Erdogan steps back on Libya

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Thursday 16 Jan 2020

After a flurry of high-level meetings, it appears Turkey’s Erdogan is reassessing major military involvement in Libya, though mercenaries continue to flow in

Erdogan steps back on Libya
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend cerenomy inauguration of a new gas pipeline “TurkStream” in Istanbul (Photo: AFP)

The meeting between Turkish President Erdogan and Fayez Al-Sarraj of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in Istanbul on 12 January was unplanned and urgent. It took place against the backdrop of a flurry of European diplomatic activity to forestall a Turkish military presence in Libya and the spectre of another Syria.

The day before Erdogan met with Al-Sarraj, he met with European Council President Charles Michel who had flown to Istanbul in the framework of European efforts to contain the escalation in Libya. A more important meeting took place before that. On Wednesday, 8 January, Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Afterwards, they issued a joint statement affirming a common position on the Libyan crisis and the need to work together to promote a settlement based on the UN Security Council resolution to this effect. The same day, Hurriyet, a pro-government newspaper, cited Erdogan as saying that Turkey had sent 35 soldiers to Tripoli, but not to take part in the fighting. “Turkey will coordinate, but its troops will not engage in combat,” he said.

In their joint press conference, Putin and Erdogan did not broach the subject of Idlib, which is controlled by Turkish backed rebel groups. This is equally significant as it concerns another area in the Middle East where Russia and Turkey are at odds. While the Russian president’s visit to Turkey had been planned, he went there only after an unscheduled detour via Damascus. This was Putin’s first ever visit to the Syrian capital. Analysts believe this was meant to deliver a message expressing Moscow’s disappointment with the Turkish regime, firstly due to its failure to fulfil its commitments in accordance with the agreements it made in Astana and in Sochi and, secondly, because of its declining ability to control the militias it has financed and armed.

In what observers believe was also part of this indirect way of slapping Ankara’s hands, Moscow seemed pointedly disinclined to restrain Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA). Not only did the Russian press rejoice in Haftar’s success in taking control of the strategic town of Sirte, Moscow merely shrugged at Haftar’s refusal to agree to a ceasefire when the call for a ceasefire was made by Turkey. What could Ankara expect after all it had said and done?

Another important part of the picture was filled in by another important meeting last weekend, this one between Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Moscow. Both leaders share the goal of preventing further escalation in the Middle East, and in Libya in particular. Encouraged by the Putin-Erdogan joint statement, Merkel invited her host to attend the international conference on Libya that Berlin plans to host this month.

So, after weeks of polemics, sabre rattling, playing Genghis Khan and scheming to pour oil on Libyan fires, Erdogan has been forced to moderate his tone and, thanks to a succession of guests who made it clear they disapproved of his war mongering policies, pay more than lip service to a “peaceful solution”. His foreign minister even said, “we have no problem with everyone participating when it comes to a political solution. This includes Haftar, so long as he agrees to a ceasefire.”

As he looks around, the Anatolian strongman finds little sustenance for his dream of a Muslim Brotherhood empire with him as godfather. From Syria, the second pillar of this dream to crumble, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that six Turkish-funded militia fighters from Syria were killed in Libya, three from the Mutassim Brigade and three from the Sultan Murad Division. Their bodies have been transported back to Syria. The opposition press in Turkey reported, citing SOHR, that Ankara had promised the families of the deceased mercenaries large sums of compensation.

According to the SOHR, Turkey has sent more than 1,000 mercenaries from Syria to Tripoli and Misrata. Another 1,700 of them are currently receiving training in Turkish military camps. Recruitment operations are still in full swing in Afrin and other areas in Syria that fall in the scope of Ankara’s “Euphrates Shield” operation.

On 8 January, another 260 mercenaries from Syria arrived in Libya. According to local sources, they now carry Turkish passports and receive salaries of around $2,000 (more than four times the minimum wage in Turkey and over eight times the minimum wage in Syria) plus a number of benefits.

Closer to the Turkish heartland, three Turkish soldiers were killed and six others were injured in Libya, in and around the Libyan city of Misrata, AhvalNews site reported on 10 January. “The bodies of the dead soldiers have been transported to Misrata airport,” it added, without providing further details.

Meanwhile, social media teemed with images of Turkish-made BMC Kirpi tanks abandoned in the field by pro-GNA militias as they fled during the fall of Sirte to the LNA. According to the accompanying commentary, the Kirpi performs poorly, does not hold up well under fire, and its artillery is unwieldy and slow. Libyans have dubbed it “Lamees” in reference to a character’s name in a Turkish melodrama.

Such setbacks have paved the way for concessions and more humiliations. According to the Italian newspaper, La Stampa, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte will present to Erdogan a proposal for an “honourable exit” for Al-Sarraj, whom Ankara backs, and for a third party to act as guarantor for a ceasefire. The newspaper added that the proposal was backed by a European consensus and that it was likely that the Turks would accept it.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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