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Turkey’s Libyan gamble; what’s behind it, and will it pay off?

On 2 January 2020 Turkey’s parliament gave a green light to the Turkish government’s proposed military assistance to the Tripoli-based Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. The vote was brought forward by a week in light of the intensified onslaught against Tripoli by General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), a campaign that has been ongoing since April 2019. The vote frees Ankara to provide troops, arms, military training and technical support to the GNA, and to conduct joint exercises and share intelligence with the Tripoli-based government. It followed a request for assistance submitted to Ankara by the al-Sarrai government, which itself stemmed from a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by Tripoli and Ankara on 27 November 2019.

At the time of writing, the phasing, form and size of any Turkish military intervention has yet to be clarified. Ankara has long been known to have supplied GNA forces with arms, and military advisors – including air defence and electronic warfare units – and a drone fleet have already been despatched. Direct Turkish military involvement is indeed most likely to take the form of elite special and technical forces operating in a primarily advisory capacity.

It is believed too that units of the Syrian Turkmen Sultan Murad Brigade have been transferred to Libya, and reports suggest that other Ankara-backed Syrian rebel forces, notably from Faylaq al-Sham, the Suqour al-Sham Brigade, the Mutasim Brigade, the Hamza Brigade, and Ahrar Sharqiya, are currently being prepared for the Libyan battlefield. These mercenary forces will be well rewarded for their sacrifices. Interestingly, the Tripoli-Ankara MoU also refers to the provision of Turkish ‘guest personnel’, which is surely a reference to the private security forces of SADAT. Established by former Turkish Brigadier-General Adnan Tanriverdi, who also acts as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chief security advisor, SADAT personnel have been present in Libya since at least 2013.

Any more substantial and conventional Turkish military involvement would involve considerable risk. Air bases in Libya would need to be far better secured than at present and able to accommodate Turkey’s F16s if air cover is to be provided from within Libya’s borders to any Turkish or Turkey-backed ground forces operating there.

A surprise visit by Erdogan to Tunisia on 1st January failed to secure access to Tunisian bases, notwithstanding Ankara’s attempt to put a positive spin on the Tunisian position. Ankara is also seeking to cultivate Algeria, which looks set to emulate Tunisia’s preference for keeping a low profile. Turkey might have to rely in its bases in Turkey itself and in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), and resort to in-flight refuelling. Such arrangements are not readily compatible with speedy air support in a fluid and fast-moving ground battle scenario. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for Turkey to sustain sufficiently effective air and maritime bridges to Libya, especially in the event of any prolongation of the conflict. In any case, Haftar’s forces already control around three-quarters of the country. It is highly likely that some among Turkey’s brass will be apprehensive about the risks of Turkish military involvement, but it is also clear that Erdogan and some of the advisors around him are less averse to taking a gamble.

The risky character of Turkey’s stance towards Libya largely derives from Ankara’s diplomatic isolation, with sympathy for Turkey not extending far beyond Qatar and Somalia. The remainder of the Arab world, Russia, and western countries such as France are more inclined towards the warlord Haftar, despite the fact that it is the al-Sarrai’s Tripoli-based entity that enjoys more formal, UN-based, recognition. It is reckoned that at least 1000 personnel from Russia’s Wagner private security force are present in Libya to provide back-up to Haftar, the bulk of them having arrived in September.

The friction between Ankara and Moscow in Syria, where Turkish observation posts in Idlib are currently encircled by Russian and regime advances against largely Turkey-backed rebel forces that are threatening increased refugee flows towards the Turkish border, are mirrored in Libya, where again they find themselves on opposite sides. A 1000-strong Sudanese force is also believed to be augmenting Haftar’s efforts. Egypt, Jordan and the UAE are all said to have provided Haftar with arms, and it is likely that pilots from these countries have flown missions and deployed drones in support of LNA operations.

The Arab world, excepting Qatar, has condemned Turkey’s apparent escalation of its involvement. Cairo’s unhappiness has been made robustly clear, while Haftar has called for a national resistance to any Turkish presence. Unsurprisingly, the Tobruk-based and pro-Haftar Libyan House of Representatives voted unanimously to condemn Ankara’s deal with al-Sarrai. Should Russia, Egypt and others back up their rhetorical opposition to Turkey with escalating material support for Haftar, Ankara’s predicament could become severe.

What has prompted Ankara to take so dangerous, provocative and lonely a step? Some commentators have alluded to ideological drivers. It is certainly the case that the LNA contains some pro-Muslim Brotherhood (MB) elements, and that Tanriverdi, and many of the former military personnel that have been recruited by SADAT, are known for their strong Islamist persuasion. This is true too of some of the Syrian mercenary forces that will be utilised. Libya is far from the only scenario in which Turkey and Qatar have found themselves aligned with MB positions and in opposition to most of the rest of the region. Others have identified Turkey’s ‘regional power’ or ‘neo-Ottoman’ aspirations, or even its ‘delusions of grandeur’, and have sought to link Turkish policy towards Libya with its regional activism in Syria, Iraq, Qatar, Palestine and Somalia, and indeed elsewhere in Africa.

Libya seems to constitute a factor in its own right. The Ottomans tried and failed to prevent an Italian take-over of the former Ottoman Libyan lands in 1911, and in 1952 Turkey assisted Libya in the reorganisation of its armed forces. Libya appears to have loomed particularly large in the imagination of Turkey’s more Islamist-inclined leaders. Erdogan’s fellow Islamist Turkish leader, Necmettin Erbakan, tried hard to cultivate Ghaddafi’s Libya during the 1990s, while in 2010 Erdogan was awarded a Human Right prize by the Libyan leader.

More prosaically, Turkey’s companies, particularly those involved in construction, lost out substantially with the overthrow of Ghaddafi in 2011 and the subsequent chaos in the country, and it is possible that Ankara hopes to win back some of this business should its preferred Libyan factions emerge victorious.

It is more convincing, however, to point to the much-anticipated eastern Mediterranean energy bonanza and to maritime jurisdiction issues as the more likely inspiration behind Ankara’s actions in Libya. These factors will certainly have a bearing on the reactions to and consequences of Turkey’s Libyan initiative. Tripoli and Ankara signed a second MoU on 27 November, which established a maritime border between them and which rode roughshod over the Greek claim – backed by international law – that the island of Crete (and other Aegean islands) entitle Greece to extensive territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) – at the expense, it must be said, of Turkey. The Tripoli-Ankara bilateral agreement complicates the aspiration of Greece, Cyprus and Israel (which with Egypt constitute the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), signed up to on 2 January 2020, to build a 2000-kilometre natural gas pipeline that would run across the Mediterranean from Israel’s Levantine Basin offshore gas reserves to Cyprus, on to Crete and the Greek mainland. From there the gas will be transported to Italy and beyond.

The EU has earmarked funds for the project. Indeed, most of the interested parties – Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, France and Italy – will hold a summit in Cairo on 8 January to discuss the Libyan and Eastern Mediterranean issues, on the same day that Putin and Erdogan are set to meet to discuss Syria and Libya.

Turkey has felt itself excluded from the growing energy cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean. It has opposed the EEZ agreements that Cyprus has entered into with its neighbours, on the basis that the TRNC has not been consulted and is in danger of losing out from the proceeds of the energy finds in Cypriot waters. Turkey has sent survey vessels, backed by gun boats, into Nicosia’s claimed Cypriot EEZ, which has led to stand-offs with western, Israeli and Greek energy exploration and maritime patrol vessels. Turkey’s actions around Cyprus have served to swing the US and the EU towards the positions adopted by the EMGF countries.

It is possible that Turkey’s aggressive behaviour towards both the Eastern Mediterranean and Libyan imbroglios will force the hand of regional and international diplomacy. Perhaps this is Ankara’s hope and calculation.

However, the legally dubious nature of the positions it has adopted; their obstructive impact on the interests of others; the fierce reaction of countries such as Greece – which has angrily condemned the Tripoli-Ankara maritime partition and lobbied for legal and global diplomatic intervention – and Egypt, which has similarly rejected Turkey’s stance on Eastern Mediterranean energy issues, its maritime deal with Libya, and its involvement in ‘Arab affairs’ in Libya; and the general discomfort felt throughout the region and beyond with Ankara’s alleged support for MB and jihadi elements and with its broader assertiveness, all suggest that Turkey’s isolation is set to deepen still further.

Ankara appears to prefer military assertiveness over diplomatic engagement. In Libya, as in the Eastern Mediterranean and elsewhere, the success of such an approach depends greatly on whether others decide to react in kind.

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