Erdogan-Sarraj deal risks scuttling diplomatic efforts, entangles GNA in border dispute

The Turkish-GNA agreements run completely counter to the Berlin peace initiative.
Sunday 01/12/2019
Unpredictable consequences. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R)  and the head of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord Fayez al-Sarraj during their meeting in Istanbul, November 27. (AFP)
Unpredictable consequences. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and the head of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord Fayez al-Sarraj during their meeting in Istanbul, November 27. (AFP)

TUNIS - After nine months of a largely military stalemate in the siege of Tripoli by the Libyan National Army, recent developments could alter the course of the conflict.

Tensions are set to rise after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a security deal with the besieged Government of National Accord (GNA). Although its details remain murky, the agreement seems almost certain to mean additional Turkish military support to the GNA forces in their battle against the Libyan National Army (LNA).

Another recent development is a US diplomatic initiative, apparently driven by Washington’s wariness about the role Russian private military advisers of the Wagner group are said to be playing in backing the LNA in its fight for Tripoli.

Details of the Turkish agreement have not been made public, although the GNA’s all-powerful interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, who has been at the centre of the negotiations with Turkey’s defence minister, has said that the deal covers “all aspects needed” to develop the GNA’s military capacities.

Turkey had been sending drones and other military equipment to the GNA in blatant violation of UN sanctions but supplies dried up over the summer when Turkey focused on Syria. The LNA has managed to slowly wipe out the GNA’s fleet of drones. With the GNA out of air power by late September, the balance started tipping in favour of the LNA’s forces, led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Other experts see the impact of Russia in that shift.

To try to reverse the trend, Ankara is sending fresh military equipment, including drones, to back the GNA, and possibly also specialised Turkish forces.

Washington, increasingly fearful that a Haftar victory might result in Libya moving back into Russia’s sphere of influence, has ditched the hands-off approach it has taken since Donald Trump became president and vigorously re-engaged, pursuing its own initiative, independent of the UN.

Victoria Coates, a deputy US national security adviser, has now had meetings with GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, Bashagha and, in Jordan November 24, with Haftar.

How either Haftar or the GNA responds to the US entreaty for a halt to the fighting and direct talks is far from clear. The subsequent Turkish deal may harden positions on both sides and scuttle diplomatic efforts, including a German initiative to hold a peace conference in Berlin..

Matters are further complicated by the GNA’s acceptance, in return for Turkish support, of Ankara’s demand of a maritime boundary in the Mediterranean between Libya and Turkey that would hand Turkey a massive seabed area thought to be rich in oil deposits. Including areas south of Crete, it completely ignores the rights of Greece. The Greeks are furious, so too are the Cypriots, already battling Turkish claims to waters off its coast. The issue risks driving a wedge between the GNA and Athens, as well as between the GNA and the EU. Egypt, a close ally of Greece and Cyprus, has also lashed out, condemning the GNA-Turkish deal as illegal.

Sarraj’s decision to back Erdogan in the maritime dispute cements their Islamist alliance but could end up seriously damaging the GNA’s already shaky international credibility.

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