Turkey’s intervention in Libya

January 20, 2020

Erdogan by Geralt, Licensed under Pixabay

 

Turkey has begun to take a more aggressive and active role in Libya’s Civil War. On January 2, 2020, Turkey’s parliament voted to send troops to Libya in order to support the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) against General Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army in the east. Turkey’s parliament voted in favor of the resolution despite warnings from Western States that such a move would lead to an escalation of the conflict.[1] Shortly after, Turkey sent troops to Tripoli in order to set up an operations center where Turkish troops would be able to coordinate and train GNA forces.[2] Turkey has also been found to have been funding and arming members of the Syrian opposition and other refugees in Turkey on the condition that they fight on behalf of the GNA and its leader, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.[3] Prior to this, Turkey was discovered to be arming the GNA in violation of a UN-designated arms embargo on Libya.[4] No other NATO member has intervened in the Libyan Civil War as intensely as Turkey has. This is largely due to the fear that an escalation may lead to violence spreading beyond Tripoli, and a prolonged and costly commitment that few countries are prepared to follow through with.

 

As Turkey has been sending mercenaries and Turkish troops to Tripoli, Erdogan has also stated that he believes there is no military solution to the conflict in Libya.[5] This statement in addition to the fact that Erdogan only asked the Turkish parliament for a one-year mandate to send troops to Libya suggests that Erdogan is not committed to a long-term military intervention. However, becauses Erdogan faces no real competition in the Turkish parliament, the vote was largely symbolic. Therefore, Erdogan is able to extend and expand Turkey’s intervention in Libya if and when he pleases.

 

In late December 2019, Turkey signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoA) with the GNA. This economic agreement with the GNA would give Turkey access to a large economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean Sea which would allow Turkey to explore and drill for oil and gas in the area.[6] This agreement comes at a time when Erdogan urgently needs a boost to Turkey’s depressed economy. Various countries responded to Turkey’s agreement with the GNA with condemnations. Israel, Greece and Cyprus, who are pursuing their own gas explorations in the Mediterranean, issued a joint statement warning that deploying Turkish troops will result in a more complicated situation dangerous to stability in Libya and the region as a whole.[7] Erdogan knows that Turkey’s economic interests in Libya and in the Mediterranean Sea are entirely dependent on the survival of Prime Minister Sarraj. Therefore, it is unclear how far Erdogan would be willing to go to protect Turkey’s economic interests in Libya if the GNA ever appears to be on the verge of falling to General Haftar’s forces.  

 

Since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2003, President Erdogan has sought to transform Turkey into a dominating regional power like the Ottoman Empire once was. He has attempted to achieve this by ensuring that Turkey has a seat at the table when it comes to conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. This then allows Turkey to implement or push for solutions to conflicts that are more favorable to Turkish interests. For example, in Syria, Erdogan has achieved at least two more of his goals in addition to getting a seat at the table. He was able to crush any hope for an independent, autonomous Kurdish state and create a lasting presence in Northern Syria through areas controlled by Turkish-supported Syrian militias. The Syrian Civil War has been a major foreign policy win for Erdogan. Erdogan’s actions with respect to Libya seem to be following somewhat of the same progression that they took in Syria. Turkey has intervened using the same Syrian militia men that were used in its fight against the Kurds in Northern Syria and who are loyal to Erdogan. These militia men are intended to beef up the severely depleted military of the GNA just as Turkey had done with the Syrian Opposition. As Syria continues to remain unstable, with few job prospects and many areas unsafe to return to, Turkey will have Syrian militiamen willing to fight for a paycheck which allows Erdogan to project his foreign policy ambitions abroad without provoking a strong response from the Turkish public.

 

Much of Erdogan’s domestic support can be attributed to his economic success in the early years of his term. However, in recent years Turkey’s Lira has collapsed and resulted in a major economic recession in Turkey. It was during this time that Erdogan’s AKP party lost its first major election since it became the ruling party in 2003. The results of the Istanbul mayoral election in March of 2019 alarmed Erdogan, who tried to have the election annulled only to lose again in a repeat election in June. Shortly after, Turkey began more aggressive drilling and exploration in the waters around Cyprus. Turkey’s economic maritime agreement with Libya will feed a significant amount of money into the Turkish economy, which Erdogan badly needs before the next election.

 

The GNA’s leader, Fayez al-Sarraj has two main supporters in the region: Qatar and Turkey. Although Sarraj denies having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey and Qatar are currently also the Muslim Brotherhood’s two primary overt backers. Turkey’s President Erdogan has had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1970’s, while in recent years Qatar has emerged as one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s primary supporter. Meanwhile, Russia, Jordan, Egypt and the UAE support General Haftar and view the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat.

 

Turkey’s deployment of troops could result in armed confrontations on the ground as General Haftar’s forces continue their operation against Tripoli. Prior to Turkey’s intervention, no country had agreed to support the GNA, let alone deploy troops on the ground. Now that there are powerful militaries backing both the GNA and General Haftar, transforming the Libyan Civil War into a proxy war as the UAE, Jordan and Russia intervened on behalf of General Haftar. The UAE and Jordan were found to have been in violation of the UN arms embargo by arming General Haftar.[8]  Russia was found to have sent paramilitary soldiers to Libya from the Kremlin-connected Wagner Group, a private security company.[9] Increased armed conflict is possible if Turkey, Russia or the UAE choose to deploy more powerful weaponry as a response to changes on the battlefield. Turkey’s involvement in Libya may have consequences for Europe as well. Migrants and other IDPs in camps already live in danger due to the close proximity of these camps to the battlefield, as evidenced by the July, 2019 airstrike that resulted in the deaths of at least 50 people.[10] If Turkey’s involvement in Libya results in an escalation of hostilities, Europe may see a new wave of migrants arriving on its shores.

 

Turkey’s deployment of military advisors to support the GNA will undoubtedly prolong the conflict as Turkish forces provide Sarra with the expertise needed to defend Tripoli. General Haftar already controls nearly all of Libya outside of Tripoli. It is safe to assume that the GNA would not be able to hold off General Haftar’s forces indefinitely while the UN arms embargo is still in effect. Turkey only needs the GNA to remain in power of Tripoli and the Libyan Navy in order to protect Turkey’s economic interests. It is likely that Erdogan understood this threat and acted accordingly to protect Turkey’s interests in Libya. Turkey’s intervention in Libya may also hurt its relations with other NATO states as Turkey continues to defy the wishes of the UN and NATO. Retaliatory attacks against domestic targets in Turkey are also a possibility.

 

CTG’s EUCOM team will monitor for updates in the Turkish parliament and in Turkish politics in order to detect any potential escalation of Turkey’s intervention in Libya. EUCOM will also monitor social media and other open sources in order to identify any information from Libya regarding Turkish soldiers or Turkish-supported militias.

 

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[1] Turkey's parliament votes on sending troops to Libya, Al Jazeera, Jan 2020,

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/01/violence-rages-libya-turkey-votes-deployment-troops-200102001843728.html

[2] Erdogan Announces First Turkish Troops Are Heading to Libya, New York Times, Jan 2020,

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/05/world/europe/erdogan-turkish-troops-libya.html

[3] Syrian mercenaries lured to fight for Turkey in Libya, Ahval News, Jan 2020,

https://ahvalnews.com/syrian-rebels/syrian-mercenaries-lured-fight-turkey-libya

[4] Turkey violates arms embargo on Libya - UN report, Ahval News, Nov 2019,

https://ahvalnews.com/turkey-libya/turkey-violates-arms-embargo-libya-un-report

[5] Turkey's Erdogan: No military solution to the conflict in Libya, Al Jazeera, Jan 2020,

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/01/turkey-erdogan-military-solution-conflict-libya-200126165333563.html

[6] Turkey signs maritime boundaries deal with Libya amid exploration row, Reuters, Nov 2019,

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-libya/turkey-signs-maritime-boundaries-deal-with-libya-amid-exploration-row-idUSKBN1Y213I

[7] Greece, Israel and Cyprus call Turkey's planned Libya deployment 'dangerous escalation', Reuters, Jan 2020,

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security-turkey-reaction/greece-israel-and-cyprus-call-turkeys-planned-libya-deployment-dangerous-escalation-idUSKBN1Z20CI

[8] Jordan, UAE, Turkey, Sudan accused of violating sanctions on Libya - U.N. report, Reuters, Nov 2019,

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security-un/jordan-uae-turkey-sudan-accused-of-violating-sanctions-on-libya-un-report-idUSKBN1XL2E6

[9] 'Wherever Wagner goes destruction happens': Libya's GNA slams Russian role in conflict, Middle East Eye, Nov 2019,

https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/wherever-wagner-goes-destruction-happens-libyan-govt-slams-russian-role-conflict

[10] Migrants at Libya camp prevented from leaving between deadly airstrikes, report claims, CBC, Jan 2020,

 https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/libya-migrant-camp-airstrike-1.5441516

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