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Turkey's Libya gambit is paying off - for now

Despite recent momentum for Ankara and the GNA, their gains remain fragile and inconclusive
Fighters loyal to the GNA gesture in celebration after taking control of the coastal city of Sabratha, Libya, on 13 April (AFP)

When launching his bloody campaign to take Tripoli from Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in April 2019, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) expected a swift and conclusive victory. 

Backed by the UAE and Egypt, green-lit by the Trump administration and strengthened by the Russian Wagner Group and mercenaries from various countries, Haftar was confident that a total victory - which would have paved the way for the establishment of an Egypt-style military dictatorship in Tripoli - was well within reach. 

As Haftar’s offensive gained momentum, the GNA’s search for regional and international support became more desperate. Faced with the prospect of its ally’s fall, Turkey stepped in to scale up its military support for the GNA. 

Two agreements

Last November, Turkey signed two agreements with the GNA: one on the delimitation of maritime jurisdiction areas in the Mediterranean Sea, contended by many actors on the grounds of its legality, and another on security and military cooperation. 

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Through the first deal, Turkey sought to undermine the emerging security and energy framework in the Eastern Mediterranean, centred on cooperation between Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus.

With Russia now also transferring pro-regime Syrian mercenaries to Libya to fight on behalf of Haftar, the Syrian civil war is being exported to Libya

In fact, this was one of three crucial goals that Turkey wanted to achieve through its foray into Libya, alongside Ankara’s desire to tip the balance in its favour in the power struggle with regional rivals such as the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and to secure its financial and energy interests in Libya and the broader Eastern Mediterranean. 

Fearing a European backlash and international isolation, the GNA for a long time wasn’t willing to sign such a deal, despite Turkish pressure - in fact, this deal was more about Turkey than Libya, and for the GNA it was a price to be paid in order to get Turkey’s military support.

Only when GNA's plea for support fell on deaf ears, both regionally and internationally, did the GNA sign. In a sense, for the GNA, the first deal was a precondition to be fulfilled to attain the second deal.

With the second agreement on security and military cooperation, Ankara effectively committed itself to protecting the GNA. Turkey has provided military equipment and transferred Syrian mercenaries to Libya to fight on behalf of the GNA.

With Russia now also transferring pro-regime Syrian mercenaries to Libya to fight on behalf of Haftar, the Syrian civil war is being fully exported to Libya.  

Turkey’s goal is to prevent the fall of the GNA and pave the way for a political process from a position of strength. For a brief period, Turkey and Russia appeared to be applying their Astana formula for Syria to Libya by hosting a meeting between the warring sides in Moscow in January, but it crumbled as Haftar left without signing the deal. 

Upping the ante

Amid this backdrop, the Berlin conference in January failed to produce any meaningful results. Instead, the Haftar camp returned to its military solution strategy, and the GNA did the same. 

Simultaneously, Turkey upped the ante in terms of its military and political commitment to the GNA. It established aerial superiority around Tripoli first, and then other parts of western Libya.

It has provided the GNA with armed drones, missile systems, military vehicles and radar jammers, while Turkish frigates have provided support for the GNA off the coastline of western Libya. Ankara has also deployed military personnel for training and strategic planning.

Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet in Istanbul on 20 February (Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Turkish Presidential Press Service/AFP)
Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet in Istanbul on 20 February (Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Turkish Presidential Press Service/AFP)

Turkey’s scaling up of its military involvement in Libya recently began to bear fruit. Last month, GNA forces gained control of seven towns in western Libya, including the strategically important coastal cities of Sabratha, Surman and al-Ajaylat. The GNA also secured the road from the Tunisian border to Tripoli, and between Tripoli and Misrata. 

Suffering major setbacks, Haftar’s LNA announced a truce, with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan serving as a good pretext, on 30 April. Conscious of the outcomes of previous ceasefires, which didn’t last long, and thinking that the LNA could use any truce period for military consolidation, the GNA rejected this call outright. 

Military momentum

Capitalising on the recent military momentum, Turkey and the GNA have their eyes set on two interlinked goals. Firstly, as illustrated by the recent rocket attacks by Haftar’s forces, which hit areas around the Italian ambassador’s residence and the Turkish embassy, Tripoli still remains within shelling range of Haftar’s forces. The GNA will now try to push Haftar’s fighters from their remaining bases near Tripoli.

Secondly, since Tarhuna is a key staging and logistics post for Haftar in western Libya, the GNA will strive to drive LNA forces from the town. Coupled with the GNA’s recent territorial gains, the ultimate goal appears to be establishing the GNA’s complete control over western Libya. 

In this respect, the GNA’s recent capture of the strategic al-Watiya airbase from Haftar forces is a major step in this direction.

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Yet, despite Turkey’s and the GNA’s recent momentum, their gains remain fragile and inconclusive. There is no sign of the conflict winding down. Instead, it is highly likely that the pro-Haftar camp will ramp up its military support to Haftar, further exacerbating and complicating the conflict. 

Moreover, to translate military gains into political ones, Ankara needs to have more political coordination, particularly with largely pro-GNA countries such as Italy and Germany.

In the same vein, Europeans need to adopt a tougher stance in rejecting Haftar’s now untenable quest for a military dictatorship in Libya.  

As is the case with the transfer of Syrian mercenaries to Libya, both sides in the Libyan conflict and their backers are increasingly operating with little recourse to deniability. Such escalation will not only require a greater military commitment and direct responsibility from Turkey, but it will also require the government to manage the home front. Many have asserted that the Libyan intervention isn’t that popular domestically in Turkey.  

Indeed, there are signs of societal fatigue with Turkey’s military campaigns abroad. Public support for Turkey’s recent Idlib intervention was markedly lower than for Turkey’s other military campaigns in Syria. The coronavirus pandemic could further contribute to this mood, so the government must be conscious of popular perceptions while charting the next phase of its Libya campaign. 

Public perception

A poll of Turks in January found that 58 percent of respondents were opposed to the deployment of Turkish soldiers in Libya. In contrast, excluding the recent Idlib operations, support for Turkey’s previous Syrian operations was much higher, around 75 percent. Another poll last December indicated only 38 percent support for the military deployment to Libya.

These results are indicative of where public perception stands on Turkey’s Libya policy, showing that the government needs to walk a fine line in managing it. But the government can frame its Libya policy differently by linking it to its Cyprus and broader Eastern Mediterranean policy. The previous high level of support for Turkey’s Syria operations was mostly motivated by factors related to regional Kurdish politics, rather than Syrian dynamics per se. 

The coronavirus pandemic will likely increase the public’s questioning of foreign military campaigns

Public verdict on Turkey’s Libya gambit will be retrospectively shaped. Support for Turkey’s Libya policy will also be based on whether it is perceived to be a success or a failure. While Turkey’s recent setbacks in Idlib bode ill, the recent gains in Libya are likely to have the reverse impact. 

At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic will likely increase the public’s questioning of foreign military campaigns. Ankara will be hard-pressed to avoid any major loss of lives of its soldiers, while also maintaining the image of a successful policy to cultivate support for its Libya operations. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition. 

Galip Dalay is a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy. He is also an Associate Fellow at the Chatham House, a doctoral researcher at the History Faculty, University of Oxford, and a non-resident fellow at Brookings Doha Center
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