by Jack Cross
Despite dominating international headlines during the Arab Spring, events in Libya at the time and their consequences today appear to be forgotten. This does not mean, however, that events on the North African coast should be ignored. Indeed, in the context of a civil war, now entering its sixth year since beginning in 2014 , renewed attempts at peace are underway. Alongside the two warring factions are many interested external parties, including Turkey, whose government provides arms and support to the UN recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli. The GNA’s opponent is the Benghazi-based, House of Representatives and Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the LNA. But what exactly does Turkey hope to gain in this fragile, embattled and scarred state? I will argue, it is part of a wider narrative of Turkish expansionism across the Eastern Mediterranean and a drive to become the dominant political and economic force in the region.
A recent history of Turkey’s involvement in the Libyan Civil War goes back to mid-2019, although their relationship stretches further to the Turkish-led Ottoman Empire under which Libya was a province until 1911-12. This imperial connection places Libya within Turkey’s historical sphere of influence. The current intervention began with Turkey and the GNA agreeing two memorandums of understanding: a military agreement and a maritime deal, signed in November 2019. These guaranteed Ankara’s support, in exchange for revisions of their shared maritime border in the Mediterranean Sea. This was followed up by a vote by the Turkish Grand National Assembly in January of this year, to approve the deployment of military personnel and resources to Libya. The assistance provided by Ankara came in the form of arms, supplies and technical support worth roughly $350 million. Moreover, foreign mercenaries have also been employed and deployed.
Turkey’s involvement in Libya has contributed to a war of words with some of its NATO allies, particularly France, who had been backing the rival Benghazi based government. This has continued despite the fact that the Haftar-led side has little international recognition. However, there have been attempts to reduce foreign influence in the Libyan conflict, including an EU arms embargo, agreed in 2016. This was used to add greater weight to the UN embargo established in 2011. So, what is to be gained here, particularly when the stakes are high enough to spark tensions with major powers? For Turkey, Libya is a key piece of the jigsaw in their ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean. In recent years, Turkey as well as Greece and Cyprus, have been increasingly interested in explorative drilling in the Mediterranean, with the potential for huge benefits in exploiting the natural gas deposits beneath the seabed. The Turkish-GNA maritime agreement establishes exclusive economic zones for both Libya and Turkey in the Mediterranean, at the expense of the competing claims made by Greece, Cyprus and others. Already the world has seen mounting tension over this issue, with recent standoffs between the Turkish and Greek navies.
Now, Turkey’s fortunes in the Mediterranean are very clearly tied to those of the GNA in Libya. If the GNA fail to come out as the dominant party in any peace accord, this could put the Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement in jeopardy, and President Erdogan’s ambitions along with it. The official line from Ankara makes it clear that they have no intention of abandoning their allies in Libya and there have been widespread suspicions that Turkey has been seeking to breach the arms embargo. In recent days, several Turkish vessels have been boarded by naval personnel, on behalf of the military mission policing the UN and EU embargos. While the Turkish government has denied that there have been attempts to breach any arms embargo, they have stated that their mercenaries are to remain in Libya. This is despite the fact that the initial ceasefire agreement did explicitly call for the removal of foreign military personnel. The danger here is that if Turkey continues these provocative acts, as part of its wider strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean, peace talks in Libya may well break down.
So, what consequences do Turkish successes in Libya pose for the wider region? The problem for France, and others opposed to the Turkish policy, is that the Ankara backed side is in a stronger position. At the time of the ceasefire, the GNA had already successfully defended Tripoli from assaults by Haftar and the LNA and retains control of key air bases in the western part of the country. It increasingly appears as if the momentum is behind the GNA, after these recent victories. The current Haftar backers, particularly Russia, have no direct involvement in the Eastern Mediterranean disputes, and are also increasingly friendly with the Erdogan government. In fact key parts of Turkey’s maritime aims regarding Libya are already accomplished, as the agreement made with the GNA has been registered by the UN as an arrangement made between two legitimate governments. But Ankara must maintain its involvement throughout the peace talks. Turkey has sought to strengthen its position within the peace negotiations, offering $120 billion (USD) worth of reconstruction contracts, on condition that the GNA becomes the dominant force in the post-war government. With this backdrop, it looks likely that Turkey will be heading for further collisions with other actors in the region as talks continue to reach a lasting settlement.
It is unclear yet if Erdogan’s gamble in supporting the GNA has paid off, or what exactly a victory in Libya would mean more broadly for Turkish foreign policy. The threat of sanctions over Turkey’s continued involvement in Libya and provocations in the Mediterranean have appeared to have little effect in deterring the Turkish government. The future remains uncertain and dangerous. The fragile truce in Libya could easily collapse and at that point, Turkish involvement could become greater and even more entrenched. The Libyan piece of Turkey’s Eastern Mediterranean puzzle has not quite fallen into place yet, it still hangs in the balance. With all the uncertainty and instability there is no telling what the direct consequences will be for the wider region, should Turkey prevail here.
Jack Cross is currently pursuing his MA in the History of War in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. His main research interests are on diplomatic history, modern Turkey the Middle East more broadly.