Turkey’s Intervention in Libya: Determinants and Challenges

EPC | 04 Aug 2020

Turkey's signature with the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj of two memorandums of understanding to define maritime rights and security and military cooperation between the two countries in November 2019 marked a turning point in the Turkish intervention in the Libyan arena. The operation has become a direct, open and qualitative intervention, as a result of which Turkey increased its military support for the GNA forces. In addition to providing them with sophisticated weapon systems, it also provided them with Turkish military advisers and Syrian mercenaries loyal to it. This contributed to transforming the course of the battle and the success by the GNA forces in evicting the forces of the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Haftar from the cities of the West Coast, Tripoli and its suburbs, the al-Watiya air base, and the city of Tarhuna, and their retreat towards the city of Sirte and the military base of Jufra in central Libya.

This "military victory" by the GNA forces whetted Ankara's appetite for harvesting the fruits of its intervention by enhancing its military influence through establishing Turkish bases on Libyan soil, and achieving Turkey’s economic interests by signing an agreement with the Tripoli government to explore for oil and gas off the Libyan coast. However, the Turkish goals and expansion in Libya clash with the regional and international policies towards Libya.

Motives and restrictions of the Turkish intervention in Libya

It must be said first that the Turkish military intervention in the Libyan file, and the Turkish presence on Libyan soil, were not part of a previously prepared strategic plan, but rather came as a reaction to the development of events in Libya. Therefore, the future of the Turkish intervention in Libya will also remain related to the developments of the military and political conditions on the ground and in the region. In this context, the following factors determine the Turkish moves in Libya:

First, the geostrategic vacuum. The fall of the Gaddafi regime, the failure by the Libyans to establish a stable alternative political system, the attack on US interests in Libya which prompted Washington to back down and neglect the pursuit of this file in North Africa, as well as the recent inward-orientation by the European Union (EU) due to its internal problems and the crisis of the UK’s exit from the EU (Brexit) and the decline of the EU influence on the Libyan file due to the French-Italian rivalry, are all factors that led to the creation of a geostrategic vacuum in Libya. Egypt and Russia tried to fill that vacuum by playing an active role on the ground and at the lowest costs (without direct intervention, but through local allies). This prompted Turkey to enter the race track in Libya in a similar manner, that is through proxies on the ground without being directly and openly present.

Second, the absence of any deterrent force. Based on the first reason, and through its geostrategic calculations, Ankara realized that there would be no force that could confront it in Libya and deter its progress there as the players themselves are preoccupied with other files, and Egypt is preoccupied with its internal and economic problems. This would make it difficult for those countries to confront Turkey in Libya. What is important, however, is Ankara's awareness of the extent of the European inability to exist in Libya and interfere there, despite the importance of the Libyan file for the EU from the security perspective.

The Turkish military intervention in Libya was preceded by Turkish operations to measure the EU deterrent force through oil and gas exploration operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. The EU seemed completely incapable of delivering any deterrent blow to Turkey at the time. This encouraged the Turkish decision-maker to expand this role to reach Libya. Perhaps the Turkish decision, which seemed at first adventurous, has achieved its results and confirmed Turkish analyses about the incapability or lack of a European or Arab deterrent force that can stop the Turkish scheme. The most important example of this is Ankara's continued transfer of militants and weapons to the Tripoli government even after the Berlin Conference (in January 2019) without any real strong international response on the ground.

Third, protecting Turkish interests in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. There are many extremely important Turkish interests in Libya, starting with the receivables of construction companies that were not collected due to the fall of the Gaddafi regime, in addition to reconstruction projects, oil extraction projects, the construction of electric power plants, and other major economic interests. But the most important of these interests is that Libya has now become organically and politically linked to the struggle to determine the spheres of economic influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. With President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refusing to normalize relations with Egypt and Israel in order to redraw the maritime borders and confront the Greek-Cypriot project in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey resorted to a solution that it innovated by signing the memorandum of understanding with the Tripoli government on defining maritime rights with Libya. Thus, Libya became a guarantor part of the Turkish national security and interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. The continuation of the GNA has become a strategic matter for Turkey in order to maintain the agreement on defining maritime rights to confront the schemes of Eastern Mediterranean countries. Therefore, the Turkish military intervention was mandatory after the attempt by the LNA, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, to topple the GNA and enter Tripoli.

Fourth, developments of the Turkish domestic politics, especially the transition to the presidential system and the gathering by President Erdogan of all powers in his hand, imposing his own view on foreign policy without any obstacles. This made Turkey follow the example of Russia's policy - the model that President Erdogan seems to admire - by taking bold, strong, and even military steps to seize opportunities in the nearby soft areas - areas of political vacuum - in the region, and use them for Turkish interests. In addition, the Turkish military intervention in Libya serves the interests of the Erdogan propaganda regarding "Ottomanism", Turkey's transformation into a "superpower" in the region, and "the unity of destiny with the people of the region". This policy also increases the support of the nationalist trend - Erdogan's ally at present - to him, although there is a disagreement between Erdogan and the nationalists on the Libyan issue. The nationalists prefer to proceed - after consolidating the military position in Libya - to use this situation for negotiation with Egypt and Israel. This would separate the Eastern Mediterranean file from the Libyan file in the future in the event that satisfactory agreements are reached with Egypt and Israel, making the Turkish-Libyan border demarcation agreement irrelevant. However, President Erdogan's ideological stance towards the Muslim Brotherhood precludes dialogue with Cairo. In this regard, Turkish nationalists think that the priority should now be given to supporting Erdogan in Libya pending reaching the point of transition from the military confrontation to the political negotiations there. Voices could then be raised regarding the necessity of negotiating with Egypt and Israel.

Finally, it could be said that the Turkish strategy of staying militarily in Libya was only formulated due to "mistakes" committed by the other side, which provided opportunities for the Turkish intervention and US protection thereof. Thus, the strategy developed from a process of seizing an opportunity to a strategy that expands daily according to political circumstances and developments that continue to progress in favour of the Turkish strategy of intervention and stay. Turkey’s strategic priority in Libya is focused on “providing the necessary protection and financing to the GNA in Tripoli in order to remain an integral party to any upcoming political solution”, while searching for ways to provide this protection and financing locally in order to ease the burden on Turkey and avoid the involvement in a direct conflict in Libya.

However, the future of the conflict in Libya is presently beginning to bring with it new and serious risks that may change the image there and drive Turkey to take new steps. Among the most important changes and risks that Turkey will face in Libya soon are:

1- The risk that the conflict on the Libyan soil will shift from a proxy war to direct confrontation, whether with Egypt or Russia. Turkey is increasing its military presence on the ground towards building an air base and a navy base, Russia has sent its combat aircraft to the Jufra base, while Cairo publicly threatens with direct military intervention through the support of the tribes and the Libyan Parliament. So far, the war in Libya through proxies has been inexpensive for Turkey militarily; however, its transformation into a direct and regular war would be very costly, both financially and humanly.

2- Ankara realizes that the GNA, despite its close cooperation with Ankara, is looking for external political alternatives because it does not want to be under direct Turkish tutelage. This government has started direct talks with the US, and with Italy as well, in order to diversify its external support sources. In return, Washington supports and drives the GNA in order to reduce its dependence on Turkey and open avenues for other US options.

The Turkish-French conflict in Libya

The angry French reactions to the Turkish presence in Libya go beyond the Libyan file to a wider framework in the relations between Ankara and Paris. This has several reasons. Relations between the two countries began to be strained due to problems dating back to 2017. After cooperation prevailed between the two countries in the Syrian file, differences began to emerge when Paris started to provide support to the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Cooperation between Turkey and France in Syria turned into competition and conflicting interests. This was followed by differences between the two countries within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) over several strategic defence plans. Secret mediation efforts between the two countries failed in 2018 and 2019. The dispute turned into a personal disagreement between the two leaders Emmanuel Macron and Recep Tayyip Erdogan with the recent exchange of hurtful words and accusations. This was followed suddenly by the arrest of a number of Turkish citizens in Istanbul on charges of "espionage" on behalf of Paris, which is another part added to the episodes of the dispute between the two capitals.

The main dispute between Ankara and Paris over Libya is based on France's concern that the Turkish military intervention that began in late 2019 will undermine European efforts to contain this file. With the US withdrawal from the Libyan file, Paris believed that the EU could contain the Libyan file. However, the Turkish intervention exposed the European failure and threatened that this file would come out of European control. The disagreement worsened when Turkey brought over armed mercenaries to Libya in a way that threatens European security. More importantly, Paris does not see the Turkish intervention in Libya as just a step to preserve Turkey’s interests there. Rather, the prevailing opinion in Paris is that the Turkish intervention is part of a new Turkish strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and Africa in general that threatens French interests there.

Paris is following with great concern the soft Turkish expansion in Africa through the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), which provides financial and social support to African countries. This activity has increased recently due to the Qatari financial support thereto. France also notes that Turkey has expanded its military presence in Somalia after Turkey announced that it is exploring for oil and gas there near the Bab el-Mandab, and an increase in the number of destinations flown to by Turkish Airlines in a number of sub-Saharan and Western African capitals, in addition to the emerging strong relationship between the Turkish intelligence Service and a number of terrorist factions in Africa after the release of an Italian hostage in Somalia recently.

Hence, with the increase in Turkish military activity in the Eastern Mediterranean, Paris is painting a picture that appears "so far bigger than the reality" for Turkey's projects in Africa. This could pave the way for Turkey to play the role of the alternative partner of the US forces in Africa after the decline of the French role due to the financial crisis and French internal problems that led President Macron to cut a portion of the budget on arming the French army abroad last year. Accordingly, the Turkish-French dispute is not limited to the Libyan file, but rather it is a French defence against the possible expansion of the Turkish role and Turkish hegemony over larger areas of Africa with US support through the Libyan gateway.

Within this framework, the "danger" of the Turkish expansion in Africa through the Libyan gateway appears to be greater for France than the "danger" of the Russian expansion there, despite the commonalities between Ankara and Paris in terms of a "supposed" alliance within NATO. This is attributable to several reasons, mainly the religious and historical commonality between Turkey and a number of the peoples of the African continent, which facilitates the Turkish intervention therein, especially in light of Turkey’s cultural and relief activities there, and the Islamic Ottoman propaganda reiterated by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Likewise, there are relations between Ankara and a number of extremist groups in Africa, such as the Somali Youth (al-Shabab) Group and Boko Haram in Nigeria. This makes Turkey better able not only to interfere in those countries and influence them, but also to threaten the interests of other countries such as France there. Finally, Washington may replace its existing security and military alliance with France against terrorism in West Africa with a new alliance with Turkey there, in light of the decline of French military capabilities due to economic austerity, in exchange for the expansion of the Turkish military action abroad, a task that seems theoretically possible, although its achievement in practice remains subject to Washington's decision and its provision of the financial and logistical support that Turkey currently lacks.

From a Turkish point of view, Ankara understands and believes that there is not much that France can do in Libya, for several reasons: first, the French psychological complex due to the intervention by former President Sarkozy in Libya, and the chaos and security problems resulting from that intervention; and second, the internal divisions within the EU between Germany, France, Britain and Italy, where each party has its own point of view. This often makes France seem alone in its diplomatic efforts. When the improvement or gradual rapprochement between Ankara and Washington in the Libyan file is added, then Ankara does not place a great deal of weight on French reactions in this regard.

Turkish-US relations and the Libyan file

The implicit US support for the military intervention in Libya seemed unexpected at first glance, given the nature of the relations between the two countries during 2019. The dispute between the two countries in Syria was most intense, as well as due to the Turkish cooperation with Moscow there. Washington did not hide its concerns about the Turkish moves in the Eastern Mediterranean. It declared its support explicitly for Cyprus and Greece, and clearly supported the East Mediterranean Gas Forum in Cairo, in which Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt participated.

However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Washington on 13 November 2019, which almost coincided with the announcement of the Turkish agreements with the GNA, was an opportunity to learn Washington’s response on this file. It seems that President Erdogan has been able to correctly read the US position that will not oppose expanding the Turkish intervention in Libya, considering that it balances the Russian military presence there. Ankara also read carefully Washington's disturbed position on Field Marshal Haftar because of his resort to Moscow and his permission to increase the numbers of Russian Wagner Company fighters on Libyan soil. Therefore, President Erdogan's focus was evident in his statements on Field Marshal Haftar, knowing that Haftar’s image and political intentions are considered unreliable in Washington. Ankara was also able to read the impact of the upcoming US elections on the Libyan file, through the reappearance of the element of "fighting Russian expansion in the region", which serves to support the Turkish military expansion in Libya, albeit based on US limits and conditions, and not absolutely. The US Africa Command announced its rejection of the Russian military presence in Libya. Through President Trump's policy of not engaging the US army in Middle East conflicts, Washington's best option for controlling Field Marshal Haftar’s ambitions and the opportunity he created for the Russian intervention is to support the Turkish military presence in Libya in order to strike a military balance on the ground that would eventually lead to the start of serious political negotiations.

This US support for the Turkish position in Libya emerged gradually since President Erdogan's visit to Washington in November 2020, where an agreement was reached to increase rapprochement and cooperation between the two countries in various fields. Over the past six months, increased cooperation between the two countries has been observed in Syria at the expense of Turkey's cooperation with Moscow there. Washington allowed Turkey to freely transfer weapons to Libya by sea and air, and allowed it to use US weapons in Libya.

Expectations

It should be remembered that the US support for Turkey in Libya is conditional on achieving US interests there, which are based on two main goals: weakening the Russian influence, and achieving a balance of power on the ground leading to the start of the path of a political solution, negotiations, and power-sharing. While Washington expresses its dissatisfaction with the use by Turkey of "jihadist" operatives in its military operations in Libya, Ankara seeks to persuade Washington that all of those operatives are under its control.

Presently, Washington plays the role of the secret and unofficial mediator between Cairo and Ankara in order to reach a compromise that prevents a direct military clash between the two countries in Libya. The outbreak of a direct military confrontation between its two allies Egypt and Turkey would open the door for a broader Russian intervention or Moscow's support of the LNA, which Washington does not want. However, the US mediation still clashes with President Erdogan's ideological stance towards the recognition of the regime of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his stance towards the Muslim Brotherhood, which Erdogan refuses to classify as a terrorist organization. The Libyan oil card is considered one of the most important cards at present because depriving the GNA from the oil income means increasing the cost of military action for Turkey, which is currently secretly selling Libyan oil through its banks in order to support the value of the Turkish lira, and gets the price of the weapons and the salaries of fighters from the GNA.

Turkey considers cooperation with Washington in Libya an opportunity to rectify the relations between the two countries, obtain Washington's support in the file of supporting the Turkish economy, and obtain external loans. That is why Ankara acts in direct coordination with Washington on Libyan soil, and it is therefore not expected - despite all the ongoing military escalation - that Ankara would rush to support the GNA attack on Sirte and Jufra. Ankara is likely to wait for the result of the US mediation, which may eventually lead to sending international or United Nations forces to control Sirte and Jufra and organize the sale of Libyan oil in a neutral manner.

On the other hand, Turkey will respond to every Egyptian escalatory step by concluding agreements to build a naval base and an air base in Libya and trying to transport Turkish fighters to Libya in addition to tanks and a military force in preparation for the worst scenario, namely direct military clash between Egypt and Turkey on Libyan soil. In this scenario, Ankara will try as much as possible to avoid direct military confrontations but will seek as much as possible to turn the conflict into a process of military attrition for the Egyptian side by activating terrorist operations in eastern Libya and the Egyptian interior once again.

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