Dilara Aslan Özer
A crucial visit by Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan to Libya highlights the continuing importance Türkiye attaches to the North African country and that it aims to reinvigorate efforts for unification.
Türkiye’s Libya policy entered a new phase after normalization processes with several countries that had been involved in the oil-rich country. Especially the resuming of ties with Egypt, which shares a 1,115-kilometer (693-mile) border with Libya, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which sponsored Gen. Khalifa Haftar, in recent years, have significant implications for future policies.
Noteworthy is also that following Fidan’s visit, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will visit these two countries next week, during which Libya will constitute one of the main items of discussion.
Although dating further back, the UAE’s involvement in Libya peaked when the country started to support eastern-based Haftar against the U.N.-backed Libyan government, which was also supported by Türkiye in 2019.
To curb the influence of circles in power throughout the Middle East as in Libya, the UAE provided financial and weapons support to Haftar while also using France, Russia and Egypt’s influence in the country and thereby indirectly supporting the warlord. However, following the successive defeats of Haftar despite the extent of support and rapprochement with Türkiye, Abu Dhabi scaled down its support for Haftar and started to back the peace process.
Backing Haftar for similar reasons as the UAE, as well as due to national security and stability concerns, Egypt has also been recalibrating its policy in Libya, having started to engage in dialogue with the Tripoli government led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah. Yet it would be still early to expect Türkiye and Egypt’s policies on the country to align and future dialogue between Ankara and Cairo has to be watched closely in this area.
Türkiye reemphasized its focus on Libya by putting the issue on the agenda of last month’s meeting of the National Security Council (MGK), a critical agency that determines the national security, military and foreign policy matters vital for the country. Furthermore, at the end of November, a Turkish presidential motion to extend the authorization for the deployment of Turkish troops to Libya for another 24 months was approved by Parliament since “in case of the resumption of attacks against the legitimate government, Türkiye’s interests in both the Mediterranean basin and North Africa will be adversely affected.”
Turkish institutions have also continued to foster ties on a multifaceted basis, ranging from trade to reconstruction efforts to migration. The Family and Social Services Ministry last month signed a memorandum of understanding with the Libyan government to take cooperation further on social policies while again last month, Energy Minister Alparslan Bayraktar attended an energy summit in Tripoli where he underlined Libya’s potential in oil and gas, reaffirming Ankara’s readiness to collaborate with countries and firms to help Libya use this potential.
As Libya remains split between a U.N.-recognized government in the west and an eastern-based administration backed by Haftar, the country continues to be of importance for Türkiye for regional stability, its interests in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as wider North Africa.
A maritime deal with Libya in 2019 had been strategic in thwarting the efforts of Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration to exclude Türkiye from the Eastern Mediterranean. Greece responded by signing a similar deal with Egypt in a tit-for-tat move.
Although Ankara and Athens have positive momentum in ties right now, underlying differences in terms of maritime and aerial rights may cause problems to resurface any minute. Therefore, Ankara will continue to maintain its close ties with the Tripoli government and its presence in the country to hold the upper hand in Libya.
On the other side, Türkiye is also set to establish ties with the eastern Benghazi-based authorities and balance its policy in the country – a development that bears the potential of changing the country’s political trajectory.
The first sign of potential engagement with the rival government came in 2022 when Erdoğan received Aguila Saleh, head of the House of Representatives in Benghazi, and again in December recently.
Turkish diplomatic sources had told Daily Sabah previously that Haftar also sought to meet with Erdoğan but was rejected due to reasons that he insisted on meeting with the Turkish president himself and no other level of authority below.
On top of that, Fidan announced that the Turkish Consulate General in Benghazi, which had been closed since 2014 due to instabilities, will be reopened soon, paving the way for increased cooperation with actors in Libya’s east in the future.
This week, Fidan underlined that Türkiye does not want “the current existing division between the east and west to become permanent” and that “Türkiye’s relations with the eastern side are improving.” In the upcoming period, Ankara will use the potential reconciliation with Benghazi to bridge ties with western Tripoli and break the political impasse in the country, hold legitimate elections and achieve unification.
Cooperation and dialogue with former adversaries-turned-partners such as the UAE and Egypt will also constitute an essential leg in forming future policies.