Turkey makes clear intent to keep military presence, mercenaries in Libya

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar ended the debate over the withdrawal of Turkish soldiers and Syrian mercenaries from Libya, by asserting that they will remain to preserve Ankara’s interests in Libya and those of Libyans, according to the needs specified by the authorities in the country.

These Turkish statements showed that Ankara’s decision to intervene militarily in Libya was not intended to protect Tripoli from a potential attack by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, as it was previously claimed. In fact, the Turkish intervention was rather intended to defend Ankara’s interests under the guise of supporting the head of the Government of National Accord Fayez al-Sarraj and his interior minister Fathi Bashagha.

Akar’s statements confirm that the situation will remain the same regardless of who controls Tripoli. This, in some way, indicates that Turkey still has its Libyan military men on whom it can rely, in addition to its military forces and Syrian mercenaries.

The Turkish defence minister said on Tuesday his country’s military presence in Libya stems from protecting the rights of the Libyan people.

Akar’s statement came during his meeting with Turkish military personnel in Tripoli as part of an event attended by Libyan military leaders, notably Libyan Chief of General Staff Muhammad Ali Ahmad al-Haddad and the military commander of the western region Osama al-Juwaili.

“Libya’s sovereignty and independence is important. There were some problems when we came here. We made every effort we could make day and night to overcome these problems on land, sea and air. Significant results have been achieved at the point we have reached,” Akar told military personnel in Tripoli.

“Our Libyan brothers and sisters continue to work shoulder to shoulder with Turkey in order to build the armed forces and modernise their organisation,” Akar added.

He noted that intelligence provided by Haddad, Juwaili and the commander of the Tripoli Region Abdel-Baki Marwen contributed greatly to the success of the military operations in Libya.

The Turkish authorities persist with their arrogant attitude when dealing with the Libyan National Unity Government headed by Abdel Hamid Dbeibah, adopting a condescending tone whenever the issue of withdrawing mercenaries and foreign forces from Libya is discussed. This comes at a time when Libyan authorities are hoping to implement the terms of the ceasefire agreement, the outcomes of the Berlin conference and the roadmap emanating from the Swiss talks.

Ankara never drops an opportunity to send messages to Libyan officials in provocative statements that echo Ankara’s insolence and sense of arrogance.

During a joint news conference with his Libyan counterpart Najla al-Manqoush, held in the capital, Tripoli, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu  upped the previous rhetoric, saying that Turkish forces were in Libya as part of a training agreement reached with a previous Libya administration.

“There are those who equate our legal presence … with the foreign mercenary groups that fight in this country for money,” he said.

Çavuşoğlu was responding to statements by Manqoush, in which she urged Turkey to implement U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding the repatriation of more than 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries from Libya.

“We call on (Turkey) to take steps to implement all the provisions of … the Security Council resolutions and to cooperate together to expel all foreign forces and mercenaries from the Libyan territories,” Manqoush said.

The remarks were seen as a rebuke to Turkey, which has deployed troops and Syrian mercenaries to fight along with Tripoli militias since 2019.

The departure of hundreds of Turkish troops “is by all means a hard thing to implement,” Akar responded to Manqoush.

“Very difficult for Turkey — because it has spent untold amounts on making sure its presence in western Libya remains entrenched for a long while,” he added, in statements that echoed defiance and disrespect for the Libyan top diplomat.

Akar also implicitly linked Manqoush’s assumption of the Libyan foreign affairs portfolio to the Turkish military intervention, which he claimed had stopped the war in Libya and facilitated the political process, leading to the choosing of a new presidency council and a new government.

Akar’s statements provoked the anger of many Libyans, who fumed over Ankara’s shocking provocation and violation of Libyan sovereignty.

The response of the Turkish foreign minister to statements by his Libyan counterpart “carried expressions of arrogance. Unfortunately the Libyan foreign minister did not stop this ‘arrogant’ man to remind him that he is a guest in a country called Libya, a country that belongs only to Libyans,” Libyan MP Ali al-Takbali told The Arab Weekly.

MP Gabriel Ouheida considered that what happened during the joint news conference “clearly indicates the continuing influence of Turkey in Libya.”

He told The Arab Weekly that “the talk about keeping the mercenaries or at least the Turkish military presence in Libya seems to be far from reality, and this is evident through the condescending tone that was evident in the statements of the Turkish foreign minister.”

Ouheida said he fears “Libya is on the verge of a new crisis that will divide Libyans… because Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Dbeibah did not deviate from the approach of his predecessor Fayez al-Sarraj, due to de facto pressures, as well as because of previous foreign alliances.”

The issue of mercenaries and foreign forces in Libya, specifically the Turkish troops, which are estimated at about 7,000 officers and soldiers from land, air and sea forces, is one of the most complex challenges facing Dbeibah’s government. This comes despite an international consensus on the need to settle the matter before the upcoming general election on December 24.

(A version of this article was originally published by the Arab Weekly and is reproduced by permission.)