The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, received two prominent figures from the Libyan political elite; Abdullah Al-Lafi, the vice chair of the Presidential Council, and Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the Libyan parliament, last week. Given the current heated situation in Libya as a result of the conflict between the UN-recognized Government of National Unity (GNU) and the parliament-endorsed government of Bashagha, the meeting in Ankara is raising questions about the future of Turkiye’s policy in Libya.
In particular, hosting Saleh, who is a loyal comrade of warlord Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) in Benghazi, raises the question of whether Turkiye has decided to drop its full-fledged support to GNU in Tripoli and yield to the eastern politicians. On the flip side, it may entail a change in eastern politicians’ resistance to Turkey’s political and military intervention as a compromise to gain political power over Libya. The true purpose of the meeting, however, seems to be different from all that.
Some observers assume that Turkey is shifting support from the western to the eastern bloc in Libya, to match its recent diplomatic rapprochement efforts with Arab Gulf countries that back the Libyan eastern camp. The recent visit of the Turkish minister of defense, Hulusi Akar, to Abu Dhabi and meeting with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) president, Mohammed Bin Zayed, strongly enhances this assumption. For years, Turkey and UAE have been standing against each other in Libya and Syria. Their rivalry reached the point of publicly threatening each other with military punishment. However, after the meeting between Akar and Bin Zayed, in May, the UAE started to show greater tolerance to Turkey’s ‘Pence Kilit’ operations in northern Syria and Iraq. Turkey is paying back Libya by showing greater tolerance towards the eastern politicians.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that Turkey’s reaching out to the Libyan eastern bloc necessarily means abandoning the GNU in Tripoli. Turkiye cannot do that, for many reasons. At the very least, it will jeopardize the reputation of the Turkish military as a trustworthy ally, which is the premise of all of Turkey’s military diplomacy moves in the geographies of Eurasia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. The Turkish troops, sized as big as 1,500 Turkish personnel and thousands of mercenaries, are still operating on the ground in Tripoli. In June, the Turkish president submitted a mandate to his parliament to accept extending the mission of the Turkish troops in Libya for another eighteen months.
The Turkish troops arrived in Tripoli, in December 2019, to protect the Tripoli-based government against the invasion of Haftar’s LNA. Since then, they have been providing the official Libyan armed forces, based in Tripoli, with advanced training and consultations, based on the military cooperation agreement signed in 2019. Right now, a number of cadets affiliated with the Libyan armed forces are completing their education in military colleges in Turkey. In that sense, the abandoning of the Tripoli-based government makes Turkey’s interests in Libya and the Mediterranean region prone to crashing. That is something Turkiye cannot afford.
At the same time, the Libyan eastern bloc still receives political and military support from Russia. The Russia-affiliated mercenaries and military corporations are still operating alongside Haftar’s militia. Haftar, himself, still refers to Turkey as an enemy and calls the Turkish troops in Tripoli occupiers. The Libyan parliament, under the chairmanship of Aguila Saleh, who shook hands with Erdogan, in Ankara last week, still labels as annulled the maritime and military memoranda signed between Turkiye and the Tripoli-based government, three years ago.
In that sense, it is clear that Turkey is not changing its policy in Libya. In other words, Turkey will not – and cannot – abandon the GNU, at this critical time of heated conflicts over power between the eastern and the western camps. However, by reaching out to the eastern leaders, Turkey is trying to create a balance that guarantees the protection of its interests, especially maritime interests in the Mediterranean, in case the GNU cracks under the political and military pressures leveled by the eastern bloc. A few weeks ago, the militia affiliated with Bashagha attempted to invade Tripoli by force to sit him as the head of a new government, risking the eruption of a new civil war.
Turkiye’s refusal to the formation of a new government in Libya and lengthening the transitional phase was clearly stated by the Turkish president in his meeting with Saleh and Al-Lafi, in Ankara, last week. All parties agreed that proceeding with the trajectory of the political solution and holding the presidential and parliamentary elections in the nearest possible future is the only way out of Libya’s crisis. Yet, whether Saleh and his camp are sincerely willing to follow on their word is still a matter of doubt.
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