Will Ankara take over Sirte and its oil wells in Libya?

Following the NATO bombardment and overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, Libya was dragged into chaos that still consumes the country. Over time, two centres of power emerged in the oil-rich country: the Tripoli-based Government of the National Accord (GNA) and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HR).

According to the U.N.-brokered agreement of December 2015, the GNA is the country’s only legitimate executive body while the HR represents the sole legislative power.

However, the international community recognised only the Tobruk-based parliament, prior to this agreement, because the Islamists in Tripoli who suffered a defeat in the 2014 polls did not accept its outcome and quickly took over the city.

At that time, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) supported and maintained relations with Tripoli – which lacked any legitimacy – and did not recognise the elected parliament in Tobruk. In fact, Turkey became the first country to appoint a diplomatic representative to the internationally unrecognized authorities in Tripoli.

AKP’s motive for backing Tripoli from the very beginning was not out of concern for legitimacy. The major reason was rather that the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party constituted one of the influential forces holding power in the capital. This party, which didn’t gather more than 10 percent support in the 2012 elections and performed much worse in 2014, now supports the GNA, headed by Fayez al-Sarraj.

Libya never had a strong military. Presently, neither Tripoli nor Tobruk have what may be called a proper army. The two sides scrambling for power employ fighters with tribal loyalties, soldiers from semi-autonomous city-states, Islamist militia of varying motives and ideology and mercenaries.

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the strongman of the Tobruk-based power centre, accuses the rivals in Tripoli for cooperating with radical Islamists. However, it is well-known that he himself employs jihadist Salafi militia.

A former Chief of General Staff for Gaddafi, Haftar gathered by his side many officers of the old regime. Despite that, his self-styled Libya National Army, as many observers point out, is deficient in terms of both military training and discipline.

Haftar, who has a major backing from Russia, began in April 2019 a large-scale offensive to capture Tripoli. In those days, Russian operatives in the field provided Moscow with a report underlining that Hafter achieved little military success so far, instead advancing mostly through buying off local tribes, and the assault on Tripoli was sure to end in disaster. Even in the event of victory, it was unlikely he would remain loyal the Russian interests.

For months, Haftar failed to gain any significant ground. After the Russian Wagner company brought in roughly 2,000 mercenaries in September, his forces were able to push forward to the outskirts of Tripoli. A relatively small number of mercenaries were almost about to seal the fate of a country more than double the size of Turkey.

In November 2019, Turkey concluded a maritime and a military agreement with the GNA, after which Ankara began deploying Syrian mercenaries alongside the Turkish military in Libya.

As this was the first case of a foreign state sending its regular military forces to Libya, the conflict entered into a new phase.

Turkish-backed forces proved to be effective in a relatively short period of time and Haftar’s forces cleared off from the Tripoli and around.

Soon after, the highest-level officials in Ankara announced the next targets involved three centres of strategic importance: the town of Sirte on the Mediterranean coast, the Al-Jufra airbase located at some 300 kilometres to the south and the country’s major oil facilities to the east of these points.

Egypt, France and Russia are clearly against such intentions. What will the AKP government do now as the world carefully watches on?

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi announced that Cairo would respond with military intervention if foreign forces enter these areas. However, his statement is unlikely to cause AKP decisionmakers to step back. To the contrary, Sisi’s toughest opponents in Ankara may now see an opportunity to settle accounts and double down on their challenge.

In the end, we may anticipate that an operation is underway for Sirte and most likely for Al-Jufra. There is no need to rush for Ankara, because maximum military preparations as well as all possible diplomatic dialogues must be completed.

Current military balances on the field are in favour of the Turkish-backed forces. They may achieve the target of taking over Sirte and probably Al-Jufra as well.

But this would mean a simultaneous entry into an unknown phase of the conflict simply because there are questions with unknown answers.

How will Moscow react, especially in military terms, if the Turkish-backed forces take over Al-Jufra – where currently at least 14 Russian fighter jets are deployed – without mutual consent?

French President Emmanuel Macron went on record saying that “Turkey is playing a dangerous game and France will not allow it.” Such words clearly imply a use of military means as needed. Is the French president bluffing or will he stand by his words? Shall we see a hot conflict between the two NATO allies?

Will Egypt mobilise its military in a comprehensive way, especially its land and air forces? Or will it opt to predominantly employ Cairo-loyal tribal fighters?

What is the military content of negotiations and probable accord between Russia, France and Egypt?

The abundance of vital questions with yet unknown answers only increases the likelihood of all sorts of big surprises.

On the other hand, the approach of the AKP elite and its supporters in the media to take over the hydrocarbon sources, while showing a deep appetite, is not fully realistic.

Just to the east of Sirte, along a 250-kilometre coastline, are numerous facilities including Libya’s two largest oil refineries, oil tanks and port installations. To the south of this coast, in an area approximately 200 kilometres deep and 500 kilometres wide are oil wells and natural gas production stations with multiple oil and gas lines. The majority of Libya’s hydrocarbon production takes place in this region.

Even if Turkish-backed forces were to seize all these facilities and gain physical control over the whole of this large area, as long as there are two power centres in Libya it would be hard to operate these without an agreement between the two sides. During the many years of internal strife, the facilities operated only following such a consent between the two sides. The Tobruk administration later scrapped the agreement and production has since halted.

It would be possible for one of the conflicting parties to single-handedly control Libya’s hydrocarbon sources only if that party can control over the entire country.

The balance in Libya could largely shift should the United States throw its weight behind one of the factions. However, as long as the crisis does not spiral out of control, it is unlikely that Washington would do it.

On the one side there is America’s strategic ally Turkey, and on the other side Sisi, a leader U.S. President Donald Trump describes as his “favourite dictator”, the Gulf countries on whose support the Washington’s present Middle East policy is greatly underpinned, and France. Washington’s foreign policy and security establishment is badly divided over Turkey. Trump is tackling with the upcoming elections, sinking voter support, anti-racism protests and the COVID-19 pandemic. It is hardly an easy task for Trump to mobilise efforts to focus on a single goal in Libya under such circumstances.

Independent of how Turkey’s short-term moves will play out, Ankara will most likely have to live with a long-lasting Libya crisis.

Additionally, the Libya, Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean issues have now merged together to form a giant, strategic knot for Turkey. Upon completion of the U.S. elections, this knot will for sure remain heavily in our agenda throughout 2021 – and after.

One of Turkey’s first moves should be to abandon the pro-Muslim Brotherhood-based foreign policy. This way of conducting foreign policy until today has only caused damage to the Turkish interests.

There should be no governing ideology for foreign policy other than the protection of its national interests.

For example, in the East Mediterranean, Turkey has legitimate rights to the riches of the sea. Realisation of its resource-based legitimate rights in maximum goes through a maritime agreement with Egypt. Since that would also constitute the best legitimate deal for Egyptian interests, it should not be difficult to achieve such an understanding provided ideological fixations are abandoned.

Secondly, Turkey must re-examine its policies which led Ankara into an eerie isolation in Europe and Middle East. The current decisionmakers and its supporters denigrate Ankara’s almost century-long traditional approach throughout the republican period with a superficial criticism such as “too old, submissive, pliable and being content with too little,’’ and adopting instead a new-Unionist adventurism. Here I am referring to the infamous Committee of Union and Progress which ruled the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the last century until its demise, and known in Turkish historiography as Unionists (İtihatçı).

What the present-day new-Unionists are not aware of is that the posture they are trying to besmirch is not just a tradition of the republican era, but a part of the centuries-old ancient Ottoman heritage.

Let us recall an iconic statement by Fuat Pasha, one of the most qualified Ottoman statesmen of the 19th century raised in that heritage and served as the Foreign Minister in repeated periods: “Do not challenge everyone, go in the way of not making enemies.”

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