Regional experts warn of repercussions from Turkey’s Libya moves

“The Turkish bases will eventually push other countries, such as Russia and France, to create their own bases in Libya in order to protect their economic and security interests,” Tunisian expert says.
Wednesday 17/06/2020
France’s President Emmanuel Macron stands next to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan  at the NATO leaders summit in Watford, Britain, last December. (REUTERS)
France’s President Emmanuel Macron stands next to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the NATO leaders summit in Watford, Britain, last December. (REUTERS)

PARIS - As Turkey continues to ratchet it up its military involvement in Libya, regional experts are warning that Ankara’s expanding role there and across the Mediterranean is leading to greater tensions and could trigger wider confrontation.

Turkey has already dispatched an undetermined number of Turkish military personnel, thousands of Syrian mercenaries and regular shipments of military hardware, including weapon systems and drones, which have helped the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) make recent advances in its showdown against the Libyan National Army (LNA).

Furthermore, it is now flagging its intent to establish permanent military bases in Libya.

Media reports have mentioned the naval base in Misrata and the al-Watiya air base as being part of Turkey’s plans for its foothold in Libya.

“Turkey using al-Watiya … is on the agenda,” a Turkish source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Reuters news agency. “It could also be possible for the Misrata naval base to be used by Turkey,” added the source.

Prime Minister of Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez al-Sarraj (R) meets with Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in the Libyan capital Tripoli on June 17. (AFP)
Prime Minister of Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez al-Sarraj (R) meets with Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in the Libyan capital Tripoli on June 17. (AFP)

There are signs of increasing pushback against Turkey’s plans in Libya, both in the Maghreb and in Europe. French officials, in particular, have expressed resentment over Ankara’s attempts to establish a permanent presence in the North African country and to supply the Islamist-dominated GNA government with fighters and armament.

Tunisian international relations and security expert Alaya Allani sees the establishment by Turkey of permanent bases in Libya as a move that could possibly trigger the setting up of similar bases by competing foreign powers. “The Turkish bases will eventually push other countries, such as Russia and France, to create their own bases in Libya in order to protect their economic and security interests,” he told The Arab Weekly. “This will in turn make Libya a convergence point for several international armies.”

Even before Turkey’s announcement of its intent to create bases, tensions were rising between Paris and Ankara. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the French daily La Croix today that Turkey’s actions in Libya, including its dispatching of militants from Syria, constitute “a danger for ourselves, an unacceptable strategic risk as this is taking place two hundred kilometres away from the Italian shore.”

Paris-based reporter and political analyst Majed Nehmé believes the involvement of Turkey is “untenable” in the long run, as it “could led to naval confrontation between members of NATO.”

“France; which has till now played cynically its interests against those of the two camps, seems more determined than ever to take on the Erdogan regime,” he told The Arab Weekly.

With the cancellation of last Sunday’s talks between Russian and Turkish senior officials, there are signs that Moscow is no longer willing to accommodate Ankara’s ambitions in Libya. Sources said Moscow did not agree to Turkey-backed troops taking over Sirte and using it to assume control of Libya’s oil fields. More than the Sirte issue, “Moscow cannot tolerate the setting up of a jihadist sanctuary in the Mediterranean,” said Nehmé.

There are also security considerations making the developments of great concern to Libya’s North African neighbours.

The Egyptians and the Algerians are clearly wary of the implications of Turkey’s expanding presence in Libya. In Tunisia, the Turkish factor is increasingly one of the most contentious issues in the politically polarised scene, with Islamists and secularists taking opposite stances on Ankara’s pro-GNA moves next-door. There was also little enthusiasm in Tunis when the US Africom recently disclosed its interest in deploying troops in Tunisia to contain any fallout from the Libyan battlefield.

Senior military officials in North Africa are closely following how and where the Turkish bases will be set up. “These bases can serve as the starting point for retaliatory military campaigns in the event any of the neighbouring countries starts being a threat to Turkish forces or their allies in Libya,” says Allani.

A French expert on Maghreb affairs requesting anonymity told The Arab Weekly that besides Cairo, Algeria is also unhappy about Turkey’s moves. “Since 2011, Algerians have felt surrounded by threats on all their borders. Now it has gotten worse.”

The expert, who is familiar with the Algerian political and military establishment’s way of thinking, says: “For Algerians, the military intrusion by Turkey is likely to transform the Maghreb, the Sahel region and the Mediterranean into a regional and international confrontation theatre.”

For Europe, and Mediterranean nations in particular, economic competition could be an additional trigger for further escalation. Tensions are in fact likely to increase in the coming weeks as Turkey starts its drilling activities despite the objections of Cyprus and Greece.

Allani sees Turkey as seeking economic returns, with military bases in Libya providing military backup for oil and gas drilling operations that Ankara intends to undertake in Libyan territorial waters and in the Eastern Mediterranean by virtue of the maritime border demarcation deal struck with the GNA last November. “The Libyan bases will help Ankara “penetrate deep into the African continent and its wealth of raw materials,” he said.

As hostile reactions widen, Turkey may find out soon that it is overreaching in Libya. More than ever, many in Europe in particular perceive Turkey, despite its NATO ties, as a non-European outsider and even as a threat to their security.

“The European Union cannot remain indifferent to a situation that could lead to the Mediterranean being under the control of outside forces,” said Le Drian.