by Giorgio Cafiero and Khalid al-Jaber
In recent weeks, a strategic clash in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has significantly contributed to the escalation of violence in Libya’s civil war. On one side, a bloc made up of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and tacitly Israel too backs General Khalifa Haftar’s campaign to topple the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). Another bloc, represented by Turkey and Qatar, supports the GNA.
Haftar’s westward assault on Tripoli, launched on April 4, faced a major setback last month when GNA-allied militias took control of Gharyan. This battle marked a significant defeat for the overstretched Libyan National Army (LNA). Haftar’s loss of this city, which has a population of 200,000 and is 62 miles south of Tripoli, was largely attributable to Ankara’s military support for some of Haftar’s enemies and growing coordination among pro-GNA factions. Because Gharyan was crucial to the LNA’s efforts to “liberate” Tripoli from the militias loyal to the UN-recognized government, Haftar is in a weaker position to seize control of Libya’s capital.
Until recently, the LNA had much momentum. It easily captured Sorman and Al-Ajaylat, both within 45 miles of Tripoli. Yet, viewing Haftar’s westward assault as a grave threat to its interests, Turkey realized that stopping the warlord required quick help to the militias fighting under the GNA’s umbrella. Since Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli began, Ankara has delivered direct arms shipments, including drones and armored vehicles, to groups supporting the government in Tripoli. Various media outlets in Egypt and Greece have even reported on Turkish officers’ alleged direct involvement in battles.
Given the influential roles that various Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups play in the GNA, many observers conclude that Turkey’s ruling neo-Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), supports the Tripoli-based government for ideological reasons. Yet Turkish officials maintain that respect for the UN-led process, not ideology, drives Ankara’s Libya policies. In the region, nonetheless, many see Turkey and Qatar as working in tandem to sponsor Islamist groups in Libya with the aim of empowering the Muslim Brotherhood regionwide. In reality, however, Doha has backed off from Libya since 2013 in terms of playing any significant role in the North African country.
In LNA-controlled parts of Libya, there is rage directed against Turkey because of Ankara’s pro-GNA policies. Haftar and those in his circle accuse Ankara of interfering in Libya’s domestic affairs and supporting “terrorists.” Since Haftar’s westward assault began in April, the LNA has prohibited commercial flights between Libya and Turkey, banned Turkish ships from docking at LNA-controlled ports, and threatened to arrest Turkish nationals in Libya. In fact, security forces arrested six Turkish citizens last month and only released them after Turkish officials issued direct military threats against the LNA.
There are issues far beyond the AKP’s ideological nature that shape Ankara’s views of the crisis in Libya. The beleaguered North African country fits into a grander geopolitical equation in the Mediterranean, and Turkey wants Libya to be controlled by a friendly government at a time of mounting geopolitical competition in the eastern Mediterranean and other foreign policy crises closer to home such as the Syrian crisis.
Sovereign rights and energy interests in parts of the eastern Mediterranean believed to be hydrocarbon-rich also factor into Ankara’s approach to Libya, particularly against the backdrop of Turkey’s fears that Greece and Greek Cypriots will reach an agreement for sovereignty over shared naval areas at the expense of Ankara and Turkish Cypriots’ interests in such zones. Greece considers the international waters near Libya as its territory. Unsettled by these claims, Turkey seeks a partner in Tripoli to counter Athens’s sovereign claims and strengthen Ankara’s clout in the region against Greek Cypriots, Greece, Egypt, and Israel. As Metin Gurcan explains, “According to Ankara’s strategic mindset, if Turkey loses in Libya, it will be tightly confined to a limited area in the eastern Mediterranean.”
The escalating proxy war in Libya has recently moved in Ankara’s favor as a result of stepped-up Turkish support for the GNA-allied militias. Yet even if Haftar fails to take control of Tripoli, he will remain a powerful actor in Libya with the LNA forces controlling virtually all of Libya’s onshore gas fields and most of the country’s land. Libya could well remain divided between Haftar’s power center in Tobruk and the UN-respected government in Tripoli, with no agreement for a peaceful settlement.
Thus, while Ankara may succeed in slowing down Haftar’s offensive and pushing back against the ambitions of the UAE and other Arab states that support the LNA’s assault on Tripoli for their own national interests, it’s unclear what Turkey or any other external actor in the conflict can do to prevent Libya from falling into a permanent deadlock.
Khalid Al Jaber (@AlJaberzoon) is the Director of the MENA Center for Research in Washington DC.