Libya is now facing a complicated crisis with various layers and has turned into a scene of ideological clashes and conflict of interest of the foreign powers. In this scene:
- On one side, the powers favoring General Khalifa Haftar, above all France and Russia, continue to struggle with Turkey, which is the main supporter of Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord, for interests and sphere of influence.
- On the other side, the opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, have closed ranks by supporting secularist General Haftar against Turkey and Qatar, which support the government leaning towards the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya.
- Turkey’s geostrategic goals in the eastern Mediterranean, set as the Blue Homeland doctrine by the Justice and Development (AK) Party, have added to the conflict and have formed a close relationship with the Libya crisis.
Turkey has launched a three-dimensional dispute (over the sphere of influence, ideological dispute, geostrategic dispute) in Libya by making formal agreements with that country’s legitimate government. On November 27, 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and head of the Presidential Council of Libya, Fayez al-Sarraj, signed two memorandums of understanding at Istanbul's Dolmabahce Palace, on “restriction of marine jurisdictions in the Mediterranean” and “security and military cooperation”. With this move, Turkey launched efforts to expand its strategic policy as far as Libya. Ankara believes that the agreements have given it the necessary legitimacy to intervene in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, however, the opposition maintains that al-Sarraj lacks sufficient international legitimacy to sign an agreement.
At first glance, the two agreements seemed to be a response to Turkey’s exclusion from an agreement among Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, and Israel on cooperation in the oil and gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean. Since 2014, when Israel obtained positive results from exploration activities in the eastern Mediterranean and when Cyprus, Greece, and major Western companies became interested in the discoveries, the discovery of hydrocarbon fields in that region assumed special significance. These developments convinced Turkey to send drilling ships to Northern Cyprus and start oil and gas offshore drilling in the eastern Mediterranean, but such move drew a negative response from Egypt, Cyprus, Israel, and the European Union. Turkey is discontented with not having a partner in that area. Ankara believes that Libya could save Turkey from such isolation. After what happened in Libya, this development prepared the ground for massive popular support in Turkey for the Erdogan government’s policies in supporting the government of al-Sarraj.
Until four months ago, everything was in favor of General Haftar in Libya’s military arena. His forces had closed in on Tripoli and such moves had seriously threatened the Government of National Accord of al-Sarraj. By deploying military equipment and thousands of troops from northern Syria to Libya, the Turkish government first saved Tripoli from General Haftar’s military threats and then tightened the noose around General Haftar’s forces by advancing towards Sirte and Jufra. The government of al-Sarraj has now come out of defense mode and has taken an offensive position with the help of Turkey’s proxy fighters.
The move by the pro-Sarraj military forces to approach the city of Sirte was a milestone in the developments in Libya. Sirte, once under the control of General Haftar, is a city where 11 oil pipelines and three gas conduits of Libya connect with each other and are considered as a gateway to Libya's oil crescent region. Whoever takes control of Sirte would be able to take control of over 350 km of a coastal stretch all the way to Benghazi full of pipelines, refineries, terminals, and storage centers. The fall of Sirte could result in the defeat of General Haftar and a victory for the proponents of the Muslim Brotherhood. As a result, the president of Egypt described an attack by the al-Sarraj forces on Sirte and Jufra as a red line, ordering the Egyptian Army to prepare for a possible strike on Libya. Although some experts believe that Egypt lacks the necessary conditions for military intervention in Libya, after the threat made by Egypt, which received backing from the supporters of Haftar, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two sides ceased military activities and the ground was prepared for mediatory measures and introduction of peace initiatives. Turkey has voiced support for the political settlement of Libya crisis, calling for the removal of General Haftar from the political process.
Turkey’s moves in Libya could be analyzed in terms of a quest for strategic depth through the expansion of Turkish influence in the regions over which the Ottoman Empire had sovereignty. The new aspects of Neo-Ottomanism entail Turkish military presence abroad, such as the establishment of military bases in Qatar and a number of African countries. Turkey is now seeking to deploy forces to and use the Misrata naval base and the al-Watiya airbase in Libya under an agreement with al-Sarraj’s government. The two bases would help Turkey expand its influence in the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa.
The developments in Libya have resulted in a severe and overt confrontation between France and Turkey, in such a way that the disputes have spread to the European Union. France has accused Turkey of violating an arms embargo on Libya and has voiced concern about the consequences of Turkish military intervention in Libya. In turn, Turkey believes that its intervention in Libya is legitimate, in accordance with the international regulations, and in coordination with the Libyan government, while the supporters of Haftar have stood against the legitimate government of that country. The 200-km distance between Libya and Europe has caused concerns in the European Union about the course of developments in the African country with an eye on migration, a rise of fundamentalist groups, and the consequent security problems. Although France, Greece, and Cyprus urge the European Union to take economic punitive measures against Turkey, the EU prefers negotiations with Turkey to any other practical action against Ankara, at least in the current circumstances.
Russia is another influential force in Libya’s developments. Despite the history of supporting General Haftar, Moscow is trying to pursue a balanced policy on the two Libyan groups and play a key role in the political solution. Another aspect of Russia’s policy is the establishment of a ceasefire and maintenance of balance on the field in Libya, which has put pressure on Turkey and its plans for the continuation of the operation by pro-Sarraj forces and their military advance on Sirte. Although Russia’s military presence in Libya is not strong, Ankara is afraid of the negative consequences of confrontation with Moscow in Libya on the existing balance between Turkey and Russia in northern Syria.
One of the clear facts amid these developments is that Ankara feels emboldened by the supports from Washington and, to some extent, the NATO, for its activities in Libya which are provided with the purpose of weakening Russia. In the current conditions, Ankara is pursuing active diplomacy, and, at the same time, is trying to avoid any military clashes with Russia and Egypt in Libya. Ankara hopes to make the most of its on-the-field superiority in Libya in the course of diplomatic contacts and in the political process of settlement of the Libyan crisis. However, Turkey still prefers to resume military action by relying on its capabilities on the field and to conquer the city of Sirte at the hands of al-Sarraj forcesand will return to that plan once the regional and international conditions are appropriate.
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)