Turkey turns the tide to begin a new era of foreign interference in Libya

By Imogen Smith


IT was perhaps inevitable that foreign powers would become heavily involved in the Libyan civil war.

The country, after all, has the biggest reserves of oil and gas on the African continent and holds a convenient location on the Mediterranean.

Turkey, in particular, has seized the opportunity to gain a foothold in Libya in recent months as part of its wider ambitions in the Mediterranean – and to stunning effect.

Turkey may now have swung the balance in favour of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), based in the capital Tripoli in the west of the country, to the detriment of General Khalifa Haftar, experts close to the action have told Redaction Politics.

General Haftar announced his invasion of Tripoli on 4 March 2019 after gradually building his control in the east and south of the country.    

Haftar’s forces, including over 1,000 Russian and Syrian mercenaries, have now retreated from their last strongholds on the outskirts of Tripoli.

The GNA has enjoyed a string significant of victories against Haftar in the west of the country in the past few weeks.

On Thursday the GNA successfully regained Tripoli Airport from General Haftar’s self-branded Libyan National Army (LNA), marking the GNA’s return to full control of the capital and the end of Haftar’s siege.

The launchpad and command centre for Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli, the city of Tarhuna, about 75 km south east of the capital, was taken by the GNA on Friday.

A former Gaddafi army man, Haftar lost favour with Gaddafi after being captured in Chad in 1987, and lived in the United States in exile for several years in close proximity to the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

After returning to Libya in 2011, Haftar quickly gained a reputation as a strongman and destroyer of Islamist groups through successes over the Islamist terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi from 2014.

The GNA has not managed to develop the same image of strength so successfully projected by Haftar, despite brigades from Tripoli and Misrata having fought a major victory over ISIS in Sirte in 2016 with support from the US, UK and Italy.  

Haftar’s year-long siege of Tripoli, supported by heavy foreign backing from Russia and the UAE had seemed certain to succeed until earlier this year.

The tide has now turned as direct result of Turkey’s actions.  

In January, Turkey deployed around 2,000 Syrian mercenaries to the west of the country to assist the GNA in their defence of the capital, the majority of whom have been promised Turkish citizenship in exchange for their service to Ankara.

Turkey has also provided soldiers in an advisory capacity and assisted with drones and air defence systems to break Haftar’s air superiority.

The head of a security company in Tripoli, who wanted to remain anonymous, told this publication: “In the past two weeks the Turks are delivering one or two planes of equipment a day.

“They have gone in full force since the UN is not doing anything about planes to Benghazi [in the east].

“It is escalating from both sides – for the LNA the Russians, UAE and Egypt are still fully backing them up.”

The significant increase in Turkey’s intervention comes after President Erdogan signed two agreements with GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj following a meeting on 27 November last year – one on military cooperation, and the other regarding maritime boundaries.

Mohamed Eljarh, co-founder of Libya Outlook for Research and Consulting, told Redaction Politics: “By signing this deal Turkey has now managed to carve its long-lasting influence over the Libyan crisis.”

Both the military cooperation and maritime boundary agreements caused outrage from Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt and further signalled Turkey’s long-term ambitions in the region.

Ongoing disputes about Turkey’s oil drilling off the coast of Cyprus resulted in EU sanctions earlier this year and heated diplomatic exchanges over ownership of natural resources.

Turkey’s Energy Minister Fatih Donmez was cited last Friday on state-run media outlet Anadolu Agency announcing Turkey’s plans to start oil exploration within the maritime borders set out in the agreement with the GNA in the next three to four months.

The GNA activated the agreement on military cooperation in December, which was passed by the Turkish parliament at the start of January, opening the possibility of Turkish troops on the ground in Libya.

Greece, Israel and Cyprus released a joint statement on 2 January, describing Turkey’s potential military involvement as a “dangerous escalation”, which “seriously undermines the international community’s efforts to find a peaceful, political solution to the Libyan conflict.”

“We are at a juncture where the conflict is definitely now less about Libyans and more about external actors, or the interests of external actors,” Mr Eljarh told Redaction Politics earlier this week.

Russia and the UAE have been heavily involved in supporting General Haftar in the east of the country since at least late last year.

A UN report leaked at the end of April this year confirmed the presence of up to 1,200 mercenaries of the Wagner Group, a private military contractor with close ties to the Kremlin, in Libya.

The UN Security Council’s 2011 arms ban on Libya has been routinely flouted and was said to have “become a joke” by UN Deputy Special Envoy for Libya, Stephanie Williams in February.

US Africa Command reported on 26 May that Russian fighter jets had been transported via Syria to al-Jufra airbase to support General Haftar, sparking concern from both the US and UK.

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said at the time: “We are concerned by recent U.S. reports of Russian fighter jets being deployed from Syria into Libya and growing evidence of Russian involvement in Libya in support of Gen. Haftar’s forces. This external interference exacerbates the conflict and undermines the U.N.-led peace process.”

In response to Turkey’s invasion in northern Syria, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced in October 2019 that the UK will continue selling arms to Turkey but will not grant new export licences for weapons which might be used in military operations in Syria.

The FCO has not made a statement on British arms contracts with Turkey in light of Turkey’s breaches of the UN arms embargo in Libya – the FCO did not return our request for comment.

A spokesperson for the Campaign Against Arms Trade said: “Turkey and UAE are both major buyers of UK arms, as Libya once was under the Gaddafi regime.

“There must be full investigations into the breaches and if any UK arms were involved.

“In any event, it is clear that, as well as having appalling human rights records, the regimes in Turkey and UAE have played very aggressive roles on the world stage and should be blocked from UK arms sales.”

With substantial and increasing foreign interference in Libya from Turkey and Russia despite the UN arms embargo, a decisive victory in the near future for either party is unlikely.

The question now is whether Russia will double down on its military and financial support for Haftar, and whether the situation will result ultimately in a division of the country between east and west.  

On Monday, the United Nations Mission in Libya welcomed the resumption of military talks for a ceasefire.

A telephone conversation last week between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Aguila Saleh, President of the Libyan House of Representatives in Tobruk – the eastern political centre which has broadly placed its support behind General Haftar – may signal Moscow’s willingness to entertain a political solution by which its influence in the east is maintained.   

On the other hand, if Russia decides to increase its military support for General Haftar, it may seek a formal military agreement with the House of Representatives in Tobruk – similar to the agreement made between Turkey and the GNA.

Mr Eljarh expressed concern that the renewed ceasefire talks are unlikely to result in a long-term political solution – unless a concerted effort for diplomacy is made by the international community, including the United States.

He said: “The most likely scenario is that Libya becomes a political and geographic space that holds under the influence of external powerful actors, by which we see possibly further formalisation of the current de facto partition.

“Even if it’s not complete partition in the form of independent states, we could see some sort of government arrangement where in reality we would have two power centres under the influence of two or more competing powers in Libya.

“We could have Turkey possibly in alliance with Algeria and Italy in the west, and in the east we could have Russia in alliance with Egypt – and the French would most likely be looking for an opening in the south.  

“This will eventually lead either to complete partition or Libyans coming together to start working on limiting foreign interference which would take decades.”

Continued fighting between the two sides would undoubtedly focus on the oil rigs in the middle of the country, currently in General Haftar’s territory.

From Tripoli, the head of a security company told Redaction Politics: “For the GNA to take control of the west of the country is not difficult, but for the GNA to go to the east is extremely difficult – because when you are defending it is completely different from when you are attacking.

“If Russia don’t get 100 per cent involved and bring in more fighters and equipment and make it public, the GNA will advance because they are becoming more powerful now than the LNA with Turkish backing.

“It is all determined by what happens with the international powers: What’s Russia going to do? What’s the UAE going to do? That’s going to determine the outcome.”

With both sides now having agreed to ceasefire talks there is a glimmer of hope for the Libyan people that a political solution is possible.

Turkey and Russia seem unlikely give up their influence in the oil-rich nation, however, and we will most likely see a new era of intensified foreign interference and power struggles in an increasingly divided Libya.  

*****

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Featured Image: Ben Sutherland @Flickr

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