Erdogan boosts military support to GNA, Sarraj backs Turkey’s maritime claims
TUNIS - In return for unspecified Turkish military support, Libya’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord, under siege in Tripoli by the Libyan National Army led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, has agreed to recognise Turkey’s claim to a vast swathe of the eastern Mediterranean sea.
At talks on November 27 in Istanbul between head of the Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez al-Sarraj and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the two sides agreed to both a security deal and a joint maritime boundary between south-west Turkey and north-east Libya, an area believed to be rich in oil deposits.
The security agreement puts to rest any suggestions that Turkish military support for the GNA is at all wavering. Those suggestions were based on the fact that Turkey, which had previously flouted the international arms embargo on Libya to provide the GNA with drones, military vehicles and military advisers, did not channel any new equipment since August, even if it remained vocal in its verbal support for Sarraj.
Questions were beginning to be asked as to why Ankara was slowing down its military support for Sarraj to a mere trickle. Was Turkey too preoccupied with events in Syria? Had it not been paid by Qatar or by the GNA itself for the hardware it delivered?
Whatever the reason, the halt in military supplies directly affected the battle for Tripoli, previously stalemated. Without new drones to replace those destroyed in Libyan National Army (LNA) attacks, the GNA lost the air war.
As a result, in October, the LNA reinforced its positions and made gains on the perimeters of the capital. The LNA controls the skies over Tripoli; the past week has seen it bring in attack helicopters.
Exactly what the newly signed deal means in terms of military support has not been spelled out beyond a statement from the GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha that said agreements include military and police training, security systems and the exchange of security information as well as combating crime and terrorism.
But he also said that it covered “all aspects needed” to develop the GNA’s military capacities and that there would be results in the next few days.
There were also predictions in both Turkey and Tripoli shortly before it was approved that it would be “a game changer.” In both places there is now little doubt that fresh Turkish military equipment will be dispatched to Tripoli, possibly even boots on the ground.
As such, the Turkish deal is a major blow to the planned Berlin summit which Germany unveiled in September. The conference’s prime objective is to dry up foreign military support for the two sides and, by doing so, force them to return to the political process through the relaunch of a Libyan-led dialogue.
The aim of the German initiative is to force Turkey and Qatar, specifically, to stop fuelling the conflict by supplying arms and other support to the GNA and stop Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries from doing likewise in the case of the LNA.
Despite the strong support for the summit from the United Nations as well as Italy, the United Kingdom and France and four preparatory meetings, with another expected soon, there is still no indication as to when it might occur or who will turn up.
It is reportedly being organised on a 5+5 basis: the five permanent Security Council members along with Egypt, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, with Germany as the host. However, Turkey has said that it will not take part if Qatar is not invited. Egypt is determined to make sure Qatar is kept out.
Support from Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for the German initiative is at best perfunctory; even the United States is reported to be less than enthusiastic. While in sympathy with the objectives, Washington wants to know there is some chance of success before it happens. It does not want to be involved in a failure.
As a result, the chances of the summit happening before the end of the year are slipping by the day. Even before the GNA-Turkish deal threw a further spanner in the works, there were suggestions that it might not happen before the spring next year. It might not even happen at all or, it if does, might have its objective changed to simply backing a revived internal Libyan political process.
That is because it is being side-tracked by a potentially far more significant development.
After almost three years of seeming near-indifference to events in Libya, other than carrying out air strikes on Islamic State (ISIS) and other terrorist groups, Washington has suddenly re-engaged and is now actively pursuing its own Libya initiative.
It wants an immediate end to the LNA’s Tripoli offensive, a ceasefire and a political deal not just between the LNA and the GNA but between the LNA and Misrata, in particular between Haftar and the GNA’s all-powerful Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha who hails from Misrata and is its pre-eminent political figure. If it succeeds, it could make the Berlin summit irrelevant.
The US initiative is led by the head of the US National Security Council’s Middle East and North Africa department, Victoria Coates, who in October became a deputy national security adviser to President Trump.
On November 24, she met with Haftar in Amman, the fifth in a series of meetings she has had in the past few weeks with various Libyan leaders.
She had met Sarraj at the end of September in New York, then with Bashagha and GNA Foreign Minister Mohamed Siala in November in Washington and twice with Aref Nayed, the former Libyan ambassador to the UAE whom Haftar and the president of Libya’s parliament, the House of Representatives, would reportedly like to see as prime minister of a reunited country.
The reason for the US re-engagement is the presence of hundreds Russian “mercenaries,” possibly over a thousand, fighting alongside the LNA on the southern Tripoli front over the past couple of months courtesy of Russian security firm the Wagner Group. Their numbers and seeming success have triggered fears in Washington that if Haftar were to win, Libya could again become a Russian client state.
American concern has been seen in a number of increasingly jittery statements from US officials accusing the Russians of exploiting the crisis to re-establish a hold over Libya. The talks with Haftar specifically centred on Russia’s presence, as well as the US demand for an end to hostilities, a ceasefire and a political resolution to the conflict.
It is not just the Trump administration that is worried. There is joint Republican and Democratic support in Washington for the Libya Stabilisation Act currently going through the US Congress and which would sanction anyone involved in Russian military intervention in Libya. That would certainly impinge on Haftar, who has US as well as Libyan citizenship.
Moscow has angrily denied US accusations of interfering in Libya or having troops in the country but this cuts little ice in Washington where no distinction is made between official Russian troops and Wagner paramilitary “mercenaries” on the basis that Wagner Group’s boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is close to President Putin, that the “mercenaries” have been used in Ukraine and Syria in support of Russian political policy and that they would not be in Libya if Putin did not want them there.
Having been paid minimal attention to previously, Libya is now suddenly seen as the place to block Russian ambitions.
It remains to be seen whether Haftar will bow to US pressure, cut his links with the Russians, end the offensive and go for a negotiated settlement but, while Washington worries about Russia and the LNA’s links with it, the GNA’s Turkish deal is unlikely to do it any good in international eyes either.
The GNA may be internationally recognised but the agreement with Ankara on the maritime boundaries is not going to be internationally recognised.
The boundaries have been drawn giving Turkey the waters south of Crete, as if it did not exist. In the same way, Turkey is claiming the waters off south-western Cyprus as if it too hardly existed. The claim is that islands do not have continental shelves, but this is not accepted by Greece, Cyprus or the European Union, which is currently drawing up sanctions against Turkey for drilling for oil off the coast of Cyprus.
In backing Turkey in its maritime boundary claims, the GNA is likely to face an angry backlash not just from Greece and Cyprus but from other members of the European Union and even the European Union itself which may undermine any gain from Turkish military backing. It may be, though, that Sarraj and Bashagha reckoned they had no choice but to accept Turkey’s maritime ambitions as the price for Turkish military muscle.