With the ultimate goal of consolidating its influence in Libya and securing a key role in the region, Turkey has been applying a multilateral strategy, including partnerships in the defense sectors, the systemic build-up of commercial ties, and strategic diplomatic moves. Still, there may be factors that pose a challenge to Ankara’s growing ambitions in Libya.
The strategic, geopolitical vision of Turkey for the Libyan post-war context has been witnessed through the significant military, economic, and diplomatic actions Ankara has taken in the country over the last two years.
This significant sway over Libya briefly came into question in early May when high-ranking Turkish officials – including the Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu – visited Tripoli.
During the visit, Çavuşoğlu held a joint press conference with his Libyan counterpart, Najla Mangoush. Among other points, the Libyan Foreign Minister stated that Turkey was expected to cooperate and assist in expelling all foreign forces and mercenaries from Libya.
Considering the extended Turkish military presence in the country, this statement from such a senior official was perceived by many as a Libyan change of course.
Specifically, it was interpreted to indicate a more independent policy from Libya as it seeks to loosen up the tight engagement with Ankara while questioning the Turkish power grip in Tripoli.
Yet subsequent events promptly challenged Mangoush’s claims. A few days after the statement, gunmen stormed the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, which has been functioning as the headquarters of the Libyan Presidency Council, the chief political institution of the state.
News of the attack quickly began circulating on social media, and the incident was attributed to radical groups, loyal to Turkey and frustrated by Mangoush’s statements.
The story attracted global attention and put pressure on the Libyan Foreign Minister, both at the domestic and international level, emphasizing the Turkish influence in the country, which will likely keep growing in the future.
The Turkish Military Footprint in Libya
Unlike the Russian approach of plausible deniability, Ankara has chosen to make a clear separation between the groups of the Syrian radical mercenaries and rebels and the tactical units or individual advisors of the Turkish military operating in Libya.
Though, according to reliable sources, the rebels are backed by Turkey as well. Nevertheless, and despite international criticism, Ankara presents its military presence as a legitimate action and a fundamental step in the rebuilding of the country; a view also adopted by many Libyan senior officials.
Unquestionably, the steady Turkish military build-up in Tripoli since early 2020, through the deployment of Turkish military experts and advanced equipment – including Turkish drone technology such as Bayraktar TB2 – has secured the survival of the Government of National Accord (GNA).
Prior to the Turkish intervention, the forces led by Libyan warlord, Khalifa Haftar, were advancing towards the capital. Considering the participation of many GNA figures in the current leadership of the country, Ankara is capitalizing on the leverage gained during the time of the conflict.
Therefore, the Turkish military presence in Libya is of vital importance for Turkey’s key geopolitical objectives and cannot be easily removed or limited.
Ankara is also pursuing a state-building role in war-torn Libya, which will create a relationship of interdependence with long-term prospects. In November 2020, Italian Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) questioned the growing Turkish influence over the Libyan state authorities, particularly on the Libyan Coast Guard.
Turkey has exploited the delay and inaction of the European Union towards Libya on several issues, by stepping in independently to showcase its state-building capacity.
For example, Turkish officials have not only been involved in the operations and the training of the Libyan coastguard, but also in the establishment of the Armed Forces of Libya.
Furthermore, in light of the Turkish military presence in the country, there have been several instances where officers and soldiers from all branches of the developing Libyan Armed Forces have visited Turkey for advanced training.
The MoU on Maritime Boundaries
In late 2019, Turkey and the Government of National Accord in Tripoli signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with regards to the maritime boundaries of the two states.
The MoU, which has been submitted to the UN, is of critical importance to Ankara, since it establishes the context for further claims in the Mediterranean, an area where Turkey has overlapping demands with Greece, its neighboring country.
Even though Greece has criticized the MoU and asked for its international condemnation, Turkey and Libya are still adhering to it.
Athens has been hoping that the new Libyan government would denounce the memorandum, considering that it was signed with the GNA prior to the appointment of the current interim body, but this has not been the case.
In April, Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh met President Erdogan in Ankara and they declared that “the maritime accord signed between Turkey and Libya secures the national interests and future of both countries.”
Geopolitical Expansion: Commercial Ties and Investments
Ankara has also been successfully expanding its influence within the defense, security, and foreign policy fields in Libya through soft power.
The economic and commercial growth of Turkish businesses in Libya constitute a vital element of this strategy. Turkey’s exports to Libya accounted for over US$826 million, from January to April 2021, approximately a 60 percent increase compared to the same period last year.
As per the predictions of the chairman of the Turkey-Libya Council of the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey (DEIK), Murtaza Karanfil, the trade volume between the two countries will continue to grow.
At the same time, Libya is one of the 17 countries with which Turkey is negotiating a Free Trade Agreement, and as per the current indicators, Turkish executives are prioritizing the progress of those talks with Tripoli.
For Karanfil, and for other senior Turkish officials, Ankara’s role will be fundamental in Libya’s reconstruction. Massive Turkish investments are already in the making, including those of the Karanfil Group, focusing on Libya’s infrastructure and covering vital sectors, such as the construction, energy, pharmaceutical, and defense industries.
Turkish investors will seek to capitalize on the historically good bilateral ties, but predominantly on Erdogan’s vision for a decisive Turkish expansion across the Middle East and North Africa region.
In this sense, it appears that both the Turkish government and business are benefitting from the distressed Libyan economic infrastructure. The Turkish government is seeking to create the ideal circumstances for its investors to turn to Libya, in an attempt to expand its geopolitical influence, through commercial interests and market-driven dynamics.
Accordingly, Turkish businesses can benefit from state-sponsored advantages and expand to a new market, which has been inactive for more than a decade due to the devastating civil war, thus providing numerous opportunities.
A strong Turkish presence in Libya can also function as the entry point and the logistics base for Turkish commercial and geopolitical expansion into Africa, aligning with Erdogan’s grand vision for Ankara’s role in the continent.
The potential of a major Turkish logistics project in the port of Misrata, in northwestern Libya, which is currently under discussion among senior-level stakeholders, will directly serve this plan.
Salama Ibrahim Al-Ghwail, Minister of State for Economic Affairs, in the new Libyan cabinet, mentioned in a recent interview that the planned rebuilding projects are expected to provide more than 30 percent of the future jobs in the country, with Turkey being one of the major players in the field.
This sort of geopolitical expansion through direct engagement with the local labor force can prove to be a very useful policy tool, especially when considering how important job opportunities and the potential of a reliable income would be for the Libyan people, after living through over ten chaotic years of conflict.
Based on the current circumstances, both sides are in favor of the long-term Turkish presence in Libya, and Ankara can be expected to play a pivotal role in the regional developments.
Still, there are many challenges to be considered, which could ultimately disrupt Turkey’s plans and hinder Erdogan’s strategic vision.
The Turkish military presence has been a point of friction with several major players interested in Libya, including EU countries, the US, and Egypt. However, Ankara is determined not to back down and there are no signs that the counter-parties would put forth significant pressure in the future for the withdrawal of Turkish military personnel from Libya.
Additionally, the MoU and demarcation agreement on the maritime zones has been harshly criticized by Greece. Athens is claiming that the agreement violates international law and Greek sovereign rights. Yet the Greek government is reluctant to take any decisive action, therefore no major obstacles for the Turkish plans are probable in this respect.
The most considerable threat for the materialization of Turkey’s aims going forward is undoubtedly the internal discord in Libya per se.
Despite the fact that the country is going through some level of stability and unity, after a period of continuous fighting and short-lived ceasefires, the Libyan political system is still far from well-founded.
Though the current Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, and many major figures of the cabinet are in favor of ongoing cooperation with Turkey, the context remains fragile.
Thus, there are no guarantees that there will be no further changes in the security and political landscape in Libya along the way.