Ankara’s losing hand in Libya

Ahmed Eleiba , Wednesday 23 Sep 2020

Turkey’s military adventure in Libya has run aground but it still has the capacity to derail efforts to cement a political settlement

FILE - In this Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020 photo, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands with Fayez Sarraj, the head of Libya's Tripoli-based government, prior to their meeting in Istanbul. AP

The latest developments in the Libyan crisis, from the outcome of the meeting between Libyan stakeholders in Montreux on 7-9 September to Government of National Accord (GNA) leader Fayez Al-Sarraj’s sudden decision to step down at the end of October, raise many questions. Not least among them is what will happen to the military agreements Al-Sarraj signed with Ankara.

In practical terms, the Turkish project in Libya has run up against a wall in several respects. Ankara has lost its wager on the GNA, and its plans, based on its belief that Al-Sarraj’s government would last longer, now look redundant. Turkish reactions to Al-Sarraj’s resignation testify to this.

“A development like this, hearing such news, has been upsetting for us,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.

He had hoped Al-Sarraj would stay in office for another six months to a year, and be able to hand power over directly to a newly elected government instead of having to pass through another interim phase.

This would have facilitated Ankara’s plans, in accordance with existing agreements, to establish a permanent military presence in Libya and put into effect economic agreements that had already been signed or were in the process of being finalised with the GNA.

The fate of such plans is now up in the air and the pro-Turkish camp in Tripoli, Khaled Al-Mishri who heads the High Council of State (HCS), and GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, will have their hands tied without the third member of the Tripoli triangle, Al-Sarraj, who served as both chairman of the Presidency Council and prime minister.

There are other dynamics in the Libyan crisis that Ankara failed to factor into its calculations. It failed to foresee the resolute stance Cairo has taken on the Libyan question and the “red line” President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi declared as a means to end military hostilities in Libya.

In its precipitous effort to acquire a foothold in Libya Ankara attempted to form a coalition with Libya’s neighbours, Tunisia and Algeria, but this, too, has failed to pan out.

Its Tunisian partner, the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Ennahda Party, was encumbered by domestic problems while Algiers showed that though it could work with Ankara on the Libyan question it would not do everything Ankara asked it to do.

Nor had Turkey reckoned on the fissuring of the GNA as a result of internal rivalries, or the ability of the Libyan National Army (LNA) to halt oil production and exports, the revenues from which had been funnelled to Turkey to pay for Ankara’s military adventurism via the National Oil Company and the GNA controlled Central Bank.

Direct Turkish military intervention in Libya, according to the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), began immediately after the Berlin Conference in January 2020. Ankara flagrantly violated the commitments it had just made at the Berlin Conference which explicitly rejected a military solution and called on all stakeholders to support the resumption of the political process.

As efforts to pursue the three tracks of the Berlin process ground to a halt, largely due to Western governments preoccupation with the COVID-19 pandemic, Ankara took advantage of the situation to expand its military involvement in Libya, with nothing to deter it until it ran up against the “red line” set by Cairo this summer.

In June 2020, Egypt proposed an initiative, based on the Berlin outputs, to promote Libyan national reconciliation and set the contours for a comprehensive political roadmap. Declaring support for Cairo’s proposals, international powers moved with renewed resolve to promote a ceasefire.

Europe was galvanised into launching operation IRINI to enforce the UN arms embargo against Libya, and for the first time obstacles were placed in the way of the flow of Turkish arms and Turkish-paid mercenaries into Egypt’s western neighbour.

Turkey then encountered another red line as European powers acted to counter Ankara’s provocative behaviour in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly against Greece.

As Europe threw its support behind Greece, the countries that rallied to Athens’ defence denounced the maritime border agreement signed between Ankara and the GNA in November 2019.

The MoU on maritime boundaries was a crucial component of the architecture of Turkish-Tripoli military cooperation via which, according to US sources, Turkey intended to establish a string of bases on the Libyan coast in order to bolster its naval presence in the Mediterranean.

Although the international drive to resuscitate Libyan dialogue has yet to overtly address the military dimension of the conflict, the very revival of a political process narrows the main avenue for Turkish penetration into Libya. Turkey’s expansionist drive, after all, depends in large measure on perpetuating the conflict.

So how will Ankara reconcile itself to recent developments, and the shrinkage in Turkish leverage in Libya that they have brought?

The question is best answered by considering the nature of the military links between Ankara and the GNA. The connection always had more in common with a “defence contractor-client” relationship than with a contractual relation between sovereign governments. It enabled Ankara to alter the military balance of power on the ground in favour of the GNA, to seize control of Matiga and Al-Watiya military bases, and to capture the strategically located town of Tarhouna.

This military momentum was brought to halt with the Egyptian declaration of the Sirte-Jufra red line, but this did not stop the continued influx of Turkish arms and Syrian and other foreign mercenaries. Since January Turkey has transferred more than 18,000 Syrian and other mercenaries into Libya, on the basis of limited contracts paid for by the GNA. The bills for the hundreds of tanks, armoured vehicles, drones and other Turkish arms have also been footed by the GNA using oil revenues.

Questions of legitimacy and duration hover over the military cooperation agreements. That the deals for training, arms and use of military bases were made in the form of MoUs that were not ratified by the House of Representatives places a large question mark over their future. None of which should obscure the fact that Turkey has built up a large military infrastructure in western Libya.

Although this presence is temporarily limited by the terms of the contracts Turkey has imposed a de facto reality that problematises the military/security dimension of the Libyan conflict. AFRICOM has denied that Turkey has deployed S-300 and S-400 defence systems in Libya but this does not refute the existence of other formidable defence and offence capacities.

Turkish-Russian relations pose an additional challenge. While Ankara has been busy backing the GNA, Moscow has been supporting the LNA with, according to Turkish claims, Wagner Group militias.

Russian and Turkish officials met in Ankara on 15 and 16 September and, according to news reports, discussed the ceasefire and the political settlement process. For the time being the two sides appear to have reached an understanding of some sort, but it is clear that both Ankara and Moscow were blindsided by the ceasefire decision taken by the Libyan parties. Indeed, reports from Libya confirmed that Al-Sarraj only notified Ankara of his decision to agree to a ceasefire at the last minute.

In short, Russian and Turkish officials seem to have met in Ankara to discuss how to accommodate events that had outpaced them. It has become increasingly clear that, contrary to the common impression, Turkey and Russia were never really on a collision course in Libya, despite the fact each has a lot at stake on the ground in terms of military structures and other interests.

That presence, of course, now begs the question of whether Turkish-Russian collusion will cast a shadow over the anticipated transitional process in Libya.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Ankara’s losing hand

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