Alongside the more talked about agreement regarding maritime borders, Turkey and Libya’s GNA also signed a military cooperation agreement, which builds on previous relations between the two regarding military cooperation, intelligence sharing, training, education, the legal framework behind the cooperation and strengthening the overall ties between the two governments.
Turkish president Erdogan says his country continues to push for a peaceful solution to the conflict and hopes other international actors will follow suit. This agreement, he claims should be seen as contributing to Libya’s stability, in that Turkey will assist Libya’s government in reforming its security mechanisms, to help restore order and return to a political solution.
However, Erdogan added something else that caused significant concern in the region over the past week, and perhaps rightfully so: that he is willing to send troops to assist the GNA, were he to receive a request to do so. This invitation would also exempt Turkey, he claims, from violating UNSC resolutions on foreign involvement in the conflict.
The New York Times described Libya as a “strategic prize with vast oil reserves and a long Mediterranean coastline”. Libya has also turned into a departure point for migrants and refugees fleeing Africa to reach Europe, something Europe wants to stop and Russia seeks to influence as another point of leverage on Europe. Libya has also become a regional hub for Islamic militants and instability, something regional powers surely wish to control and limit from spreading to their own countries.
In recent months, and as the fighting seemed to be reaching a stalemate during the summer, Russia began increasing its military support for the side that seemed to be winning – Haftar’s LNA. That also happens to be the side that has taken a clear “anti-Islamist” stance, and has positioned itself to be the west’s bulwark against the rise of ISIS in Libya. Thus, Russia first helped “tip the scales” with equipment, cash printing, diplomatic support and is now supplying front-line mercenaries that are shifting the outcome of the war. There are some who think it could come to an end in the coming months.
Russia’s involvement, and now Turkey possibly upgrading its own involvement, adds a new element to the conflict. Turkey, as has been widely reported, is the main backer for the GNA. It supplies arms and even is said to operate its drones for the GNA in the conflict. But unlike the LNA, which we now know has Sudanese and Chadian troops, some on the front lines, and now Russian mercenaries, the GNA does not have such backing from a foreign power. There are rumours that Turkish mercenaries are fighting, to some extent, for the GNA. Nevertheless, were Erdogan to send combat forces, this could lead to an even bigger escalation: other international powers would certainly follow suit. This would also almost certainly exacerbate the already high tensions between Turkey and the EU. And, it would most certainly spike tensions with Russia, who backs the LNA, and would have repercussions for Turkey in Syria.
As all this unfolded, LNA air forces reportedly destroyed a large Turkish arms shipment to the GNA in Misrata (Misrata’s Air Academy), including ammunition, armoured vehicles and other military equipment.
Why does Turkey care so much about Libya that it is willing to risk a regional escalation? For one, Turkey has long sought to position itself as a major Mediterranean power. The vacuum that opened up in Libya allows Turkey to do so, and gain an advantage on Europe. Russia’s like-minded effort complicates things for Ankara. Second, Turkey already sells arms to Tripoli, and is vying already now for day-after reconstruction and infrastructure projects that will likely be lucrative. Russia is too. Thirdly, Turkey’s Islamist-leaning government no doubt sympathises with Serraj and the GNA, who are also Islamic leaning. Haftar, conversely, has styled himself fully in the vein of secular strongmen like el-Sissi. Lastly, as Turkey needs Libya’s support to back its Mediterranean power-play on gas reserves, using creative diplomacy to chart a common maritime border between the two.
There is no doubt, moreover, that unlike in Syria, where Turkey can reasonably claim its involvement is to create stability along its border, Erdogan will have a more difficult case to make that his move is little more than a naked regional power grab, as he competes for influence with the Russians, Emiratis and others. Such a move might even tip the balance and draw the Americans more forcefully into the conflict. Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi already said, in response, that foreign powers should stop interfering, and hinted that were Turkey to send troops, Egypt might do so, as it had avoided intervening until now in the conflict (Egypt has backed the LNA and provided some air support until now).
These moves, some see, as a part of more general Turkish assertiveness (some claim aggression) in the region, that includes moves in Kurdish Syria, the Mediterranean agreement with Libya, and even the rumours surrounding the US Air Force limiting its presence at Incirlik Air Base in recent weeks. One news outlet claims this is the US moving its nuclear weapons out of Incirlik as the tensions continue to rise with Ankara.
Turkey would be advised to exercise caution in the region. Its Mediterranean gambit, whether justified or not, is already having far-reaching implications for Turkey – and by extension – the GNA’s relationship with other regional powers. Direct Turkish military involvement in Libya could fully tip those scales and cause a full internationalisation of the conflict – something that Libya certainly doesn’t need and Ankara probably doesn’t want.