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What is Turkey up to in Libya? 

May 14, 2020 at 8:33 am

Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) forces in Tripoli, Libya on 27 March 2020 [Amru Salahuddien/Anadolu Agency]

The latest statement from Turkey about Libya was issued on 10 May by the Foreign Ministry, which threatened the Libyan National Army (LNA) if it targets any Turkish interests in the North African country. “If our [Turkish] missions and interests in Libya are targeted, we will deem [Field Marshal Khalifa] Haftar’s forces legitimate targets.”

The ministry did not say which interests are targets for the LNA. In any case, Haftar’s forces have already been hit by Turkey, albeit on a limited scale. In fact, Turkey’s statement was referring to a couple of mortar shells, said to be fired by the LNA which landed in the vicinity of the Turkish and Italian Embassies in Tripoli on 8 May.

Since the end of March, Turkey has widened the scope of its military involvement in support of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Its air force and drones have conducted dozens of sorties against the LNA’s supply lines that extend over 1,000 km from eastern Libya to positions in the west. Thanks to such support from Turkey, Haftar’s troops lost control of all major cities west of Tripoli on 13 April. In a MEMO article on 23 April, I predicted that the next prime target for the GNA will be the huge Al-Watiya Air Base about 125 km south-east of Tripoli, which the LNA took over in August 2014. Reports of the recent assault on the base claim that an LNA commander linked to Al-Madkhalis of Saudi Arabia, Osama Imsek, was killed.

READ: Turkey warns Haftar about attacks in Libya

If Haftar loses Al-Watiya then his effective military presence in western Libya will be weakened considerably. He might as well consider pulling back all together, despite his year-long efforts to take the Libyan capital. However, such a move is unlikely in the foreseeable future as it could spell his political demise.

How far is Turkey prepared to go in Libya? What kind of Turkish interests is the LNA threatening? When Ankara started its military operations in support of the GNA in January, it sent about 100 officers along with some 2,000 Syrian mercenaries to beef up the government’s defence of Tripoli. At the time, Turkey justified its action by claiming that it had been invited by the GNA to help force Haftar to the negotiating table and bring about a permanent ceasefire and possibly a long-term political agreement in Libya. As if preparing the political ground for his next move, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Istanbul on 8 January to impose a ceasefire on the GNA and LNA, which is backed by Moscow. For obvious reasons, Haftar refused to sign that agreement when he was in Russia on 14 January. Nevertheless, a truce held for a couple of weeks apart from occasional breaches.

Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar has declared a ceasefire in his conflict during the holy month of #Ramadan. Will it last? - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar has declared a ceasefire in his conflict during the holy month of #Ramadan. Will it last? – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Events on the ground to date point to wider Turkish involvement in the Libyan quagmire. Recently, Ankara escalated its military operations, particularly the use of its air force and drones. Collateral damage has been reported in and around Bani Walid through which the LNA’s supply route passes. Tarhouna, the LNA’s main base in western Libya, has also been targeted many times, with civilian casualties.

READ: Libya: Continued clashes between government forces and Haftar’s militia

Meanwhile, Haftar’s foreign backers, including the UAE and Egypt, are escalating their support for him but do not appear ready to match Turkey’s capabilities. Even so, last week Tripoli saw the heaviest fighting in months with an all-night bombardment.

Erdogan now seems to be more determined than he was a month ago. The rhetoric coming out of Ankara neither mentions a ceasefire nor negotiations as the main objectives; the total defeat of the LNA is the aim. Keeping the GNA in place in Tripoli, which is Ankara’s main goal, seems to be a guaranteed outcome and the objective now has shifted to obliterate the LNA, forcing its retreat or even surrender. The Turkish Foreign Ministry’s statement this week, while emphasising the defence of the Libyan capital, directly threatened Haftar if he attacks Turkish interests in Libya, without defining what those interests are. Feeling more assured by Turkey’s military backing, on 1 May the GNA rejected Haftar’s call for a humanitarian ceasefire during the Holy Month of Ramadan.

Ankara seems to be viewing Libya as part of its wider geopolitical interest in the southern and eastern Mediterranean. Strategically, Libya is the gateway to Africa with the largest proven oil reserves on the continent, estimated to be around 46.4 billion barrels. Erdogan is also worried that losing the fight against Haftar and his foreign supporters means losing the wider political battle in the region against Egypt, the UAE and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia. The battle lines for this were drawn nine years back.

READ: Jet tanks targeted at Tripoli airport-oil company

Turkey’s expansionist policies in the eastern Mediterranean in particular are angering many countries. In their statement of 11 May, the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, France and the UAE condemned what they called “Turkey’s military interference in Libya.” They accuse Ankara of signing an “illegal” maritime deal with that GNA that infringes on their own rights.

Along with its junior partner Qatar, Turkey is also fighting another regional political battle that started straight after 2011’s “Arab Spring” in which political Islam gained momentum. Egypt, on 30 June 2012, elected its first Muslim Brotherhood President, the late Mohamed Morsi. In Tunisia, Islamists made some gains in 2014. In the same year, the Islamists in Libya tricked their way into power triggering the ongoing military confrontation. President Erdogan leans towards Islamist politics and sees himself as the godfather of his regional counterparts, if not those around the world.

The Turkish leader now wants total victory for himself and his proxy, the GNA, regardless of what that would mean for Libya as a whole. Only time will tell if he is really ready to pursue this ultimate objective and be victorious in Libya’s bloody civil war. In the meantime, the tragedy of my country will continue.

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