Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has
begun to dispatch troops to Libya, there to support of the country’s beleaguered Government of National Accord. Turkey’s objective is to protect Tripoli and help the GNA—which is recognized by the United Nations—to remain in power.
From Ankara’s point of view, this is in essence a defensive move, one that aims to achieve a military stalemate in Libya between the GNA, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and the so-called Libyan National Army, led by General Khalifa Haftar. The calculation is that such a situation would then force the parties to the table of negotiations and pave the way to a political settlement before long.
The big question is whether these plans will hold in a crowded theater where other actors—like Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and, more recently Russia— are also involved, and actively working against Turkey’s objectives.
Erdogan’s military engagement in Libya is motivated by the desire to protect a bilateral agreement concluded last December with the Libyan government on the delimitation of maritime borders in the Mediterranean. For years, Turkey had been at odds with Greece and Cyprus over rights to the Eastern Med. Not being party to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Turkey does not recognize the expansive territorial shelf and exclusive economic zones granted to islands under the Convention.
Turkey and Greece have been in negotiations for more than half a century now to find a mutually acceptable settlement to their dispute over the sharing of resources in the Aegean as well as the Mediterranean. The dispute is compounded by the ongoing political division in Cyprus with Turkey’s resolve to ensure a fair share of the potential financial benefits for the Turkish Cypriots.
In recent years, Ankara’s ill-fated regional policy coupled with its unconditional support to the Muslim Brotherhood has led to the estrangement of Egypt and Israel. As a result, Turkey faces a consortium of nations in the region eager to leverage the natural resources of the Eastern Mediterranean, to the detriment of Turkey’s interests.
For Erdogan, the deal with Libya is a formula to break Turkey’s isolation and win support for its bid for what he regards as a fairer distribution of off shore resources in the Eastern Mediterranean.
But the December deal came with a quid pro quo: in return for its signature, the GNA government asked Ankara’s military support against Haftar. Seen from a higher altitude, Turkey’s military engagement in Libya is the price for the failure of its regional policies, which have jeopardized the country’s long term geopolitical interests.
The dangers for the Turkish government are twofold. Firstly, there is domestic risk. Unlike the
military operation in Syria, the expeditionary effort in Libya has scant public support. In a new survey by Istanbul Economics Research, a polling company, only 34% of respondents support the decision, while 58% oppose it. A protracted campaign in Libya could have dire political consequences at home, especially if there are Turkish casualties.
The second risk is operational, for the Turkish military. The Turkish contingent will be operating far from home, with no clear solution for its logistical needs, against an enemy with open supply routes from neighboring Egypt. Another major handicap will the lack of air superiority:
Turkish-operated unmanned air vehicles will be no match for Haftar’s air force, which is complemented by Emirati fighter jets, also based in Egypt.
Aware of these shortcomings, Ankara is keen to maintain a noncombatant role, with Turkish units involved only as military advisors or as operators of strategic assets such as electronic warfare and unmanned air vehicles. The fighting is to be done by of a proxy force of Free Syrian Army militants. The military success of the recent Syrian campaign seems to have convinced Turkish policy makers that these proxy warriors could also be effective in Libya, where most of the warring factions are militias.
Turkey’s plans will be severely tested. Other governments supporting the armed opposition—and in particular, Egypt and the UAE—may view the Turkish involvement as an opportunity to hurt Erdogan, who they accuse of supporting Islamists antithetical to their governments.
Much will therefore depend on whether Cairo and Abu Dhabi decide to escalate militarily. To preempt such an outcome, Turkey has reached out to Russia, hoping to get Moscow’s support for an early revitalization of the political settlement. Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin yesterday called for a ceasefire in Libya on Jan 12, but it is unclear if the belligerents will pay heed. In reality, Russia’s influence in Libya remains limited when compared to, say, Egypt’s.
Ultimately the success of Turkey’s strategy will depend on the credibility of its commitment to the GNA and the effectiveness of its military deterrence. Erdogan will have to convince leaders of the opposing governments—and Haftar—that he will do whatever is necessary to protect the GNA.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has