Erdogan's Libyan Gambit

After having focused for most of the last quarter of 2019 on northeastern Syria and his declared security imperative of pushing the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) away from the Turkish border, a goal he partially achieved through a military operation launched on October 9, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned his attention to Libya. Accordingly, parallel to the worsening of the long-running Libyan civil war, Erdogan has raised the level of Turkish diplomatic and military involvement on the side of the embattled Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli headed by Fayez Sarraj against the growing challenge of the Libyan National Army (LNA) under Khalifa Haftar.

Erdogan’s decision to insert Turkey more forcefully into the complex Libyan crisis is the product of a number of factors, each of them important from his perspective. To begin with, it fits into Erdogan’s proactive foreign policy, which seeks to establish and expand Turkey’s role in its region, especially in countries with which Turkey enjoys historical, cultural, or religious links, while raising Turkey’s overall international profile. At the same time, it is part of what Erdogan has characterized as “forward defense” against named and unnamed external foes challenging Turkish interests. Just as with the Syrian military operation, Erdogan is also hoping that his Libyan move will bolster domestic patriotic support while helping to divert attention away from economic problems.

There is a strong expectation on Erdogan’s part relating to the reestablishment of the profitable Turkish commercial relationship with Libya that prevailed until its descent into ongoing civil strife in 2011, along with the settlement of billions of dollars of unpaid bills stretching back to the previous regime. The growing bonds with the GNA are also in accord with Erdogan’s ambitious energy policy, which has seen Turkey increasingly assert itself in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, it is far from clear if Erdogan’s latest foreign adventure will provide the dividends he is expecting.

Growing Engagement

Having previously maintained good diplomatic and economic relations with former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and opposed until the last minute the U.S.-led NATO intervention that led to his ouster, Erdogan was able to make a relatively smooth adjustment to the regime change. He quickly established links to most of the factions that emerged in Tripoli in the aftermath of the collapse of the regime and eventually formed the GNA. In addition to taking advantage of common Islamist credentials, Erdogan successfully utilized his close relationship with the Qatari leadership and its links to the GNA as part of their regional cooperation, including in the provision of logistical and financial support for the anti-Assad opposition in the Syrian civil war.

Having previously supplied without publicity the GNA with drones, armored vehicles, and small arms, and stationed a small contingent of military advisers headed by a Turkish general in Tripoli, Erdogan signed a security and military cooperation agreement formalizing the Turkey-GNA alliance with Sarraj in Istanbul on November 27. After another meeting in Istanbul with Sarraj on December 15 to get an update on the deteriorating security situation, Erdogan confirmed that Turkey was “willing to send forces to Libya if requested.”

Responding to a formal request duly conveyed by the GNA, Erdogan proceeded to obtain authorization from the Turkish Grand National Assembly on January 2 and then dispatched a few dozen additional soldiers to Tripoli to act in “an advisory capacity” in what he characterized as “the first consignment.” Simultaneously, Turkey quietly arranged the transportation of hundreds of Syrian opposition fighters, many of whom had fought alongside Turkish soldiers in northern Syria, to aid the GNA. In a speech on December 26, Erdogan declared that Turkey “has given and will give all forms of support to the Tripoli government which is fighting against a putschist general backed by Arab countries and Europeans.”

While upgrading Turkey’s military profile in Libya, Erdogan also mounted a major diplomatic initiative. On December 25, he made an unscheduled visit to Tunisia to explore the possibility of cooperation in assisting the GNA government. He then used the occasion of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s visit to Istanbul on January 8 for the inauguration of the TurkStream gas pipeline to discuss the Libyan crisis and, in particular, Moscow’s engagement with Haftar highlighted by the effective assistance provided by Russian mercenaries belonging to the Wagner Group.

After their meeting, the Russian leader expressed public support for a ceasefire and the resolution of the conflict and invited the two warring parties to a peace conference in Moscow. However, while Erdogan was willing to use his influence with Sarraj, with whom he finetuned their joint strategy in Istanbul one day before the January 13 meeting, to accept a ceasefire as part of a five-point draft agreement, Haftar’s abrupt departure from Moscow without giving his assent pointed to Putin’s apparent reluctance to reciprocate by pressuring the latter.

The Berlin conference, convened by German chancellor Angela Merkel on January 19 after her own meeting with Putin on Libya in Moscow eight days earlier, was also unproductive from Erdogan’s point of view. Organized in conjunction with UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, it brought together not only the two sides in Libya and the Turkish and Russian leaders as in Moscow, but also the leaders of a number of other interested countries along with representatives of the European Union, the African Union, and the Arab League. In an apparent effort to sway the European participants, especially Merkel, Erdogan pointed out the dangers of “irregular migration toward Europe” if the GNA were to collapse in an article published one day before the conference.

However, while the high-level meeting and the 57-point communique issued afterward sustained international attention on the Libyan crisis in line with Erdogan’s wishes, the inconclusive results of the conference were underlined once again by Haftar’s departure without a commitment to a ceasefire. Having stated on his way to Berlin that he viewed the conference “as an important step to the establishment of a ceasefire and a political settlement,” Erdogan acknowledged his disappointment on his flight back to Ankara. He said that despite all his efforts, the verbal accords at the conference on a ceasefire and a process to reach a settlement had “unfortunately not been confirmed in writing.”

What happens now?

The Libyan civil war seems set to continue because of the apparent reluctance of the two sides to compromise, vividly demonstrated by the unwillingness of the two leaders to even be in the same room in Moscow and Berlin. As the ongoing fighting demonstrates, each side continues to believe and proclaim that it could still inflict defeat on the other, in the case of the GNA through growing Turkish involvement. The attacks during the past few days by Haftar’s forces on Mitiga International Airport, the GNA’s main link to Turkey as well as the outside world, underscores the difficulties for Erdogan as he ponders his next steps in Libya.

The international situation Erdogan finds himself in is different to that which prevailed at the time of his third military intervention in northern Syria in October. He was then able to obtain not only the implicit assent of both the United States and Russia prior to the operation but also their subsequent diplomatic acceptance through separate ceasefire agreements. This time Erdogan has not been able to get the understanding he may have expected from either Putin, with whom he discussed the Libyan situation in bilateral meetings in Istanbul, Moscow, and Berlin, or President Donald Trump.

Putin’s failure to indicate a reassessment or reduction of Russian links to Haftar despite Erdogan’s personal pleas is similar to his willingness to support the Assad regime’s continuing assault in Idlib, which has serious refugee implications for Turkey, with Russian fighter jets. Clearly, Putin is confident that his close relationship with Erdogan will endure despite such differences, as Erdogan’s description of the Turkish-Russian relationship as “strategic” after the Berlin conference serves to confirm.

In similar fashion, the phone conversation between Erdogan and Trump on Libya on January 15 has not so far budged Trump, who had a phone conversation with Haftar in April 2019, from his stated public position against the introduction of foreign forces, a view also echoed by Putin. Their stances will undoubtedly figure prominently in Erdogan’s calculations relating to the possible upgrading of Turkish military engagement on behalf of the GNA. The warning issued through the Berlin communique against the introduction of mercenaries, pointedly amplified by French president Emmanuel Macron during the conference, will also make it more complicated for Erdogan to expand the number of Syrians he has inserted into the battle.

The negative developments on the ground in Libya are inevitably raising the stakes for Erdogan, who must have hoped that the insertion of the Turkish military factor into the equation would deter Haftar. Haftar has instead chosen to directly threaten Turkey while continuing his attacks on Tripoli. Although the GNA continues to enjoy UN recognition, as Erdogan never fails to note, it has recently lost additional territory, including the strategically important coastal town of Sirte, and is having to confront Haftar’s forces on the outskirts of Tripoli. Just as significant, the GNA has been deprived of its ability to export oil, its primary source of revenue, due to a blockade imposed by Haftar’s forces just before the Berlin conference.

Consequently, the GNA is more dependent than ever on Turkey for its very survival against a rival who continues to enjoy the open military support of next-door Egypt, which is determined to prevent Turkey from gaining a foothold in its North African backyard, as well as the United Arab Emirates, which, together with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, has been at the forefront of the regional challenge to the Turkey-Qatar partnership. Haftar also has the less overt backing of Russia and France and access to a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Sudanese and Chadian mercenaries funded by his backers. It is also important to note that force projection by Turkey to change the military balance is difficult. Libya is far away, and Turkey has been unable to secure access to a forward logistical base nearby to overcome its geographical disadvantage.

Turkey’s involvement in the Libyan crisis also should be analyzed in the context of Erdogan’s ambitious energy plans in the Eastern Mediterranean. The second agreement signed by Erdogan and Sarraj on November 27 delimited the respective exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of the two countries and thus expanded considerably the portion of the Mediterranean Sea Turkey is claiming. Although Erdogan has been stressing that Turkey was only seeking to defend its rights, the agreement drew immediate and sustained denunciation from a number of countries. Fully expecting his upgraded engagement with the GNA to strengthen Turkey’s energy diplomacy, Erdogan is now witnessing the emergence of an even more determined and stronger opposing bloc.

The strongest reaction has predictably come from Greece as the maritime line drawn by the Erdogan-Sarraj agreement passed just below Crete. Greece sent its foreign minister to Benghazi to meet Haftar on December 22 and followed up by hosting him in Athens for a meeting with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on January 17. On January 23, Mitsotakis said that Sarraj had agreed to the EEZ deal in return for military support from Turkey and confirmed that Greece would make sure that the European Union would not accept a solution in Libya unless these agreements were scrapped.

The regional response to Erdogan’s move has been intensifying since the beginning of the year. On January 2, the leaders of Greece, Cyprus, and Israel signed an agreement to implement a long-discussed project to build a pipeline through the EEZ claimed by Turkey to transport natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe. On January 8, the foreign ministers of Egypt, France, Cyprus, and Greece met in Cairo and issued a declaration condemning the agreement between Turkey and Libya as “a violation of relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions and international law.” This was followed on January 16 by another meeting in Cairo between the energy ministers of Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Italy to intensify cooperation within the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum.

The Italian foreign minister did not sign the declaration after the January 8 meeting in Cairo, which he attended to avoid further antagonizing Turkey, and Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte met Erdogan in Ankara to discuss Libya on January 13. However, on January 21, Italy officially denied reports that it was working with Turkey on the exploitation of Libya’s oil resources following the agreement between Ankara and Tripoli and called on Turkey to “start negotiations between all the parties involved, especially regarding the theme of the delimitation of maritime areas.”

Ankara had reacted strongly to the EU decision last year to impose sanctions over its exploration activities around Cyprus, and Turkey’s recent decision to send a drilling ship to disputed waters south of Cyprus makes it almost certain that there will be new tensions in coming weeks involving Turkey, the European Union, and the regional countries opposed to Turkey. Consequently, it is possible that the prospect of involvement in such a crisis, combined with other relevant considerations, could help persuade Erdogan to refrain from expanding Turkey’s involvement in the civil war on the other side of the Mediterranean.

This would appear to be prudent in view of the fact that an opinion poll published on January 10 showed that only one-third of the Turkish public supported military engagement in Libya. The comments of Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on January 23, with reference to the agreement in Berlin, that additional soldiers or mercenaries would not be sent “as long as there is adherence to a ceasefire” suggests a desire to avoid what would undoubtedly be a risky escalation in Libya.

This was implicitly confirmed by Erdogan’s own positive comments on January 24 about the Berlin communique and Germany’s efforts to help solve the Libyan crisis after meeting with Merkel in Istanbul. However, Erdogan also strongly condemned the recent attacks on Tripoli by Haftar, a man he has designated as “a terrorist,” who retains the military capability and apparent willingness to force him into a potentially dangerous mission creep in Libya.

Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Zeynep Yekeler is a research associate with the CSIS Turkey Project.

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Bulent Aliriza
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Zeynep Yekeler

Research Associate, Turkey Project