For Turkey, Libya is as important as Syria

Sami Hamdi Libya

Turkey has sent special forces to Tripoli while dispatching Bayraktar drones to Northern Cyprus in what is a clear escalation and a sign of intent that it is prepared to risk war to save Fayez Serraj’s government. In recent months, Haftar has received significant reinforcements and advanced weaponry which has altered the dynamics of battle, and enabled Haftar to make gains into Tripoli. Serraj’s plight has become increasingly desperate as he faces the Libyan strongman’s army backed by France, UAE, Egypt, Russia, and to some extent, the US. Following the signing of a security pact with Ankara, Serraj’s government has issued a call for assistance from Turkish forces.

To date, all of the nations involved have steered clear of sending ground troops with the exception of Russia which has sent mercenaries to back Haftar. UAE has provided weapons and financial support. Egypt has provided logistics. France has provided weapons.

For the UAE, Libya is part of an aggressive foreign policy that began as a counterattack against Qatar’s once rapidly expanding influence in Somalia, Sudan, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. This foreign policy has since evolved and now centres on control of ports. From Somalia, moving northwards to Eritrea, support for Sisi who controls the Suez Canal and the ports of Alexandria, to Libya and the important ports of Benghazi and Tripoli, Abu Dhabi has sought to establish itself as a major maritime power. If Haftar seizes Tripoli, Libya would also likely fall under the UAE orbit, completing the chokehold that Ankara appears set on preventing.

For Egypt, legitimising a coup against the Muslim Brotherhood means there should no be a successful Islamist model elsewhere. With Tripoli dominated by Islamist militia, Sisi fears what might emerge from the ashes of Libya’s conflict and the ramifications that might have for Egypt’s internal politics. Putin’s Russia has steadily expanded its influence, showcasing its power and advanced weaponry in Syria, seducing NATO members, offering itself as an alternative to Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, flexing its muscles in Ukraine, and is now using Libya as another pressure point against Europe and the United States.

So, what is Turkey’s interest?

Turkey’s interest is not Libya itself. Unlike the UAE or Egypt, Turkey’s involvement in Libya is not ideological. Instead, it is rooted in geopolitical realities that have put Turkey in a difficult situation. A glance at an influence map of the Mediterranean points to a maritime chokehold forming on Turkey that has alarmed Ankara. A combination of Egyptian, Greek, Cypriot, and Israeli antagonism added to UAE maritime expansionism suggests a dire state (from Turkey’s perspective) with regards to influence in the Mediterranean.

To date, Turkey has supported Tripoli’s government with enough to defend itself, but not enough to expand. In other words, Ankara has so far provided a lifeline for Serraj to ensure that he is powerful enough to sit at the negotiating table but not powerful enough to begin a military campaign that might turn public opinion against him and Turkey. There are two main reasons for this, with the most important being that Turkey does not want to be dragged into an open conflict that carries substantial risks. The other reason is that Turkey remains concerned that Serraj is unable to impose himself on the militias currently in Tripoli who remain disunited and prone to clashing with one another.

However, Haftar’s assault appears to have united the various factions with even the militias of Misrata and Zintan announcing that they will send reinforcements to Tripoli to prevent Haftar’s onslaught.

In light of this newfound unity that may possibly bode well for future negotiations (if it lasts), and in light of the imminent threat Haftar poses to Turkey’s interests in the Mediterranean, President Erdogan and his team will believe that sending troops to Libya is a gamble worth taking, and one that must be taken quickly.

There remain the concerns over Russia’s support for Haftar and a potential antagonistic US response. However, Turkey has sought to pressure one of the two into supporting him. President Erdogan announced yesterday that he was considering closing the Incirlik military base. This base is despised by Moscow and treasured by Washington. For Erdogan, the plan is simple. Either Russia supports Turkey, ceases to back Haftar, and Erdogan subsequently begins procedures to close the Incirlik military base, or the US become rattled, cease sitting on the fence, and lend their weight and influence behind Turkey’s operation in Libya. Erdogan may be bluffing. However, the experience of Syria and Turkey’s unilateral decision to enter Northern Syria, purchase S-400’s, and threaten the position and credibility of NATO, despite sanctions and immense international pressure means that Washington and Moscow will believe that there is a genuine possibility that it is not a bluff.

According to Ankara, Libya today is as important to Turkey’s interests as Syria. Whether such an assessment is true is irrelevant. What is clear however, is that Turkey is prepared to take significant measures, and risk an open conflict with international powers, to prevent Haftar from taking Tripoli.