Tripoli officials decry ‘relentless pressure’ by Turkey in deals with GNA

Sarraj felt he did not have the authority to strike the agreements with Turkey, being head of a transitional government.
Thursday 30/07/2020
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Tripoli-based GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Ankara, June 4. (REUTERS)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Tripoli-based GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Ankara, June 4. (REUTERS)

CAIRO (AP) —Officials in Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli disclosed to The Associated Press details about the pressures exerted by Ankara on the GNA to sign military and maritime demarcation deals last November, the influence of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government members and the Fayez al-Sarraj’s own doubts about being competent to sign the agreements.

The officials described Turkey’s foray into the conflict as motivated by economic designs. Still the Tripoli-based government of Prime Minister Sarraj has already agreed to many of Ankara’s demands.

Several officials say their side entered the deals with Turkey “reluctantly,” late last year, believing they had no choice. They desperately needed an ally as their opponent in the war, Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, bore down on Tripoli.

GNA officials say the Turkish government took advantage of their precarious position. “They took advantage of our weakness at the time.” He and other GNA officials spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their safety in a country largely ruled by an array of militias.

In the end, Turkey sent troops and thousands of Syrian mercenaries and other military support that helped pro-Sarraj forces repel the Liberation National Army’s assault this spring, preventing the collapse of the Tripoli-based administration and shifting the tide of the war.

Ankara has in fact deployed hundreds of troops and thousands of Syrian mercenaries and militants. It also sent weapons, military equipment and air defence systems that influenced the course of the GNA-LNA showdown.

GNA officials said Turkey pushed the government for over a year to approve the maritime deal, claiming that Sarraj resisted. In part, he felt he did not have the authority to strike international agreements, being head of a transitional government. He may have also been wary of making Mediterranean claims certain to be rejected by the Europeans.

“It was a relentless pressure,” one official said, adding that Islamists inside Sarraj’s administration also wielded influence in support of Ankara. “Turkey was the only country that promised support, and we agreed only after all other doors were closed.”

The security and maritime deals were signed in late November. Under the accord, Libya and Turkey claim adjoining parts of the Mediterranean and exploration rights there. Greece disputes the deal, considering the waters part of its continental shelf. The EU said it violates international law and poses a “threat to stability.”

Turkey has long wanted to alter the old boundaries and its drive gained urgency as Egypt, Israel and Cyprus moved to exploit newly discovered natural gas fields in their waters.

“We are tearing up maps of the East Mediterranean that were drawn up to imprison us on the mainland,” Erdogan deputy Fuat Oktay said.

Turkey’s moves, particularly its claim on Greek waters, have heightened tensions between the two NATO members, who openly clashed 46 years ago in the conflict over Cyprus.

The maritime claims give Turkey “pressure points” to apply against other nations around the Eastern Mediterranean, said Oded Berkowitz, an Israeli security analyst who specializes in the Libyan conflict. It can aim to block Egypt, Israel and Cyprus from directly exporting natural gas to Europe and to influence migrant trafficking.

Turkey has long had interests in Libya, mainly construction and energy projects. It has also been pressing for new business opportunities and repayment of its debt from the Gadhafi era. The Turkish Contractor’s Association estimated that in 2011, just after the country’s NATO-backed popular uprising, Turkish companies had more than $18 billion in contracts in Libya. Many of those were lost in the ensuing chaos and war.

In June, a Turkish delegation including the foreign and finance ministers, met Tripoli officials and presented bills for $2 billion owed to Turkish firms, another official said. Tripoli agreed to pay back that and $1.7 billion in other debts and compensation for machinery and equipment lost in the war, he said. The agreement still needs final approval from Sarraj.

Libyan officials have said Turkey is building a naval base as part of Misrata’s port and a base at the al-Watiya air base in the desert southwest of Tripoli.

Meanwhile, Turkish and pro-Sarraj forces are seeking to take control of the coastal city of Sirte and the inland Jufra air base.

The goal is part of Turkey’s larger designs, said Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow specializing in Libyan affairs at the Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

“Control over that territory isn’t so much about Libya’s oil itself as it’s about the natural gas under the Mediterranean Sea,” he said.