Turkey’s Libya manoeuvres begin to worry Italy

Turkey’s push to extend influence in western Libya is putting Italy’s interests at risk as Rome tries to regain control of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.

A phone call between Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Sarraj earlier in May reflected Italy’s concerns about Turkey’s ambitions in Libya, which now seem to extend beyond its initial goal of creating a military balance that would bring the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) back to the negotiating table.

During the call, the Italian PM expressed his country’s concern about the flow of foreign weapons into Libya, which he said was further fuelling the conflict and posing a security threat to neighbouring and European countries.

Conte stressed the need for the GNA to return to the negotiating table in accordance with the UN Security Council decisions and the conclusions of the Berlin Conference. He said the future of Libya should be for Libyans to decide, without interference from foreign players.

He also called for the prompt appointment of a new UN envoy in Libya to replace Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Libya Stephanie Williams and stressed the need for the resumption of Libyan oil production, which represents “a wealth for all Libyans and their main source of income.”

In recent years, Turkey has taken advantage of Italian-French competition in Libya to build up their own influence. Ankara sees Libya as being of strategic importance given its security importance and energy ties with southern Europe.

Italy and France are taken aback by Turkey’s maneuvers at the same time Russia looks to take control of oil resources in eastern Libya.

Turkey’s initial push in Libya is thought to have been green-lighted by Western powers like the US, Britain and Italy, who wanted to see a military balance between the GNA and LNA, which has received French backing.

The LNA’s advance threatened Italy’s interests in Libya, especially after its commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, accused Rome of siding with the Islamists in the city of Misrata.

However, Rome is now concerned that Libya’s conflict is taking the same form as Syria’s and that Turkey and Russia could be left to reap the spoils.

Libya is divided between forces loyal to the Islamist-backed GNA and fighters with the LNA, led by Haftar.

Turkey has dramatically increased its involvement in the conflict this year, sending intelligence personnel, delivering air drones and dispatching hundreds of mercenaries from Syria, tipping the balance in favour of the GNA’s forces, which on May 18 recaptured the strategically located al-Watiya airbase. Rome is wary of Turkey’s expanded military and intelligence influence in Libya as it could allow Ankara to play the same migration blackmail game it has played against its Greek neighbours before.

for now, it is in Ankara’s interest to amplify fears about Russian presence on the southern shore of the Mediterranean.

On May 29, Moscow shot back by warning that outside intervention has “changed the balance of power” in Libya, in a clear reference to Turkey.

Calling for the conflict to be resolved through “diplomatic means,” Russia’s foreign ministry said the situation in Libya was continuing to deteriorate and that a ceasefire there was in tatters, the RIA news agency reported.

Earlier last week, the US military accused Russia of deploying “fourth-generation” fighter planes to Libya to support the LNA in its offensive on the capital Tripoli.

Russia flew MiG 29 and SU-24 fighter planes to a Libyan airbase escorted by other Russian fighter jets, the US military said May 27.

“Russian military aircraft are likely to provide close air support and offensive fire,” United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) said in a statement posted on its website and on Twitter.

Some of Washington’s analysts share the Pentagon’s concern about a wider Russian role.

“Not only could Russian airpower change the military balance in Libya itself, but this could be the first step in a gradual escalation to what eventually becomes a permanent Russian military deployment in the country,” Michael Kofman, director of the Russia studies programme at the Center for Naval Analysis told the New York Times.

Other experts, however, argue that while Russia wants to influence the political process in Libya, it has little interest in directly taking part in a military showdown.

Although the Libyan civil war seems to be a war between rival factions over control of the country’s vast resources, there has been an international dimension to the conflict ever since NATO intervened to help topple the rule of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi in 2011.

Alongside Turkey and Egypt, Gulf and European countries have played a role to varying degrees in Libya’s conflict since 2014.

(This article was originally published in the Arab Weekly and was reproduced by permission)