Turkey’s cover-ups in Libya

Critics accused the Turkish government of covering up the death of a colonel and others in Libya to limit political damage.
Sunday 01/03/2020
Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) meeting with the head of Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez al-Sarraj (L) during their meeting at Dolmabahce palace in Istanbul, 20 February 2020 (AFP)
Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) meeting with the head of Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez al-Sarraj (L) during their meeting at Dolmabahce palace in Istanbul, 20 February 2020 (AFP)

Only weeks ago, Turkish officials regularly vaunted the country’s military intervention in Libya in support of their maritime borders deal with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.

“To help the legitimate Libyan government stay in power and to ensure stability, we are now sending our troops to this country,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in mid-January, stressing how protecting Turkey’s rights in the Mediterranean would lead to a new era.

Five weeks later, Ankara and pro-government news outlets are playing down the Turkish military role in Libya, covering up negative reports and silencing those who discuss the conflict online.

Turkey has backed the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) for a few years and stepped up that support by dispatching some of its own soldiers along with as many as 6,000 Syrian rebels to the North African country.

On February 25, Erdogan said Turkish military advisers were only there to train and coordinate the Syrian rebels. He acknowledged the death of two Turkish personnel, a reduction from when he recently spoke of “a few martyrs.”

Also recently, e-mail and social media accounts of two columnists for nationalist Yenicag newspaper were hacked after they said Turkish soldiers in Libya had been killed and buried with no official funerals.

Soli Ozel, international relations professor at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, said few people in Turkey back the Libya intervention, particularly because Ankara sent thousands of troops into Syria’s Idlib province. Critics accused the government of covering up the death of a colonel and others in Libya to limit the political damage.

“I don’t think there is much support, if any, for a Libya intervention,” Ozel said in an Ahval News podcast, “but it’s started, it can’t be stopped, I suppose, so better to keep things quiet, especially if there are casualties in Libya.”

While Turkey’s operations in Syria address widespread concern about Kurdish militants and Syrian refugees, Ozel added, Libya had no effect on the lives of Turkish citizens.

“Libya is just too remote and no amount of ‘Ataturk fought there,’ ‘It used to be Ottoman Empire,’ ‘Now we have this (maritime) agreement’ will resonate with the larger public,” he said.

Observers said Turkey’s intervention was mainly an effort to ensure its maritime borders deal with the GNA, which Ankara apparently believes gives it a seat at the Eastern Mediterranean negotiating table. The deal challenges maritime boundaries established by Greece and Cyprus. Those countries, along with the European Union, have said the deal is null and void and the United States described it as provocative.

“I call it a unilateral deal because it was designed by Turkey and sold by Turkey to Libya,” Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and former EU ambassador to Turkey, told Ahval in a podcast.

He said the deal had no real legal basis and pointed out that, while Turkey signed the agreement with the GNA, the landfall of Libya’s maritime area is controlled by the GNA’s enemy, Libyan National Army Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar. “It’s kind of a dubious logic that you have here at work,” said Pierini.

In February, the European Union began a new naval and air mission to enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya. Pierini said the new embargo mission had a chance to significantly slow shipments from the likes of Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, Haftar’s main backer.

Whether its shipments reach Libya or not, Jalel Harchaoui, research fellow at Dutch think-tank the Clingendael Institute, said he expected Turkey to continue to pursue an inconsistent policy in Libya.

“It is engaged in a logic that consists in announcing the military intervention in Libya in a very overt, official manner,” he told Ahval. “If you are consistent with yourself, then you should send 6,000 Turkish soldiers.”

Harchaoui acknowledged that Turkey could not do that because of the minimal public support, which is why it sent the Syrian mercenaries. Dimitar Bechev, research fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Erdogan had to strike a balance between dispatching enough troops to shape the outcome without getting bogged down and suffering domestic blowback.

Bechev said he did not expect a few thousand Syrian rebels to shift the balance of power in Libya. “If you want to minimise your footprint and just send Syrians, I don’t think that will do the trick,” he told Ahval.

This is one reason Harchaoui said he expected the next phase of the Libyan war to be much more intense, which will likely result in many more dead Turkish soldiers — and more cover-ups.

“Every clue points to a very negative destructive scenario, which is much worse than everything we have experienced over the last 10 months,” he said.

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