By Jalel Harchaoui
Through a historical analysis of Turkey’s military intervention in Libya, this essay identifies the various motivations, reasoning, and threat perceptions underlying Ankara’s current Libya strategy.
On January 2, 2020, the Turkish parliament approved an official intervention in Libya.
A few weeks earlier, on November 27, 2019, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had convinced the Government of National Accord (GNA), the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, to sign a maritime memorandum with Ankara.
The as-yet-ratified document declared a 16-nautical-mile-wide corridor from southwest Turkey to northeast Libya as an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that ignores the rights of Greece.
In return, through a security memorandum, Turkey committed to defending Tripoli and launched an operation whose primary tactical objective was to put an end to the then-eight-month-long attack waged on the capital by the eastern Libyan-based rebel commander Khalifa Haftar’s armed coalition.
By late spring 2020, the Turkish-backed forces aligned with the northwestern Libya.
The warlord’s discomfiture elicited stark comments from several capitals. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), the principal booster of Haftar’s military campaign since 2014, denounced Turkey’s Libya move, saying that Ankara “undermined efforts to reach a peaceful solution [there] and destabilized the entire region.”
France and Greece, too, issued a harsh condemnation, while neither Washington nor Moscow issued a firm statement.
The imperturbable frequency at which the Turks have sent military cargo flights and consolidated their assets in Libya after Haftar’s defeat is a reminder that they have no intention to leave within the foreseeable future. It is therefore worthwhile to study the events and rationale that gave rise to Ankara’s November 2019 memoranda.
THE 2020 INTERVENTION WAS NOT ENTIRELY NEW
The numerous declarations lately portraying Turkey as a disrupter within the Libyan theater can easily cause observers to forget that in February-March 2011, when popular uprisings broke out against Gaddafi, Ankara was opposed to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its Gulf partners going to war against the Libyan autocrat’s regime.
Turkey’s closeness to Gaddafi had first burgeoned when he backed Turkey’s 1974 invasion of northern Cyprus, and economic activity between Libya and Turkey grew over the subsequent years.
That growth accelerated after a diplomatic deal with the United States in 2003 helped lift international sanctions on Libya amid an era of high oil prices. Also, when Libya declared an EEZ in May 2009, and signaled that it was open to international agreements, Turkey’s interest was piqued.
By early 2011, Turkish companies had over $20 billion of outstanding projects there, mostly in construction, engineering, and energy. These enormous economic interests suffice to explain why Turkey first tried to oppose the intervention.
After American insistence helped convince Turkey to renounce using its veto and join the NATO operation, the Justice and Development Party-led (AKP) government came to appreciate the aura and ideological advantage it possessed in post-Gaddafi Libya.
Its brand of modernist, semi-democratic Islamic populism is, in several regards, akin to that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Between 2011 and 2013, the Egyptian and Syrian crises brought Qatar and Turkey closer together, as both propped up Islamist currents there.
Libyan Islamists also played a role in Syria at that time, working with Doha and Ankara on undermining the Bashar al-Assad government. Those connections have remained ever since, and Erdogan, despite his ideological versality during the last decade, hasn’t ceased to support reformist, bottom-up Sunni Islam in Arab countries.
This, however, is not to say that strengthening the Muslim Brotherhood is a Turkish objective unto itself. Rather, it is the other way around. In order to advance its geopolitical agenda in the region, Ankara instrumentalizes its sway over, and proximity to, Islamist networks in Arab countries like Libya.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood was never very popular in Libya, the 2011 war against Gaddafi catapulted a number proponents of political Islam into positions of power.
Separately, deep historical ties bind Libya’s west coast to Turkey.
The rise of Abu Dhabi as a major regional actor in 2013 was yet another factor for Qatari-Turkish collaboration. Indeed, in the years following the Arab Uprisings, the UAE along with several other U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France, and Jordan, ramped up their hostility to the notion that citizen initiative and activism should be tolerated in the Middle East and North Africa, regardless of whether that reformist thrust against traditional authoritarianism involves extremist or moderate methods.
In Libya, Turkey’s support for a motley spectrum of Islamist and revolutionary forces took on a military dimension in the second half of 2014 when Haftar’s campaign against all Islamist groups in Benghazi started showing signs of resilience.
Ankara’s interference in those years wasn’t massive, nor did it reflect a systematic policy. It manifested mainly with Ankara’s laissez-faire attitude, which turned a blind eye whenever Libyan actors based in Turkey shipped weapons to Islamist brigades committed to fighting Haftar’s armed coalition.
In the two years leading up to Haftar’s April 2019 offensive against Tripoli, interference emanating from Turkey diminished. In that
period, when the hardline revolutionaries and radical Islamists weren’t killed, they were arrested or forced to leave the country by more centrist militias in Tripolitania. As a result, the Libyan figures living in Turkey were now more in passive exile than plotting any new moves.
The Turkish state itself had neither a clear Libya policy, nor a workable point of entry.
For instance, in November 2018, a few days before the peace conference that took place in Palermo, Italy, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar visited GNA officials in Tripoli and presented them with maritime maps meant to highlight Greece’s alleged attempts to encroach upon Libya’s continental shelf.
He was ignored. The Tripoli authorities deemed it out of the question to enter any form of maritime arrangement that would alienate Greece, Cyprus, and, perhaps, the entire European Union.
But the frontal assault by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) on Tripoli in April 2019 acted as a systemic shock that would change everyone’s outlook. That same month, the UAE, eager to offset the LNA’s frailty on the ground, initiated a substantial campaign of air strikes on the greater Tripoli area.
The Emirati bombs helped contain the GNA’s forces, but never managed to propel Haftar into the heart of the capital. Turkey, seeing no meaningful institution on the international stage decry the UAE’s military intervention, responded by imitating it.
After making sure Tripoli would fund the effort, Ankara deployed Bayraktar TB2 drones and several dozen Turkish officers to operate them on behalf of the GNA. Starting in September 2019, the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked mercenary company, sent hundreds of Russian fighters to the frontline south of Tripoli to assist Haftar’s coalition in attacking the GNA-aligned forces.
In October 2019, owing to a combination of technical and politically motivated reasons, Turkey’s clandestine mission in Libya ceased altogether for several weeks. It resumed only after a friendless, existentially threatened Tripoli signed the maritime memorandum it had declined to consider several times over the preceding months.
Once the signature was obtained, Erdogan rolled out a much more comprehensive, more overt military intervention in Tripolitania.
AFTER THE TRIPOLI BATTLE WAS WON
Since the Turkish-backed GNA expelled Haftar’s armed coalition from northwestern Libya in June 2020, the territorial divide between the two main camps has been static.
The fault line goes from the city of Sirte, located in the middle of Libya’s littoral, to Jufrah Airbase 260 kilometers to the south; this line essentially separates the southwestern part of the country from its northwest.
The lull since June has in large part been attributable to continued work by Wagner, coordinating tightly with the UAE. Both the Russians and the Emiratis continued interfering and sending equipment.
As part of that effort to dissuade Turkish-backed forces from venturing into the east or the south, the Russians even introduced a dozen fighter jets piloted by mercenaries.
Seemingly unfazed, Turkey used the multi-month pause since June to entrench its presence in northwest Libya. Turkish assets are now substantial and include two full-blown, permanent military bases and about 3,000 Syrian mercenaries. On the financial front, Ankara has shown an acute interest in Tripoli’s coffers.
This was manifest when, in August 2020, it signed an undisclosed agreement with the dollar-rich Central Bank of Libya. The same anxiousness to collect economic dividends helps explain Turkey’s temporary dovishness toward:
(1) Russia, knowing that Moscow did pressure Haftar into lifting his nine-month-long blockade on oil exports, and
(2) the UN’s attempts to bring about the formation of a new government of national unity that would be accepted across Libya.
The Turks’ thinking assumes that such an arrangement would allow for an indirect sharing of the country’s resources. The other major driver behind Turkey’s relative willingness to see the UN succeed in this delicate undertaking is its maritime campaign in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In that regard, Ankara views as imperative and strategic the survival of an internationally recognized government in Libya that is friendly to it. By the same token, Ankara also needs to prevent a de jure partition of the country.
Despite the modicum of restraint shown by Turkey, its proclivity for hard power and obstinate determination to maintain a permanent military mission may compromise its political objectives with the UN and vis-à-vis some moderate Libyan currents.
One reason Turkey is unlikely to accept reducing its military entrenchment in Tripolitania is related to lands beyond Libya’s borders. By securing a footprint in northwest Libya, Ankara is in the process of slowly acquiring a passageway into the Sahel and the rest of Africa.
Indeed, the African market’s paramount importance will only keep growing over the coming decades for Turkey’s construction companies and export-oriented manufacturers.
Jalel Harchaoui is a Senior Fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.