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What are the consequences of Turkish boots on the ground in Libya?

January 2, 2020 at 10:25 am

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan is welcomed by President of Tunisia Kais Saied in Tunis, Tunisia on 25 December 2019 [Turkish Presidency / Murat Cetinmuhurdar – Anadolu Agency]

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is submitting a bill to the Turkish parliament seeking approval for its plans to send troops to Libya. The parliament is expected to approve the bill today because the president’s AK Party has a majority in the chamber. The vote was originally planned for 7 January, after the winter parliamentary recess, but has been brought forward, apparently due to the urgency of the situation around the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

The city has been the elusive target of the Libyan National Army (LNA) commanded by Khalifa Haftar. He launched his attack last April to unseat the Government of National Accord (GNA), the only UN-recognised authority in Libya. The LNA has so far failed to enter the capital, but has stayed in most of the positions that it captured just a few kilometres from the city centre.

In line with Erdogan’s repeated pledges to send troops to Libya if the GNA requests them, his Ministry of Defence announced on 27 December that its armed forces “are ready to serve on order within and without Turkey.” The GNA made its formal request on 19 December, which was announced by Minister of the Interior Fathi Bashaga.

Turkey, Qatar and, to a lesser extent Italy, are backing the GNA, while Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and, less openly, France, are backing Haftar in the proxy war in Libya. Russia is thought to be siding with Haftar in more covert ways.

READ: Why is Erdogan in Tunisia? 

This is the first time that a UN member, Turkey, has announced publicly that it is sending troops to help one side in the conflict. However, there has been documented support from foreign countries to the two protagonists in Libya’s self-destructive war. The supply of arms, ammunition, training and lately drones to both the GNA and LNA by their respective backers is a well-known fact. Recently, there have, also, been the documented use of mercenaries from Russia and neighbouring countries like Chad and Sudan. A direct and open military presence in Libya of a UN member is, though, a new dimension in the conflict.

What are the consequences of direct Turkish military intervention in Libya? For a start, Ankara will be violating half a dozen UN resolutions calling on member states to refrain from transferring any weapons to any party to the conflict in Libya, particularly Resolutions 1970 and 1973, adopted in February and March, 2011, which clearly impose a military embargo on the country. Both resolutions, adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, are obligatory for all countries, including Turkey. The government in Ankara respected both resolution when, as a NATO member, it helped to topple the former Gaddafi regime under the pretext of reinforcing the UN’s will in 2011. Since then, of course, both the UAE and Israel have broken the UN arms embargo by sending arms to Haftar’s forces in the east of the country.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) meets Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Sarraj (L) in Istanbul, Turkey on December 15, 2019. {TURKISH PRESIDENCY/MURAT CETINMUHURDAR/HANDOUT/Anadolu Agency]

This time, Ankara claims to be responding to a legitimate request by the GNA as the recognised government in Libya. However, the national legitimacy of the GNA is contested within Libya, not only by Haftar and his allies, but also in terms of the Libyan Political Accord that founded it. Article four of the accord requires the GNA to win a vote of confidence in parliament in order to be legitimate, but that has never happened since the body came to being in December 2015.

Turkey’s action is angering its European neighbours who are already unhappy with its policy in the Mediterranean and its position on the Libyan conflict. On 12 December, the EU rejected the maritime deal signed by Ankara and Tripoli, describing it as a “violation of international law” and expressing its solidarity with Greece, which also rejects the deal, as does Cyprus; both are EU members. Many within the EU believe that Turkey offered the GNA military support in return for signing the maritime pact mapping the eastern Mediterranean boundaries between the two countries. Most Libyans also believe that the GNA was “blackmailed” by Turkey into signing the deal in return for military assistance.

READ: Libya accuses Arab League of double standards

Having Turkish boots on the ground in Libya is likely to intensify the proxy war in the country. Egypt, in particular, is very sensitive about any Turkish presence in Libya and has already condemned it. This is hardly surprising, given that relations between Ankara and Cairo have been strained ever since the coup that brought President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to power in 2013. Al-Sisi apparently discussed the latest move by Turkey with his French counterpart in a phone call on 30 December and convened an extraordinary meeting of the Arab League on 31 December in Cairo. In a statement, the organisation said that such foreign interference in Libya, could “contribute to facilitating the arrival of foreign extremists.” It made no mention of the well-known “foreign interference in Libya” by Egypt and the UAE in support of Haftar’s forces. Many Libyan observers claim that Ankara has already shipped hundreds of its allied fighters from Syria to Libya to help the GNA; this has also been alleged by independent organisations such as the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, a UK-based group. Although denied by the GNA, such a move would make sense as Ankara would no doubt prefer to help the government in Tripoli while keeping Turkish troops out of harm’s way.

Turkish forces in Libya are unlikely to bring about a GNA victory, but are more likely to prolong the conflict and could draw-in intensified Egypt and the UAE support for the LNA, complicating further the UN efforts for a ceasefire. UN envoy Ghassan Salame is hoping that the upcoming Berlin conference on Libya, expected before the end of this month, will help his mediation efforts to bring Libyans together and reinforce the UN arms embargo on the country. Politically, President Erdoğan wants Turkey to be present in any such meeting whenever it takes place. That seems to be his goal for sending troops to Libya.

With parliamentary approval guaranteed, Turkish soldiers are likely to arrive in Libya soon, although many observers believe that a small contingent is already there. Such rumours are rife on social media.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.