Turkish Intervention in Libya and Potential Ramifications

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Libya is an African country holding the largest oil reserves in the region and is considered a key player in the gas natural resources market. In the aftermath of the fall and death of long-time Libya’s former ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya  became a chaos- wracked country torn by violence and conflict both internally and externally.  Foreign powers have been competing to exploit the country, intervening on both sides of the internationally-recognized government and its internal rival. One of the more prolific  powers that recently joined the fray of the Libyan war is Turkey. 

In 2020 Turkey has intervened forcefully on the side of the legitimate government in Tripoli.  It has also pursued oil and gas interests there. There are growing fears that the “Turkish intervention” has fully turned a civil war with mild external intervention into a full-fledged regional war, which would worsen an already dire local  situation, destabilize Libya’s neighbors, and threaten American and European security interests. Consequently, this post is going to address the Libyan war, Turkish intervention’s goals and their ramifications, and other foreign powers’ reactions and relations to the Libyan crisis and Turkish influence.

Since the  late strongman Muammar Gaddafi was deposed in 2011, two rival administrations have been competing in Libya:  one in Tripoli, which is the government of National Accord  (GNA) supported by Turkey, Qatar, United Nations, and the other one in eastern Libya backed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Russia, France, and Jordan—the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA). The GNA is headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and the LNA is under the leadership of renegade Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Tripoli has been the main target of the LNA . General Haftar  launched his offensive last April 2019 aiming to topple the GNA. The LNA has so far failed to seize the capital, but it has control of adjacent southern sectors of Tripoli that it has captured, some just a few kilometers from the city center. According to the UN, since forces loyal to Haftar launched their offensive in Tripoli, more than 280 civilians and over 2,000 fighters have been killed, and 146,000 citizens displaced.

The GNA PM al-Sarraj requested Turkish military support after the LNA launched its latest  offensive in early December  to take control of Tripoli. After years of operating outside of Tripoli, Haftar’s forces resumed their attacks on the capital from several fronts with a far larger force in hand (and direct support from Russia, France, and UAE).

Ankara sought to expand its intervention in Libya by signing two memorandum of understanding between al-Sarraj, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on November 27, 2019. The first deal focuses on security and military cooperation, and the second redraws maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean.

Turkish forces were sent to Libya after the Turkish Parliament approved the deployment of troops in Decemberm a move that took place according to the bilateral maritime jurisdiction, which authorizes the GNA in Tripoli to call for Turkish military weapons to use in its operations and opened a space for Turkey to send its troops to Libya to fight in support for Tripoli with a one-year mandate.

The Turkish intervention in Libya is likely to contribute to a rapid worsening of  an already-ignited conflict. Thus, in response to the bilateral agreement signed between Turkey and Tripoli, Libya’s eastern-based parliament has voted unanimously to sever relations with Ankara, and prosecute al-Sarraj because he requested a foreign power’s military support. In this regard, Haftar’s LNA has been threatening to attack Turkish nationals and businesses in Libya and Turkish ships off the country’s coast.

Interestingly, intervening powers supporting the LNA have been angered by the Turkish Intervention in the Libyan conflictSaudi Arabia has considered the Turkish move of dispatching troops to Libya a violation of UN Security Council decisions. Accordingly, it has largely condemned this motion, which was approved by the Turkish Parliament in mid December. Additionally, the UAE, which is one of Haftar’s strategic backers, launched a campaign of opposition to  Turkey through its media outlets.

Egypt has rejected Turkish exploitation and stated that local parties playing a role in the conflict must promptly work to resolve it before Libya loses control to foreign actors. Thus, the Egyptian regime has denounced the Turkish move and warned against the looming ramifications of Turkey’s intervention . In this regard, Egypt’s media outlets are running a campaign of vitriol aimed at Turkey and its president. Additionally, Egypt considers the Turkish parliament’s approval of a resolution to deploy Turkish forces to Libya to be based on an invalid memorandum of understanding signed between Turkey and Tripoli. It also warned of the risks of any Turkish military intervention in Libya, which it has stated will destabilize the Mediterranean region, and pledged to hold Turkey accountable.

Turkey’s intervention in Libya has infuriated its European neighbors who have already opposed its policy in the Mediterranean on previous occasions. In early December, the EU rejected the maritime deal signed between Turkey and Tripoli, describing it as a “violation of international law” and expressing its solidarity with Greece who was already in opposition.

It is worth reflecting on the degree to which the reaction to Turkey’s two-pronged intervention in Libya reflects the former’s  growing diplomatic isolation in the region. Turkey is at odds with the United States over its incursion into northern Syria. It also has disputes with Saudi Arabia pertaining to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Ankara. Turkey is in further opposition toEgypt, the UAE,  Russia, and France in Libya.

The Turkish intervention in Libya has  imminent ramifications that will further destabilize a volatile region. Having become a fully penetrated arena for foreign actors’ interests, the state of Libya  is increasingly fraught. As each foreign actor, including Turkey, attempts to secure  a foothold in Libya to meet its strategic goals, this is increasing  proxy involvement and undermining critical international mediation efforts led by the UN. The escalation of Turkey’s intervention may also pave the way for a widened conflict that could not only worsen the conflict in  Libya but also spread it to neighboring countries. Ankara’s air power, militias, and sending weaponry to the GNA violate half a dozen UN resolutions calling on member states to abstain from sending any weapons to any conflicting party in Libya, particularly Resolutions 1970 and 1973, adopted in 2011, which obviously impose a military embargo on the country.

Finally, it is important to leaven any criticism of Turkey with a measure of even greater criticism of the powers that have intervened on the side of Haftar and the LNA, beginning with Russia, but also including—of all countries—France, not to mention Saudi, UAE, and Egypt. Russia may be a fading world power, but it is mustering its dwindling capabilities to fill strategic vacuums around the world and/or seek to displace western allies in pivotal areas of operation, such as Syria. France’s support for Haftar is placing it on the wrong side of history, oddly it is also supporting the GNA by way of the support of NATO and the EU on the internationally recognized Libyan government. As for the rest, they amount to a kind of “usual suspects” for destabilizing diplomatic and military interventions throughout the MENA region in recent years.

The U.S. is guilty of malign neglect of Libya, as well as the rest of the Western Alliance in the form of NATO and the EU. In fact, to a minor degree, Trump has expressed support for Haftar, including a phone call and series of tweets. This policy does direct harm to core U.S. national security interests, as well as those of its top allies. The EU and NATO, as well as the U.S., could have prevented the war in Libya, not only immediately subsequent to the NATO air war against Gaddafi’s Libyan forces in 2011, but also more recently when the UN needed critical support and the GNA called on both to intervene. In fact, both NATO and the EU formally decided to Libyan civilian operations, but neither have followed through and implemented them. Thus, not only the backers of Haftar bear responsibility for the destruction of Libya and destabilization of the region, but western allies bear an indirect responsibility as well. Ironically, because the UN has concluded that there will be no military solution to the Libyan conflict, there is still an opportunity for the whole of the Western Alliance led by the U.S. to intervene alongside the UN and swiftly bring on end to this woeful conflict.

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