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The visit to Ankara by Libyan parliamentarians looks like shifting political alliances

December 23, 2021 at 9:01 am

President of Turkey Erdogan discussed bilateral relations with Libya’s Deputy Speaker Fawzi al-Nuwairi on 16 December, 2021 in Ankara [@smmlibya/Twitter]

A delegation of seven Libyan parliamentarians, headed by deputy speaker Fawzi Al-Nuwairi, visited Ankara last week and met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in what is seen as a breakthrough in relations between Turkey and Libya’s parliament. The visit is the first of its kind after years of animosity. Apart from “a discussion about bilateral relations”, though, little has been said about the one hour meeting with Erdogan, which was also attended by Turkey’s Speaker, Mustafa Sentop.

In a statement published on the parliamentary website, the Libyan delegation said that the visit came after an “official invitation” from the Turkish parliament and was authorised by the “parliament’s presidency”. The delegation described the trip as “important and timely.”

If anything this indicates a rapprochement between Ankara and Libya’s Tobruk-based parliament which is allied with the commander of the self-styled Libyan Arab Armed forces — also known as the Libyan National Army — Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. He is yet to comment on the matter.

The Libyan delegates said that they agreed with their Turkish hosts on matters ranging from the reopening of the Turkish Consulate in Benghazi, in eastern Libya, and the resumption of scheduled flights and maritime commercial links. Turkey’s consulate in Benghazi was closed in May 2014 after security in the city deteriorated at the height of clashes between Haftar’s forces and Islamist groups. Haftar always accused Ankara of supporting his “terrorist” opponents.

READ: Libya, Turkey discuss bilateral relations in further sign of deepening cooperation

The trip to Ankara comes at time of political turmoil and the threat of security deterioration in Libya as different political factions quarrel about the way forward. In the background, a leaked internal memo revealed that the country’s election commission has dissolved all regional election branch offices, thus effectively suspending the 24 December elections without saying so explicitly.

Moreover, between 16 and 21 December militias mobilised their fighters in southern Tripoli where they blocked roads, while others roamed the area in armed pickup trucks. The escalation was triggered by the Presidential Council’s decision to replace a local military commander in a move rejected by some of Tripoli’s powerful armed groups.

Haftar planned to stand in the now suspended presidential election, suggesting a further rift between him and his once staunch ally, Speaker Aguila Saleh Issa. By authorising such a visit to Turkey, Issa — who is also standing as a presidential candidate — distanced himself from his once devoted general. If not angered by such an opening with Ankara, Haftar is certainly disappointed. He has been at odds with Turkey and accused Erdogan of helping the militias in western Libya and Islamist groups in the east.

In April 2019, he launched a military campaign to remove Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), claiming that it harbours and pays militias and terrorists. His ten month siege of the capital interrupted the UN-brokered agreement initiative as he rejected all calls for a ceasefire.

All of that changed when the GNA asked for military assistance from Turkey, and Ankara responded by sending hundreds of troops, military hardware and thousands of Syrian mercenaries to Tripoli. Ankara even deployed its own armed drones in the battle which eventually defeated Haftar’s forces in June 2020. Forces still loyal to Haftar retreated to their current positions in the middle of the country, around Sirte, and parts of the southern Fezzan region. It was a bitter and humiliating defeat, one that the senior officer is unlikely to forget soon.

READ: Turkish nationals held in Libya for almost two years re-united with families

In return for its assistance, Ankara had Tripoli sign two controversial agreements which angered Haftar and his then ally Issa, who effectively controls the parliament. One agreement demarcated the maritime border between Libya and Turkey, while a security agreement granted Ankara access to military bases in western Libya, including Al-Watiya Airbase which was once the launch pad for Haftar’s attack on the capital. This move was characterised by Haftar at the time as Turkish “colonisation” of western Libya. He even called for a jihad to expel the Turkish “invaders”. His ally in parliament rejected both of these agreements.

The security and maritime deals had wider regional repercussions, with Egypt rejecting both and President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi announcing his “red line” against what he saw as Turkey’s expansionist regional policy. Cairo even mobilised its armed forces along the Libyan border ready to intervene to help its friend Haftar. Greece was so angry about the Ankara-Tripoli maritime deal that it expelled the Libyan ambassador and reached out to France to line up against its traditional enemy Turkey. At the centre of it all was Khalifa Haftar, of course.

With Aguila Saleh Issa giving up on him, Haftar appears to be turning to his former foes in western Libya in an attempt to forge new alliances that might help to mend his own ties with Ankara, where he was once described as a “dictator” and warmonger destabilising Libya.

In a surprising move on Tuesday, Haftar met with six presidential hopefuls, including his former enemy Fathi Bashaga, who was once the interior minister in the GNA. In his former role, Bashaga used to refer to Haftar as an “outlaw war criminal” and justified the security deal with Ankara as the only way to defeat him.

READ: Passengers head from Libya to Turkey by ferry for first time in 40 years

After Tuesday’s meeting in Benghazi, Bashaga read out a statement on behalf of the group. They called for reconciliation and the prioritising of Libya’s national interests above all else.

How the skilful political tactician Issa will react to the meeting is unclear. He is likely to interpret it as a counter move by his one-time ally Haftar to his own efforts to reach out to Ankara.

There has been no regional reaction to the parliamentary visit to Ankara. Both Cairo and Athens, always suspicious of Ankara’s regional policies, have kept silent.

Strangely, the Libyan delegation did not, publically at least, say a word about Turkey’s forces and Syrian mercenaries in western Libya. Most Libyan parliamentarians, including those who visited Ankara, used to refer to Turkey’s military deployment in Libya as another attempt to “return” Libya to Ottoman control; Libya was once part of the Ottoman Empire. Will Field Marshal Haftar himself visit Ankara soon? We will have to wait and see.

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