The civil war in Libya could have reached its closing chapters after the Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Haftar nearly controlled 90 per cent of the country’s territory and had the Islamist and terrorist militias besieged in the capital Tripoli. But then along came Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with his attempt at a last-ditch effort to save the Islamist interim Libyan President Fayez Al-Sarraj.
Through an illegitimate naval demarcation and military cooperation agreement between Turkey and Al-Sarraj in December, Erdogan believed he could enforce his country’s presence in North Africa after a series of defeats for the terrorist militias led by Al-Sarraj at the hands of the Libyan National Army. Al-Sarraj’s desperate measures aimed to cling to power a little longer by prolonging the struggle. But though the moves may have earned him some time more in power, they will not change his legacy as a traitor to his country.
Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and France denounced the Turkish-Libyan agreement, and the European Union and US expressed their concern, also refusing to recognise it. Meanwhile, Erdogan conducted a visit to neighbouring Tunisia earlier this month, and he will visit Algeria this week in search of support for his plans. In Tunisia, he was met by public scorn, especially after his pompous demeanour during a press conference with Tunisian President Kais Saied.
In public speeches in Turkey Erdogan has not denied his ambitions to resurrect the Ottoman presence in the Mediterranean and to rule in Libya, citing Libyan citizens of Turkish descent. However, all patriotic Libyans will remember the Ottoman massacres of the Libyans when the country was part of the former Ottoman Empire, including the killing of 10,000 people from the Al-Jawazi tribe at the hands of Ottoman ruler of Libya Yusuf Karamanli Pasha in 1817.
Fast forward to January 2020, and the Libyans still have painful memories of the Ottoman massacres and the rule of the Karamanli dynasty in their country. Patriotic Libyans, learning about the involvement of Turkey in the already bloody civil war in their country, have redoubled their nationalist sentiments and given even more support to the Libyan sovereign state and its army led by Khalifa Haftar.
The Berlin Conference held on 19 January in the German capital was supposed to find a lasting solution to the Libyan crisis, which has lasted for nearly a decade. However, it fell short of doing so.
The presence of Egypt in support of the Libyan cause at the conference hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel provided Haftar with a strong bargaining chip and a powerful negotiating standpoint. During the meeting, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, France and several other EU countries shared the same view about the future of Libya and the importance of restoring peace, security and order to the battle-torn country. This view was expressed in a European Council press statement following the conference.
European Council Spokesman Charles Mitchell highlighted some important points, including the enforcement of the embargo and the rejection of any foreign military intervention in Libya in what was a direct message to Erdogan to halt his ambitions of invasion or military deployment to save the skin of Al-Sarraj. The press statement was not conclusive on the steps to be taken by the council and the countries at the conference, but it contained a strong call for a ceasefire and the de-escalation of the situation.
The Berlin Conference was only a first meeting, and it will be followed by subsequent meetings at different levels. It did not create a solution to the nine-year war in Libya. It may even have preserved the status quo to a certain extent, though it also provided Haftar with international recognition while not stripping this from Al-Sarraj. This could translate into waiting to see which side will turn the tide of events on the ground.
Reports of breaching the truce between the two sides have come from a number of sources, as terrorists flooding in from Syria on Turkish planes have been landing in Libya to support the interim government. Consequently, the Libyan National Army has enforced a no-fly zone above the capital Tripoli. All the indications are that the fragile truce that preceded the Berlin Conference will not hold, and more military clashes will occur in the upcoming period.
For Erdogan, his meddling in Libya is an attempt to regain the balance lost in the region through failed campaigns in Syria and Iraq against the Kurdish population, as well as the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood regimes in Egypt in 2013 and Sudan in 2019. Al-Sarraj may be Erdogan’s last real ally in North Africa, but he could also spell Erdogan’s demise if he attempts to make use of a sizeable Turkish force.
After weeks of huffing and puffing, Turkey has declared that it has about 35 soldiers and army experts in Libya. This is a number that is hardly enough to secure a medium-sized shopping mall, let alone the Libyan capital Tripoli. Instead, the actual fighting will be conducted through Erdogan’s favourite method, which is to use jihadist and terrorist fighters to do his dirty business for him.
The Libyan Army spokesman and the British media have reported that over 2,000 terrorists have been flown in from Syria to Libya for this purpose. However, the Libyan National Army is already hunting down these elements, and it will be relentless in cleaning the country of such terrorist elements that have wreaked havoc in Syria already but have nevertheless failed to oust Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
For Egypt, Erdogan’s adventures in the region must end, and its military exercises in the Mediterranean have sent a message that the country will not tolerate a Turkish presence in a neighbouring country.
Erdogan’s presence at the Berlin Conference was isolated. He was treated as a pariah by most of the attendees, while being photographed sitting with his Libyan lackey Al-Sarraj and another person at a corner table. On the opposite side, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, among others, were all photographed discussing the future of Libya together and methods to end the struggle that the Turkish president is attempting to exacerbate.
Libya, which has some of the world’s largest proven oil reserves, is still considered a jewel in the crown that is worth snatching by Erdogan, but now this will be beyond his reach given the interests of the international powers to restore order and stability to the country. This is something that remains off Erdogan’s agenda.
The powers that gathered in Berlin will not be wrestled into accepting the Turkish troop deployment along with terrorist militias in Libya, as Erdogan desires. His regime will pay a severe price if he attempts to make more unwise moves in the country.
The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.