What’s behind Turkey’s secret arms shipments to Libya?
The discovery last month of 3,000 Turkish-made guns and more than four million bullets hidden in shipping containers arriving in the Libyan port of Khoms revealed a new element to Turkey’s neo-Ottoman effort to again become a major player in the Middle East, the Jerusalem Post said.
Khoms is a relatively minor port, likely chosen because controls might be less rigorous there, Zvi Mazel, former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, Romania, and Sweden, and senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, wrote in the Israeli news outlet on Monday.
“From the nature of the contraband weapons, it is fairly obvious they were not intended for a regular army, but rather for terrorist activities of armed groups, most probably Islamic organisations linked to the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Mazel.
The shipments violate a United Nations’ Security Council weapons embargo on Libya since the start of the civil war in 2011. Today the country is split between the Government of National Accord, led by Fayez al Sarraj in Tripoli and recognised by the UN, and the Tobruk government, led by General Khalifa Haftar, the de facto ruler of eastern Libya and head of the Libyan National Army.
As violence has continued, dozens of Islamic and other armed militias have emerged, and the local branch of Islamic State (ISIS) is still active, though greatly diminished.
The discovery of the containers was condemned by both Libyan governments, Mazel wrote. Sarraj ordered a thorough investigation while asking Turkey for explanations. Haftar demanded the UN Security Council launch an international inquest and accused President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of assisting armed terrorist groups and fomenting chaos.
On Dec. 22, the UN delegation to Libya reiterated the importance of the embargo and said the UN had constituted a panel of experts to examine what happened. That same day, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, arrived in Tripoli and met his Libyan counterpart and Sarraj.
Çavuşoğlu sought to minimise the incident and accused unnamed Arab countries of supplying tanks, missiles and drones to Libya. According to a UN report, a dozen countries, Turkey among them, are supplying weapons to both sides in violation of the embargo. Çavuşoğlu denied any involvement in the incident, adding that it was not representative of Turkey’s policy. Both countries agreed to cooperate on an investigation.
Both al Qaeda and ISIS are active between the borders of Libya, Tunisia and Algeria, and there are frequent reports of clashes in the area. Weapons reaching the region, mostly from the Mediterranean, often find their way to jihadist organisations.
“Turkey had sided with Islamic parties led by the Muslim Brotherhood immediately after the fall of Gaddafi,” wrote Mazel. “Those parties won the first parliamentary elections held the following year. Ankara maintained its support when they lost the subsequent elections in 2014.”
The fact that Ankara was helping Islamic organisations involved in the ensuing civil war was already known. In 2013, Greek customs agents found Turkish-made weapons in a Libya-bound ship that had sought shelter from a storm in a Greek port. There have been similar discoveries since, showing a clear pattern of attempts to provide arms to these organisations.
“Turkey is now vigorously pursuing its political and/or military penetration in the most sensitive parts of the region – from Syria and Iraq to Somalia and Sudan in Red Sea, and Qatar in the Persian Gulf,” wrote Mazel, “for the greater glory of its leader and the supremacy of Islam.”