Transfer of jihadists a major concern, as fears grow in Libya

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been expanding its intervention and sending military forces to Libya, putting the Turkish-backed internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in a position of strength in the lead-up to Sunday’s talks in Berlin.

But, Ankara's efforts pose new problems and questions, such as the duration of the Turkish presence and GNA's control over Turkish-backed Syrian militia deployed in the country, Michel Cousins, the editor-in-chief of the Libya Herald argues in his piece for The Arab Weekly:

"Ever since the Libyan National Army (LNA) began its offensive last April to seize Tripoli from the UN-recognised GNA, the near stalemate on the military front has been accompanied by paralysis on the political side," Cousins said.

Turkey and Russia, who back opposite sides in the conflict by deploying militias, became the major actors of the Libyan conflict.

"Triggered by significant LNA advances in October and then by a military support agreement between the GNA and Turkey, as well as their maritime boundaries agreement that turned an infuriated Greece into a close ally of the LNA, momentum gained speed almost as soon as 2020 started," Cousins said.

Last Sunday marked the first day of a fragile ceasefire in Libya that Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin hope can steer the conflict toward a political resolution, and on Monday Libya's warring factions made progress toward a peace deal during talks in Moscow, though no agreement was reached.

LNA leader Khalifa Haftar initially rejected the call but then accepted the ceasefire deal, following what is believed to have been intense pressure from Moscow.

On January 13, Haftar and GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj travelled to Moscow to negotiate ceasefire terms. It was also announced that the much-delayed Berlin Conference, proposed by Germany last summer and scheduled for November would happen on January 19.

Despite his refusal to join GNA in signing the truce accord, Haftar agreed to go to Berlin and continue with the ceasefire. While there have been small violations, there have not been missile strikes or bombings. An uneasy calm had returned to Tripoli.

"Bigger issues are expected that go way beyond the Berlin Conference. Russia and Turkey, by acting in concert, have established themselves as the dominant foreign players in Libya. Will other powers, especially the United States, accept that?" Cousins said.

"Questions are being asked as to what Turkey’s future role will be. What will Russia’s role be? What does either of them want from Libya?

'When will the Turks leave?' That question was asked January 16 by a senior Tripoli official who did not want to be named but who was strongly opposed to Haftar. That day Erdogan had stated that Turkish forces were going to Libya in support of the GNA," he said.

Proud of his country and jealous of its independence, the Tripoli official said his fear was that Turkish forces would not leave if they forced the LNA to retreat. He disliked Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism and did not want Libya to slip back into Turkish control, according to Cousins, and he is not the only official among GNA who questions the duration of the Turkish presence in Libya, he said.

"Another question he and others asked was how, if there was a deal, could Sarraj work with the Tripoli militias or the militants? 'He does not have the power to disarm them. Who is going to do it? Someone else will have to do it',” Cousins quoted the Tripoli official as saying.

The Turkish-backed militia in Libya has been a hot topic since their deployment as reports revealed that Turkey stationed Syrian jihadist groups in Libya. Lamine Ghanmi said in his piece for The Arab Weekly that there is a concern for the inflow of Syrian militia and Turkey's transfer of jihadists that could widen regional insecurity.

"The quickening pace of international mediations in the Libyan conflict reflects increasing wariness over the risk of the war morphing into a regional conflict with unpredictable repercussions after Turkey started transferring jihadists and mercenaries to the strife-stricken North African country," Ghanmi said.

The number of mercenaries transferred to Libya by Turkey reached at 1,750 and an additional 1,500 were being trained in Turkey, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"More concern was voiced in Libya’s immediate neighbourhood," Ghanmi said. The intrusion of fighters from Syria would prolong war in Libya, “allowing [the Islamic State] ISIS and al-Qaeda members to widen the scope of security chaos, which can affect Libya’s neighbours,” he quoted Tunisian terrorism expert Alaya Allani as saying.

Turkey can use its “mercenary army” to “wring deals from Russia” or just keep the Syrian fighters “distracted by a new jihad so that they don’t make trouble in Syria for Turkey,” Ghanmi quoted Seth Frantzman, a fellow with the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia as saying.