Turkey’s Libya intervention could light regional fuse

In 1911, the future founder of Turkey led a failed Ottoman campaign against invading Italians in Libya. The Ottoman Empire crumbled in the first World War that followed, ultimately enabling Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to lead the creation of the Republic of Turkey. 

Just over a century later, Atatürk’s lone rival in the pantheon of modern Turkish leaders, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has engineered another Libya intervention, which received parliamentary approval on Thursday, underscoring his intention to return Turkey to a position of regional dominance. 

“He can present what Turkey is doing there as the responsible thing that a responsible power in the region and a leader of the Muslim world should be doing,” Steven A. Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Ahval in a podcast. “Though, it is potentially destabilising...I think there’s plenty of risk there for Erdoğan.” 

The worst-case scenario might fall just short of another world war. In an editorial this week, the Washington Post argued that Turkey’s Libya deployment in support of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) could touch off a major multinational conflict, spark a new wave of refugees to Europe and spur the growth of Libya’s Islamic State affiliate. 

Michel Cousins, editor-in-chief of online news outlet the Libya Herald, largely agreed. He saw Turkey’s intervention remaking Libya’s civil war, which has mostly been fought by proxies, into a broader regional tussle that could soon involve the militaries of other Arab states, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which both back General Khalifa Haftar. 

“Are they just going to confront each other within Libya, or will we see this go regional? There’s a great danger that could happen,” Cousins told Ahval in a podcast. 

Erdoğan has long been a crucial GNA patron, sending military advisers, arms and a drone fleet last year to defend against the advancing forces of Haftar, who is also backed by Russia and the United Arab Emirates. 

In recent weeks, Turkey has begun to woo Tunisia and Algeria, hoping they too will back the GNA. Erdoğan made a surprise visit to Tunisia last week, and next week the Turkish navy plans to dispatch two frigates to Algeria to perform coordinated exercises and train Algerian naval forces.

“That Erdoğan visit to Tunis, I saw that very much in the light of Erdoğan reaching out in his neo-Ottomanism and looking to draw Tunisia into his new alliances,” said Cousins, who believes Tunisia and Algeria could ultimately side with Turkey in Libya.

The GNA is in desperate need of additional backing. Cousins credited the success of Haftar’s side in recent weeks to the presence of some 1,000 Russian mercenaries, and said Turkey’s troop deployment, which Ankara fast-tracked, comes in the nick of time. 

“It will save the GNA from defeat,” he said, adding that he expected around 1,000 Turkish troops to join the fighting in Libya. “Turkish armed forces are professional, they know what they’re doing. They will be against an army, Haftar’s army, which is not all that well trained.”

Turkey has already sent some Syrian rebels to fight in Libya and assembled more in training camps in Turkey to prepare for deployment, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an independent monitoring outfit.

Also on Thursday, Greece, Cyprus and Israel agreed to build a $6 billion natural gas pipeline that will run through eastern Mediterranean  waters claimed by Ankara in its maritime boundary deal with the GNA. Analysts say that deal, made in November, has no legal validity. Most agree it has influenced the Eastern Mediterranean conversation, yet it would be null and void if the GNA were to fall.  

For Cousins, the pipeline agreement highlighted Greece’s shift from being aligned with the United Nations and the European Union, both of which recognise the GNA as Libya’s government, to supporting General Haftar. 

“Greece has now been drawn into this conflict, and it has now become quite close to Haftar and to the government in Benghazi,” he said. “We’re seeing the Greek-Turkish rivalry also play out in Libya.”

Another rivalry playing out in Libya is that of Russia and Turkey, which long backed opposing sides in Syria before reaching agreements to avoid direct conflict in the past two years. In Libya they again support opposing forces, and their presidents are set to meet in Istanbul Jan. 8 to inaugurate the TurkStream pipeline and discuss Syria and Libya. 

Russia is interested in Libya’s vast natural resources and its proximity to Europe, as part of a broader strategy to squeeze Europe with several Mediterranean points of influence, including its naval facility in Tartus, Syria. 

“The Libya play is part of that, and too seemingly important to Russian strategy to take account of Turkish concerns,” said Cook, who sees a Libya deal between Turkey and Russia as a more difficult achievement than those made in Syria. 

The two leaders would never allow their forces to come to blows in Libya, says Cousins, who believes the rewards for reaching an agreement with Turkey may be too tempting for Moscow to pass up. 

“I see them reaching a deal which effectively gives the green light for Turkey to carry on doing what it wants in Libya,” said Cousins. “Getting Turkey, a member of NATO, as an ally -- to see NATO weakened, weakening Turkey’s membership in the alliance, that’s a major diplomatic gain for Russia.”

For Turkey, Libya is doubly important. Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) supports the GNA in part because of an Islamist connection that goes back decades. 

“Turkish Islamists have this weird yen for Libya,” said Cook, pointing out that in the late 1990’s the first foreign trip of prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, Erdoğan’s political mentor, was to Tripoli. 

Today the Muslim Brotherhood has significant political influence within the GNA, yet the AKP government’s ties to Libya go back to pre-Arab Spring times. After Western nations intervened to oust longtime dictator Moammar Ghaddafi, Turkish construction firms put some $18 billion worth of construction projects on hold. Now Ankara hopes to back the winning side and resume those projects, and attract more, in a stable post-war Libya. 

“If the economy starts to get going, it’s going to be a complete gold mine for companies going in to rebuild,” said Cousins. “For Turkey, that’s very very important, because the Turkish economy is not doing well, and to be cut out of that would be disastrous.”

World leaders plan to meet in Berlin later this month in an effort to find a political solution for Libya’s civil war, but most observers do not expect the summit to end the violence. 

Economic growth remains a distant dream for today’s Libya, where Russia, Turkey, and the UAE have significantly increased their military support in recent months, and new players, like Greece, Algeria, and Tunisia, may soon get involved. 

As a result, hate speech and disinformation are on the rise, tribes and communities have been fractured and tens of thousands of people have been displaced, as the violence and instability threatens to spill beyond Libya’s borders. 

“Libya is a football that everyone else is kicking around,” Cousins said. “I’m not saying that Libya itself isn’t responsible for a lot of its problems, but they have been made infinitely worse by a number of external actors.”

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.