Is Libya too big of a foreign policy challenge for Erdoğan?
On Jan. 2, Turkey’s Grand National Assembly approved a bill allowing for the deployment of Turkish troops to Libya after the Tripoli government activated a recently concluded security pact signed with Ankara last month. The bill passed overwhelmingly and along party lines 315-184 vote in Turkey’s Grand National Assembly.
The Government of National Accords (GNA) headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj called for Turkish support following the advance of General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) that serves a parallel government based in Tobruk. After months of being bogged down outside of Tripoli, Haftar’s forces resumed their advance on the capital from multiple fronts.
While the Turkish government officials and pro-government media portray the move as a necessity to protect Turkish interests, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has encountered deep scepticism.
Prior to the vote, Turkey’s opposition parties all expressed disapproval of sending any troops to Libya. After a meeting with Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu that aimed to ease their concerns, CHP’s Vice Chair Ünal Çeviköz stated the party’s position has not changed and that it did not wish to see Libya become a second Syria.
“In the current situation, we do not want the bad picture that unfolded in Syria to repeat itself in another country,” Çeviköz announced in a statement from party headquarters in Ankara.
Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), believes that unlike in Syria, Erdoğan lacks a definitive case for intervening in Libya that would win over Turkish public opinion.
“In Syria, Erdoğan used the pretext of fighting the PKK to legitimize his cross-border operations,” says Erdemir, referring to the Kurdish militant group, Kurdistan Workers' Party, that Ankara views as a terrorist group. He adds that lacking a similar rationale in Libya, Erdoğan will have a more difficult time convincing the Turkish public this time around.
Turkish officials have been cautious when describing the shape any intervention will take. Vice President Fuat Oktay said that the deployment would be valid for a year upon authorisation but opened the door to not sending any forces at all. This would be conditioned on Haftar halting his advance after the bill passed in parliament.
“After it passes, if the other side changes its attitude...then what should we go there for?” Oktay told state-run Anadolu news agency the day before the vote.
Experts on Libya suggest that any Turkish operation would be complicated by a combination of political, geographic and military difficulties. One critical gap created by all three is whether Turkey will be able to defend its troops from the air or protect them from enemy aircraft.
Unlike Syria where Turkey shares a border that makes military operations logistically easier, Libya is nearly 1,900 kilometres away and the nearest airbase is located in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus. Any sorties conducted from these bases would necessitate mid-air refuelling of Turkish fighters.
Turkey does not presently possess a capacity to provide naval aviation to make up for this with its only amphibious carrier still months away from commissioning. Now that Ankara has been expelled from the F-35 programme, it also lacks any fixed-wing jets that can operate from the sea as well.
“No air support is possible because no base is secure enough to accommodate F-16s,” says Arnaud Delalande, an independent security analyst, referring to LNA targeting of GNA airports. Delalande warns that even if mid-air refuelling was an option, it carries the risk of clashes with either Greek or Egyptian jets.
If Turkish troops reach Libya, it risks confrontation with an array of foreign forces that back Haftar from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. While Oktay described the troop bill as a deterrence to the GNA’s foes, it may have the opposite effect.
“If a Turkish intervention were to actually take place, it will translate to the LNA’s international backers doubling down in their support,” says Oliver Crowley, Co-Managing Partner of Libya Desk, a political risk consultancy that specialises on Libya.
Haftar’s LNA is supported by a hodgepodge of foreign forces. Up to 300 Russian mercenaries from the so-called Wagner Group, a private military company owned by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, fight for Haftar in Tripoli and a total of 1,000 are believed to have arrived in September. Egyptian and Emirati pilots have conducted airstrikes in support of the LNA before while Egyptian soldiers were reportedly inside Tripoli since November.
Crowley cautions that the risk of clashes between Turkish and other foreign forces is real because they have already taken place indirectly. Turkish drones killed several Wagner mercenaries last month and Turkish personnel were wounded in an alleged UAE airstrike on Mitiga Airport in June.
Erdoğan has used these elements to justify his actions in Libya and attack his rivals’. He has highlighted Wagner’s presence among the LNA as a reason not to ignore the GNA’s request for help and derided Haftar’s backers for “supporting a warlord” while Turkey supports the “legitimate government”.
According to Crowley, a Turkish advance team has been on the ground in Misrata and Tripoli assessing the GNA forces to inform a working strategy that would drive Haftar back into negotiations. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar similarly indicated that these assessments were ongoing.
However political sensitivities accompany bringing Turkish forces onto the GNA side for both Tripoli and Ankara.
Turkey has relied on low-risk measures in Libya that would fulfil twin goals of propping up Sarraj while avoiding Turkish losses that would invite backlash from a war-weary opposition.
It was revealed that Turkey has already deployed some of its Syrian Turkmen proxies to fight in Libya against Haftar. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Turkey opened recruiting centres in their occupied zones, attracting recruits with high salaries.
Turkey has largely fought in Syria through its proxies as a means to reduce risks to Turkish personnel. However, Delalande says that not enough information exists about the units being sent to determine their usefulness in Tripoli.
“They will not be a major asset for the GNA to regain the upper hand on the LNA,” according to Delalande. “They will only be a rebalancing of forces.”
FDD’s Erdemir agrees and believes that Ankara hopes that its forces will be confined to an advisory capacity but this may not last if the war intensifies.
“The harsh realities of the Libyan battlefield will likely force Erdoğan to supplement his hired guns with Turkish combat forces.”
Experts say that the nature and composition of the GNA militias carry its own sensitivities. Delalande says that militias from Misrata already categorically refuse to work with Syrians sent to fight in Tripoli.
Crowley drew attention to the fact that Libyan militias already fight in a coalition held together by a shared hatred of Haftar and prior to his April offensive, many of them were enemies with each other. Even direct Turkish participation on the ground he says would be difficult to receive.
“It is still difficult to fathom Turkish troops intervening directly and fighting on the front lines as it will lead to the GNA losing much needed political support domestically,” cautions Crowley, adding that Turkish seeing combat could increase support for the LNA among Libyans.
“At the end of the day, it will have to be the GNA coalition forces that drive any military operation.”
© Ahval English
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.