Turkey in Libya: Filling the European vacuum

Europeans could still keep Libya a multilateral affair, if they can bring France onto a shared platform – and deploy newfound unity to draw American influence back in.

Brigitte N. Brantley / flickr CC BY

Last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan grabbed international headlines by declaring that Turkey was ready to deploy troops to Libya as part of a new security arrangement between Ankara and the Libyan government. Coming soon after the two sides concluded a maritime border agreement, the possibility of Turkish troops in the war-torn north African nation has further raised temperatures in the eastern Mediterranean over gas and drilling rights.

Ankara has long supported the UN-recognised Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) against the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, who remains the de facto leader in eastern Libya and is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and France. This weekend, Erdogan hosted the Libyan prime minister, Fayez Al-Sarraj, in Istanbul – the second time in a month – and on television the Turkish president repeated the offer to send in troops. “If Libya makes such a request from us, we can send our personnel there, especially after striking [a] military security agreement.” The Turkey-Libya military agreement is expected to be ratified by the Turkish parliament next week. It will allow Turkey to provide military personnel, equipment, and training to Libyan forces.

For Ankara, Libya is more than just a friendly north African country in trouble. Over the summer, Turkish military advisers, limited arms deliveries, and a fleet of around 20 drones helped forces defending against Haftar push back on all fronts. Ankara views its successful involvement there as an emblem of Turkey’s growing self-confidence as a regional power.

The conflict in Libya also represents the new faultline in the Middle East, with Turkey and Qatar on one side and UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt on the other. The Turkish vision of the region is at odds with UAE and Saudi policies. The proxy war between the two camps is playing out in both Libya and Syria.

But the most significant benefit to Turkey of this rapprochement is its ability to restrict oil and gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean off the coast of Cyprus. Turkey’s maritime border deal with Libya, endorsed by the Turkish parliament last week, draws a vertical line across the Mediterranean, disrupting plans between Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and Israel over oil and gas drilling rights.

Cyprus is an old regional conflict with a new twist. The island has been divided since the Turkish incursion of 1974, and several rounds of UN-brokered talks for its unification between the Turkish and Greek sides have borne no results. To complicate matters, Cyprus has been a member of the European Union since 2004, makings its outstanding disputes with Turkey an EU-Turkish matter. Since 2017, tensions have been rising over drilling rights off the island. Cyprus has signed exploration deals with several international companies and there are plans for a gas pipeline linking eastern Mediterranean gas fields with European markets. Meanwhile, Turkey has sent its own exploration ships and naval vessels off Cyprus to block Cypriot attempts. It argues that energy resources in the region should be shared between the Republic of Cyprus and its internationally isolated other half, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

The GNA was not initially keen to insert itself into the eastern Mediterranean quagmire, or to antagonise Europe: since 2018 it had effectively ignored Turkish overtures for a maritime memorandum of understanding but now felt it had little choice. Despite being the internationally recognised government of Libya, that recognition has failed to materialise into tangible, or even rhetorical, support during Haftar’s prolonged assault on Tripoli.

Indeed, the Berlin conference process that kicked off in September was supposed to end violations of the United Nations Security Council arms embargo. But, instead, Haftar’s backers massively stepped up their support with shipments of advanced arms and air strikes. This was met with familiar international silence, even as Tripoli came under relentless barrage and Russian private military contractors intervened on Haftar’s side. All this only heightened the pressure on the GNA to act.

The security agreement is now changing the balance of power in Libya. It has already proved a massive morale boost on the front lines, and its effects are visible on the ground. Mostly recently, for the fourth time since April, Haftar announced ‘zero-hour’ for his invasion of Tripoli. But this time the GNA repelled the attack, and followed it up with a rapid counter-offensive that advanced the GNA lines for the first time in months. New weaponry, including Turkish anti-armour missiles, have been used to great effect.

While attention has largely focused on the prospect of a direct Turkish intervention, the bulk of the security agreement is about training and capacity building. Although the GNA forces have developed organisationally and improved command-and-control structures over the course of the war, they struggled to take their formalisation further – and suffered for it. Interior minister Fathi Bashagha had long struggled to break the militia stranglehold over the GNA and build a professional force. He requested similar assistance from Europeans, but it now appears that Turkey will not only defend the GNA but influence their future security set-up.

The security agreement has already proved a massive morale boost on the front lines

It seems likely that recent comments made by Erdogan and foreign minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu about actually sending Turkish troops are directed more at international actors involved in Libya rather than domestic players. Together with the security agreement, these are a clear signal that Turkey intends to be in Libya for a while yet. Indeed, all this was followed by a conversation between Erdogan and Vladimir Putin last week, which continued the Turkish president’s efforts to convince Moscow to reverse its support for Haftar. Those efforts now have more substance behind them. For the time being there is an understanding that Turkey and Russia will not cross swords within Libya, but they are laying the groundwork for a more comprehensive deal.

If such an agreement were to transpire, this would only further marginalise Europe from a role in its own neighbourhood. This dynamic has developed because Europe was unable to take a firm or united position – with France’s increasingly assertive support towards Haftar – even as Germany began the Berlin conference process. If it is to retain relevance in Libya, it will now need to give new life to this initiative.

That said, Europe should retain perspective amid the current drama and use the opportunity to address the flaws in the Berlin process that allowed these developments to take place. This involves forging a united position among member states with interests in Libya. Doing so will necessitate concerted attempts to convince France that its security interests are best served on a common European platform that presses for stability rather than its current engagement on the side of Haftar.

Moreover, a united Europe is likely the only way to force the United States into clarifying its position on the conflict in Libya. The only way to keep this a multilateral affair is to secure joint European and American support, and to apply pressure to the parties to Berlin to credibly engage with the process and support UN attempts to forge a political process. This will help create a mechanism to channel international interests in a constructive manner. If Europe instead remains a hesitant bystander, it will see itself lose influence – from the shores of Tripoli to the eastern Mediterranean.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This paper, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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