Increasingly blatant Turkish involvement in Libya’s conflict raises questions
The release of a video of Libyans being shown how to use military equipment by Turkish-speaking trainers fuelled an already polarised debate about the involvement of Turkey in Libya’s strife.
The video, released May 28 by the Libyan National Army’s media office, purportedly showed Libyans being trained to use military equipment and voices speaking Turkish can be heard.
The recording, on a mobile phone of a fighter reportedly captured by the Libyan National Army (LNA), was presented as evidence that Turkish officers are in Tripoli training forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
Evidence of Turkey supplying armaments to its Libyan allies, in violation of a UN arms embargo, was noted in mid-May when one of the brigades fighting against the LNA posted photos on its Facebook page of some 40 Turkish-made armoured vehicles being unloaded in Tripoli port.
The Kirpi II mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles are made by Turkish vehicle manufacturer BMC and had been shipped from the Turkish Black Sea port of Samsun.
The May 28 video is said to show Turkish officers instructed pro-GNA fighters on the use of the vehicles.
There have been many reports of military equipment being supplied to one side or the other in Libya by foreign countries — Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, Jordan, Russia and others have been mentioned.
In January, more than 20,000 Turkey-made handguns were discovered in a container behind boxes of children’s toys in Misrata port. The previous month, some 3,000 Turkey-made handguns and more than 2 million rounds of ammunition were found in containers unloaded at the port of Khoms, east of Tripoli. The containers had arrived on a ship that sailed from Mersin, Turkey. In February, nine military vehicles were found at the same port, suspected of having been imported from Turkey.
There have been reports of Turkey supplying combat drones to the forces loyal to the GNA.
In none of those cases was there evidence of official Turkish complicity in what were apparent violations of the UN arms embargo.
The delivery of the Kirpi MRAPs was different. It was the first time that the arms embargo was blatantly flouted and is seen as indicating that Ankara no longer cares about international law; apparently considering its support of the GNA as more important.
The LNA said a Turkish C-130 aircraft landed May 29 at Misrata Airport with Turkish military advisers on board.
Turkey’s backing for the GNA is generally presented as ideological that in collaboration with Qatar it is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world but more specifically in Libya. It is also accused of backing Islamist groups in the country fighting for the GNA in southern Tripoli, although in their case the primary motivation is to hit at the LNA rather than support the Sarraj troops.
Evidence of the latter has always been circumstantial. Over the past five years, fighters shifting between Libya and Syria have done so via Turkey without impediment, militants wounded in fighting against the LNA in Benghazi and Derna have been treated in Turkish hospitals, anti-LNA Libyan media made Istanbul their base, so too have numerous Libyan hardliners.
Last October, when militia leader Haithem Tajouri returned to Tripoli after a stay in the United Arab Emirates, he told his commanders that he was fully working with the GNA Presidency Council’s Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, and there was a possibility, if talks between Sarraj and LNA Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar succeeded, of Haftar becoming commander-in-chief of a united military. At least three more radical commanders — Mohammed al-Bakbak, Jalal Weshefani and Hadi Awinat — refused to accept this, quit and went to Istanbul.
Ankara’s policy is more than ideological. It is also political, military and, perhaps most important, economic.
The days of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan being feted across the Arab world are long gone, his pan-Ottoman policy aimed at reasserting Turkish influence across the Middle East shattered because of his determined support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
All other former close links are gone, most recently the al-Bashir regime in Khartoum. The new head of Sudan’s military, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, is seen as being much closer to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The only serious allies left for Ankara now are Qatar and the Sarraj government in Tripoli.
Historically, links between Turkey and Libya have been close and economic ties are even stronger.
Libya is a major trading partner for Turkey. At a meeting in Ankara of the Turkish-Libyan Joint Working Group in February, it was reported that Turkish unfinished projects in Libya were worth $19 billion, plus unpaid bills of Turkish companies of $1 billion, another $1.3 billion in damages dating to 2011 and further $1.7 billion in other losses.
In 2010, the year before the revolution, Turkey was Libya’s biggest supplier of imports, taking 10.6% of the market share and worth $1.9 billion. By 2017, the last year for which figures are available, they were down to $879 million, although still much the same market share, 11%.
In a peaceful Libya, tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars are going to be invested in economic and infrastructural reconstruction. It is a massive potential market from which Turkey cannot afford to be excluded.
That, however, is what members of Libya’s House of Representatives (HoR), the LNA and the internationally unrecognised but HoR-appointed Thinni administration in Beida want.
There are regular calls from HoR members for relations with Turkey to be severed and for the international community to sanction Turkey if Ankara was found to have broken the arms embargo. It seems inevitable that, if the LNA wins the battle for Tripoli and the GNA is toppled, relations will be cut and Turkish-Libyan trade cease. That would be a massive blow to Erdogan.
The Turkish economy especially needs the Libyan market. Although GDP expanded 1.3% in the first quarter of 2019, the underlying trend is bleak and the Turkish currency continued its decline.
The GNA equally needs Turkey. Shortly after the delivery of the Kirpi vehicles, a GNA forces spokesman told Qatar’s Arabi21 television that the supply of Turkish arms would help alter the military balance of power and that it would enable the GNA to defeat the LNA by the end of the Eid.
The LNA and its supporters, while angered at Turkey’s apparent intervention, are equally confident Turkish arms will make no difference and that it will win the battle for Tripoli.