High-level delegations from Turkey pay frequent visits to the Libyan capital Tripoli.
Most recently, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu attended critical meetings alongside Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Güler and National Intelligence Organization (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan.
Ankara wants Libya’s transition to succeed and offers significant support to Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah’s Government of National Accord (GNA).
Still, it is a challenge for members of the GNA cabinet to visit Benghazi.
Putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who attempted to overthrow the legitimate government, may have been reduced to a secondary figure, but he hasn’t given up.
He is still on the lookout for fresh opportunities.
As such, high-level visits must continue, actively, until Libya holds a new election and the Libyan people decide who will carry their country forward.
For the Libyan prime minister, who seeks to strike a balance of power between the various foreign governments with vested interests in his country, Ankara’s support is critically important.
Let us remember that Haftar, backed by France, Egypt, Russia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), nearly captured Tripoli just 18 months ago.
A new wave of refugees could have reached the gates of Europe. Turkey and Libya changed the course of the civil war by signing two agreements in November 2019 on maritime delimitation and military cooperation.
The transition process, which pleases many European governments today, was made possible by Turkey’s intervention.
Ankara’s involvement made things easier for Germany and Italy, while France was forced to take a step back.
Nowadays, Turkey and Egypt exchange views on their mutual interests in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Yet a challenging process lies ahead for Libya.
A political structure must be created to keep the country’s western, eastern and southern provinces unified.
Other items on Tripoli’s agenda include infrastructure projects, improving municipal services and the formation of a standing army.
The removal of Russian, Sudanese and Chadian mercenaries, too, is key to stability.
The United Nations and European governments rely on diplomacy to facilitate the withdrawal of foreign fighters and mercenaries, including the Turkish military, Wagner Group and other militias.
But who should really leave Libya?
The Turkish presence
Within the framework of the cease-fire agreement and the Berlin Conference, the withdrawal of foreign powers does not apply to the Turkish military presence in Libya.
After all, the Turkish military operates in the country per the bilateral treaty of 2019.
Provided that Libya’s government upholds that agreement, there is no basis to compare the Turkish troops with the Wagner Group or other mercenaries.
Indeed, Çavuşoğlu made that case very clearly in Berlin, stating: “There are many foreign fighters and mercenaries in Libya. We agree that they must leave.”
“It does not serve Libya’s interests, however, to cease much-needed support, such as military training and advice, which is delivered on the basis of a treaty between two sovereign nations. It would be wrong for third parties to meddle in such bilateral agreements.”
Ankara tells others to stop pushing for Turkish troops to leave just so the Wagner Group will withdraw, warning that such pressure could undermine the progress made in Libya.
Why should Turkish troops remain in Libya though? Keeping in mind that the folks in Benghazi still find it difficult to transfer power to the GNA, Turkey’s military should be providing both training and advice to help establish a standing army, rather than leave.
In other words, the Turkish military presence contributes to the Libyan army’s development and keeps Haftar’s influence at bay.
It also protects the fragile transition process and prevents Russia from gaining more ground and building new bases.
The fact that Turkey, a NATO ally, voluntarily assumes the role serves the interests of both the European Union and the United States.
Calls for the withdrawal of Turkish troops, designed to curb Turkey’s potential influence over the Libyan election, would certainly undermine peace, security and stability in the country.
Will Turkey withdraw troops from Libya?
Along with the first meeting between senior Turkish and Egyptian diplomats in Cairo since 2013, the past week’s two other most important diplomatic events were the visits of Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to Libya and Germany.
The participation of Defense Minister Hulusi Akar in the Libya visit made the talks in Tripoli all the more important and comprehensive.
The most crucial point of the Ankara-Tripoli talks was revealed by a statement from Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush at the joint press conference with Çavuşoğlu on May 4: “We call on [Turkey] to take steps to implement all the provisions of … the Security Council resolutions and to cooperate to expel all foreign forces and mercenaries from Libyan territories,” she said.
Mangoush is the top diplomat of the recently established Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU) under the leadership of Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah and Presidential Council head Mohammed al-Menfi, both of whom have the very difficult task of guiding Libya to elections in December.
However, the problems between Tripoli and the eastern power center of Benghazi are still very deep as Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the military leader of the eastern forces, has not hesitated to obstruct the inter-Libyan peace process.
Recently, Dbeibah had to cancel his trip to Benghazi after Haftar troops cordoned off Benina Airport and prevented the prime minister’s plane from landing. It also appears that Haftar is not taking a positive stance on fully implementing the current political transition agreement.
Supported by the Wagner Group and other mercenaries, Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is also an issue of concern as to what role it will embrace in the future Libya.
The GNA is most certainly under strong pressure from Haftar, the countries supporting the field marshall, as well as some prominent Western countries, to call on Turkey more strongly to withdraw its forces from Libya.
The Libyan foreign minister’s statement during the press conference with Çavuşoğlu is just a reflection of this pressure.
The presence of Turkish troops in Libya was also on the agenda of Germany’s leaders last week. In a video conference with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Chancellor Angela Merkel conveyed the message that “an early start to the withdrawal of foreign soldiers and mercenaries would send an important signal,” according to her spokesman.
This message was repeated by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas during a press conference with Çavuoğlu on May 6 in Berlin as he reiterated that all the countries should act in line with the outcomes of the Berlin Conference.
Turkey’s response to these calls has remained steady from the beginning:
-Turkey agrees that foreign mercenaries should be withdrawn from Libya. But the Turkish troops are in Libya in accordance with a 2019-dated protocol with the GNA for the training of the Libyan security forces. It also underlines that the legitimate presence of the Turkish troops should not be confused with that of the mercenaries.
-The premature withdrawal of Turkish troops would not benefit Libya given that Haftar and his army still pose a threat to the ongoing political process. It was not long ago that Tripoli nearly fell into the hands of Haftar, while the Wagner Group still controls some strategic spots in Sirte and Jufra. The Turkish military presence is needed for the continuation of the balance between Tripoli and Benghazi.
-As stated openly by Turkey’s defense minister, another objective of the Turkish military presence in Libya is to protect Ankara’s rights in the eastern Mediterranean, referring to a Turkish-Libyan maritime delimitation agreement in late 2019 that angered Greece and some other EU countries.
Well aware of the importance of the maritime deal to Turkey, Dbeibah seemed to try to assure Turkey that his government would not cancel the deal as it is in their interest, too. “We disagree with Greece in evaluating the Libyan-Turkish maritime agreement that serves the Libyans, and [therefore], we will not abandon it,” he told Al-Jazeera.
Turkey, for sure, is carefully noting the assurance pledged by Dbeibah but is pointing out that the dust has not yet settled in Libya and that the outcome of the political transition is far from predictable.
Under these conditions, expecting an immediate withdrawal of the Turkish troops is premature.