Analysis: Erdogan’s Libya meddling deepens

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Saturday 14 Dec 2019

With Libya’s Al-Sarraj facing opposition to a MoU he struck with Ankara, Turkey appears to be turning on Russia in an attempt to bolster Islamist forces in Tripoli, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

File Photo: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends a NATO leaders summit in Watford, Britain, on December 4, 2019. (Photo: Reuters)

As expected, the Turkish parliament ratified the maritime borders agreement President Recep Erdogan signed with Fayez Al-Sarraj, the head of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), two weeks ago. The vote, last Thursday, was unanimous — among those present. Out of 600 MPs in the Turkish parliament, 230 voted in favour of the deal and these were the only ones in attendance for that session. What accounts for this extraordinarily high absentee rate for the vote on what was billed as a “historic agreement”? There were no public holidays around that date. No winter storms impeded traffic. In fact, the weather has been unseasonably pleasant. 

There are conflicting views. Perhaps the most important is that many MPs from across the political spectrum, including from within Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), were uncomfortable with the agreement. They felt it was dubious and even a violation of international law, and feared it would drag Turkey into another risky adventure abroad, this time in turbulent Libyan seas.

The Kurdish/human rights-oriented Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) had no qualms about declaring its rejection of the agreement openly. But this did not apply to others struggling to stay afloat in the perilous eddies of Turkish political waters, especially as demagogues ratchet up populist rhetoric in anticipation of possible early elections. So, as the vote approached, they opted for the shelter of parliamentary corridors or nearby cafes. 

After being published in the Official Gazette on Saturday, the text of the agreement (officially a Memorandum of Understanding, to avoid its having to be ratified by the Libyan House of Representatives, which is based in Tobruk) was dispatched to the UN and would go into immediate effect, Erdogan told an AKP consultation meeting that day. “We have built a very interesting and very beautiful line between Turkey and Libya,” he said.

“We will be taking steps to delimit both military security and maritime jurisdictions. Of course, we spoiled the game there. You know the countries involved in the game we spoiled.” These countries are Greece, Cyprus and “from time to time” Israel. Referring to Athens’ decision to expel the Libyan ambassador, he said that it was a sign of a government “built on scandals” that “does not know the language of diplomacy”. 

Also, in response to the Greek decision to expel the Libyan ambassador, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, speaking from Rome where he attended the Mediterranean Dialogues Forum, said that Tripoli would not be intimidated by threats. Evidently, Ankara has already decided it can speak for Libya. 

Erdogan, as expected, stressed that Turkish drilling and exploration ships would continue their operations in the Mediterranean under the protection of naval vessels and, occasionally, fighter planes and helicopters. Turkey will use its rights under international maritime law and international law to the limit, he said. 

Turkish state media reported that the Libyan parliament in Tripoli hailed the MoU and expressed its gratitude to the Turkish leader. (There is no elected parliament in Tripoli, but rather the High Council of State, a purely advisory body.) The state-run Anatolia News Agency (AA) pointedly added that that the new maritime boundary gave the Tripoli-based GNA strategic depth and superiority over its domestic adversary, alluding to the Libyan National Army commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

The AA report took the opportunity to assert that Fayez Al-Sarraj, who heads the GNA, had the authority to sign the deal. The claim elicited a flurry of sarcastic remarks on some Turkish Twitter accounts to the effect that Al-Sarraj’s authority is held hostage by Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist militias. 

Some observers believe that Erdogan, despite his bravado, is worried. They believe that his remark that the MoU that had just been ratified by the Turkish parliament would achieve its aim “as long as the legitimate government in Libya remains cohesive and steadfast” is a sign that he fears developments that might lead to the loss of his influence in that oil rich country. 

Some media sources in Istanbul believe that this is not such a remote possibility in light of calls on the part of influential Arab parties to promote collective Arab rejection of the agreement and withdrawal of Arab recognition from Al-Sarraj and his government. Moreover, Fathi Al-Majbari, former vice chairman of the Presidency Council, that Al-Sarraj heads, described the maritime agreement as a “cheap” deal concluded “between one who is not entitled to sell and another who is not entitled to buy”.

Al-Majbari, too, called on the Arab League, as well as the EU and the UN, to withdraw recognition from Al-Sarraj’s government and strip him of his powers. “If Al-Sarraj exercises power in Libya by virtue of the [Skhirat] political agreement, he abuses it every day. The countries that sponsored the political agreement should state their positions clearly on this.”

Other manifestations of Libyan opposition to the agreement, such as protests in front of the Libyan Presidency Council, have managed to percolate through Turkish media barricades and reach Turkish public opinion which is catching a glimpse of a groundswell of opposition against Al-Sarraj and the radical Islamist militias he has allied with. There are also signs that Libyan fighters who do not belong to these militias have begun to recalibrate their plans in light of a possible fall of Tripoli to the Libyan National Army, and are preparing to jump ship. Such developments have spurred Ankara into prevailing on Al-Sarraj to dispatch aides to other North African nations and Qatar in quest of support. 

Among the greatest ironies coming out of Turkey these days are the criticisms, sometimes harsh, that the ruling AKP and its press are levelling against Moscow, presumably the closest country to the Erdogan regime at the moment. Given the icy relations that Erdogan has struck with the US and other Western countries, it is curious to see Turkish pundits close to Erdogan asking Washington to break its silence on Russia’s hidden role in Libya in support of Haftar.

The same pundits, who have spared no venom when called upon to attack the US, now rejoice that the US, which had long vacillated between supporting the GNA or Haftar, has almost made up its mind in favour of the GNA, which Turkey backs, on the basis of mounting evidence of Russia’s alleged military involvement in favour of Haftar. 

As though to nudge Washington to act more quickly against Russia, the pro-Erdogan media hastened to remind the White House how, ever since the outset of the Cold War, the Kremlin wanted to establish a naval base on southern Mediterranean shores and that, after having set up a naval base in Tartus, Syria, Russia set its strategic sights on Libya in order to counter NATO’s missile shield.

The same media also gave bold headlines to remarks by General Osama Al-Juwaili, described as the “top commander of the forces aligned with the Tripoli government,” to The New York Times and The Washington Post, claiming that Russian forces were present on the ground in Libya and that this complicated matters. “It is very clear that Russia is going all in on this conflict,” said Al-Juwaili. He complained that the West was doing nothing to protect the GNA from foreign powers determined to push Haftar into power.

As one Facebook user from Konya, in central Anatolia, put it: “If this isn’t a Turkish call for help to the US, which kicked us out of the F-35 programme, against Russia, which gave us the S-400s, then what is it?”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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