The real reason Turkey is in Libya

Turkey’s considerable military support for Islamist rebels in Libya may not be linked to any shared ideology, but rather a direct result of Qatar’s post-Arab spring connection to a Libyan Islamist who just happened to meet the right people in Doha. 

Last week, relations between Turkey and Qatar came under assault in Turkey’s pro-government media, which slammed Qatar’s Al Jazeera English for its negative coverage of Ankara’s offensive in northeast Syria. 

David Roberts, lecturer at King’s College London and author of the book “Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-State”, sees this as a non-issue, because Al Jazeera tends to make its own editorial decisions and Turkey-Qatar relations are so strong. Their ties go back to Ottoman times, though the current alliance is much more recent. 

“The unusually close relations between Turkey and Qatar kind of kicked off with the Arab spring,” Roberts told Ahval in a podcast. “Both are quite comfortable engaging in various degrees with actors on the Islamist spectrum. Turkey far more so, perhaps, but Qatar is fine with those actors.” 

When in mid-2017 a bloc of regional states led by Saudi Arabia placed a blockade on Qatar, largely due to its support of Islamist groups, Turkey stepped in to help. 

“Within the first few days of the blockade we certainly saw Turkish troops arriving, very visibly - defence diplomacy at its finest,” said Roberts, pointing out that the Turkish military training contingent in Qatar at the time quickly expanded into a Turkish military base. 

In August 2018, Qatar returned the favour, bailing out the troubled Turkish economy with some $15 billion in investments, as well as a $500 million luxury private jet from Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim al-Thani to his “brother” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

That year, Turkey-Qatar trade surged nearly 80 percent. Relations were going from strength to strength, and Qatar, with its population of just 300,000 citizens, turned to Turkey for help. 

“Qatar does not have enough people to go around and it needs to leverage relationships wherever it can,” Roberts explained. 

“Turkey became a pivotally important foreign policy actor with and on behalf of Qatar,” he added, pointing to Libya, Syria, and Somalia. “It was the Turks that had the foreign service apparatus, the knowledge and the know-how, and so the two worked kind of hand in glove in these various foreign fields.” 

Roberts said Qatar is not slavishly devoted to the Islamist cause, as many observers suggest, but is rather a supporter of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood out of pragmatism. He believes Qatar’s support for Islamists in Libya, and by extension Turkey’s, was mainly a result of happenstance. 

Ali al-Sallabi, a leading figure in Libya’s Islamist movement, was exiled to Qatar and made connections there to Muslim Brotherhood figures and the Qatari leadership, which led to Doha spending some $2 billion to support his efforts in Libya.  

“When the 2011 revolution erupted, al-Sallabi returned to Libya to act as a local conduit for Qatari arms, intelligence and military training,” said the online publication of the UN refugee agency. “He now holds Qatari citizenship and has a close relationship to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood's 91-year-old Qatar-based spiritual leader.”

After the 2011 overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Sallabi was seen by many Western observers as a crucial figure in Libya. After an October 2011 interview, the Washington Post described him as the chief architect of the new Libya. 

Sallabi had long cited Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a model for governance of a moderate Islamic state. Thus, as Qatar began to reduce its involvement in Libya around 2014, it was no surprise that Turkey stepped in and continued working with Sallabi. 

Today, Doha plays little if any role in the Libyan conflict, according to Roberts, while Turkey is a key player. After years of delivering weapons and supplies to Libyan Islamists in secret in order to avoid charges of violating a UN arms embargo, Ankara has since May been more open about its efforts in Libya, including the overt delivery of heavily armoured vehicles.

As of September, Turkey was said to be overseeing much of the war, helping local Islamists operate Turkish-made drones and guiding the military operations of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord as it battles the forces of General Khalifa Haftar. 

Early this year, Erdoğan adviser Yasin Aktay posted on Twitter pictures of a meeting with Sallabi next to a pile of religious texts in his Istanbul office. Aktay has advocated for a Turkish-led caliphate and described the Brotherhood as a Turkish proxy force. 

All of this, according to Roberts, is in large part the result of dumb luck - of Sallabi supporting Islamist causes and ending up in Qatar rather than, say, the United States. 

“This fact that (the Qataris) kind of knew him and he happened to be in Qatar is far more important than some grand ideological struggle,” said Roberts. “If Sallabi had been a Christian evangelical chap with lots of support and legitimacy in Libya then I am quite sure that Qatar would have supported him and his cause.”