Burak Tuygan
Jul 04 2019

What is Turkey doing in Libya?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has frequently questioned what right Washington has to take an active role in the Syrian civil war, a conflict that is playing out right on Turkey’s border and whose impact is felt little in the distant United States.

But after new revelations about the scale of Ankara’s military support to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), the same questions have been raised about Turkey’s involvement in the Libyan civil war.

Turkish support, including shipments of armoured vehicles and military drones, helped save the GNA from an onslaught by the rival Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar that threatened to capture the country’s capital city this year.

Ankara’s support for the Islamist-rooted GNA is one of many foreign policy decisions that have placed it on opposite sides to Egypt and its Gulf state allies, leading some analysts to describe the Libyan conflict as a regional proxy war.

When the uprising against President Muammar Gaddafi began in 2011, Erdoğan initially opposed NATO intervention in the country, before caving to pressure and sending warships to support the operation that helped depose the Libyan strongman.

The country has been plagued by a succession of political crises since Gaddafi’s fall. Turkey’s involvement in Libya came to the fore particularly after 2014, when the Islamist elements comprising the GNA refused to concede defeat in elections, leading to the formation of a rival government in Tobruk backed by Haftar’s army. 

The reasons for Turkey’s backing of the GNA are complex, but a number of scenarios and explanations stand out.

One of the most widely held theories is that Turkey has been drawn into the conflict due to its ideological closeness to the significant Muslim Brotherhood elements within the GNA. The impact the Muslim Brotherhood has had on Turkey’s relations with countries from Syria to Sudan, Palestine to Egypt, cannot be denied. Egypt and the Gulf States count the Islamist group as a terrorist organisation, and have condemned Ankara’s support for it.

Turkey’s ongoing support for the GNA and its militias has brought them to a point of mutual dependence: the Islamists need Ankara’s backing to defend themselves against the LNA, while Turkey needs the Islamists if it has any hope of having a future say in the country. 

Closely related to this is Turkey’s relationship with Qatar, the tiny Gulf State that has had a profound influence on Turkish foreign policy. It was Turkey that saved Qatar from the worst effects of a blockade by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain in 2017, when the Arab quartet accused Qatar’s government of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood. 

While Ankara has the military might to provide the muscle in the relationship, Qatar has been a faithful supplier of funds to Turkey’s government throughout its recent economic downturn, and the pair have acted in unison to pursue mutual interests in the region. One of these is Libya, where again Qatar is seen as bankrolling the GNA while Turkey provides military assistance.

The Turkish president has made no secret of his opposition to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi since the general overthrew his predecessor, Mohammed Morsi, in a military coup in 2013. Morsi, a leading figure in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the country’s first democratically elected president, had been a firm friend to Erdoğan, who has frequently denounced Sisi and the military coup. The Libyan adventure could thus be part of a plan by the Turkish president to undermine Sisi, who along with his Gulf allies supports Haftar and the LNA.

On the other hand, there are clear economic prizes in Libya, a country that possesses some of the richest hydrocarbon resources in Africa and, with a small population, has the potential to export nearly all of them.

Erdoğan could be assuming the country’s tribal structure and lack of democratic institutions will make establishing hegemony there relatively easy, and counting on a large portion of the spoils if he helps the GNA achieve victory.

In any case, there are already important resources accessible to Turkey. Though the LNA currently controls most of the oil resources, the GNA still holds refineries and some hydrocarbon reserves.

Similarly, Libya could also come into Ankara’s calculations as a possible solution to its isolation in the eastern Mediterranean. The discovery of potentially huge hydrocarbon reserves in the sea led to a race by regional countries to access the wealth. While Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel and other countries have come together to form agreements on the issue, Turkey’s opposition to the Cypriot administration’s plans to drill around the island have left it isolated.

Media outlets linked to the Turkish government have speculated that a Turkish triumph in Libya would give it a vital ally in the regional dispute.

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

© Ahval News

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