist regimes in these countries,” he told VOA.
Ezel Sahinkaya – English Analysts, Voice of America.