Erdogan’s power play in Libya: What it means for the tangled conflict
Any moment now, Libya’s special formula – Government versus the Parliament and the Army – could bubble up with an extra ingredient from abroad. Turkey may become the first actual foreign force to officially take part in the ongoing armed rivalry between Sarraj and his UN-recognized Government of National Accord and General Khalifa Haftar, who has the support of the Libyan National Army and the country’s Parliament, based in the eastern city of Tobruk.
Turkey is ready for a new battle
Control over the country is at stake and Turkey is sending signals that its troops are one call away, under the framework of their freshly-crafted partnership with Sarraj. Basically, what they agreed on paves a road parallel to the one blocked by the United Nations 2011 arms embargo – which was flaunted anyway by various external powers on both sides, according to a recent UN report. Erdogan says the accord grants Turkey the right to deploy troops in Libya if the Tripoli government asks it.
The second part of the deal – a memorandum on maritime boundaries – draws a water corridor through the eastern Mediterranean linking the coasts of Turkey and Libya, not far south of the large Greek island of Crete and cutting across what Greece sees as its maritime territory. Greece has called the deal a violation of international law and sent the Libyan ambassador home in protest.
President Erdogan himself is confident there is “no problem” with the deal and other countries can operate in the area too, after getting permission from Turkey.
What Sarraj and Erdogan stand to gain
In a televised speech last week, General Haftar announced the beginning of a “decisive battle” to capture the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
Having an adversary’s forces 10km from your capital will make you eager for any deal with military support in it. Such timely support is worth its weight in gold – and Turkey has its own stake in providing it.
Turkish firms have regarded Libya as a lucrative ground for investment since the time of Muammar Gaddafi’s rule. Turkish businesses currently have billions of dollars in various projects across Libya, especially construction-related ones, and are eyeing more in the future when the civil war comes to an end – or at least a halt – and the country’s infrastructure sees its phoenix day. Betting on the government in Tripoli, the Turkish president expects dividends for his nation’s companies.
What’s more, World Bank data shows a growing trend in Turkey’s energy imports, accounting for 75 percent of its energy needs in 2015. There are 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 122 trillion cubic feet of gas estimated to be in the eastern Mediterranean, according to a 2010 study by the US Geographical Survey. This is why Ankara sees securing its share in a growing contest over the Mediterranean as essential. And Sarraj’s willingness to cooperate suits Turkey’s agenda ideally.
Can the Turkey-GNA accord become the new S-400?
Turkey’s double deal with Libya’s GNA could have implications beyond regional politics and business.
Ankara’s rollercoaster relationship with NATO has recently slipped on numerous occasions. US senators backed legislation last week to impose sanctions on Turkey over the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system earlier this year and its recent military operation in northern Syria. In another blow for the country, the US Congress recently voted to lift a decades-old embargo on Cyprus as part of a massive defense spending bill. Ankara, in turn, is blocking a NATO agreement for the defense of Poland and the Baltic states, since Turkey’s condition for their OK – the designation of Kurdish YPG fighters as terrorists – has not been fulfilled.
Erdogan also said he was ready to kick US forces out of Incirlik Air Base in case sanctions were applied.Also on rt.com Farewell, Incirlik? What US stands to lose if it’s evicted from crucial Turkish air base
As for Libya, so far, the US has been moderate in its comments on Turkey’s intentions there, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying, “there can be no military solution to this conflict,” which probably means Washington is now weighing its next steps.
Although the US officially backs the UN-recognized government in Libya, President Trump spoke with Khalifa Haftar on the phone after the beginning of his offensive in April. The US has had a long-term relationship with Haftar, who is a US citizen and played a major role in the Western-backed uprising against Gaddafi. Following the call, the White House issued a statement saying Trump “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.”
One possible reason for Erdogan to wade into the Libyan chaos could be to put up a smoke screen around what he’s doing in Syria, says Edmund Ghareeb, adjunct professor for American University School of International Service and an expert on regional affairs.
He is doing what other leaders do when they try to divert attention from the problems they have in a hope that this may mitigate some collisions. Libya may be a tool to move attention from his conflicts with other players, whether it’s Europe or the United States.
Will Turkey clash with Russia on Libya?
“On the Haftar issue, I don’t want it to give birth to a new Syria in relations with Russia,” Erdogan said about Russia’s alleged support for the general, blowing the dust off the old file of the Russia-Turkey confrontation in the early stages of the war in Syria.
The issue will be discussed at a bilateral meeting between Putin and Erdogan in January.
Former Foreign Minister of Turkey Yasar Yakis is positive that a compromise between the two will be found. He believes Turkey doesn’t want to be on the opposing side against Russia, and neither does Russia.
“Turkey has a crucial interest in maintaining its relations with Russia, as well as Russia considers its ties with Turkey of great importance,” he said, adding that there are too many shared goals, economically and militarily.
Why Libya, why now?
Erdogan has picked an opportune time to increase his regional clout, seeing as there’s no unified front to oppose him.
Nine years after the NATO-led intervention, the only constant in Libya is chaos. Its two governments, neither of which actually controls the entire country, have different backers, not always opposed to each other when the Libya button is off.
Greece has launched a diplomatic offensive to punish Turkey for its maritime accord, but the EU meeting on the issue has produced nothing apart from a condemnation for Turkey’s actions. Sanctions were said to be loaded but not fired since then.
There are reasons for it. It’s hard to negotiate within a union when its members are supporting different sides of a conflict. Thus, France, despite its recognition of GNA as Libya’s official government, is said to be backing Haftar and even had its missiles discovered by GNA at a base they seized from Haftar’s forces.
The US’ bipolar stance of supporting the UN-backed GNA and maintaining dialogue with Haftar doesn’t add any more clarity.
Libya is now a twisted chessboard and the colors of the pieces is not always clear. Such a game can go on for a long time, and new players with guns can both bring the end closer… and set the board on fire.
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