Turkey’s expanded push in Libya sparks concerns in Tunisia

Western Libya is a critical economic and security valve for Tunisia.
Wednesday 11/12/2019
Hard questions. Tunisian President Kais Saied (R) meets Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj at the Presidential Palace in Carthage, December 10. (Tunisian Presidency)
Hard questions. Tunisian President Kais Saied (R) meets Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj at the Presidential Palace in Carthage, December 10. (Tunisian Presidency)

TUNIS - Military cooperation and maritime demarcation deals signed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj sparked concerns in Tunisia about regional tensions.

Tunisia maintained close links with Libya’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) out of geographical necessity. Islamist militias and tribes allied with the GNA largely control the western areas of Libya adjacent to Tunisia.

Western Libya is a critical economic and security valve for Tunisia. Many families in southern Tunisia make a living off the informal economy that relies on the smuggling of heavily subsidised goods from Libya, including oil.

Islamists’ influence in Tunisia’s government and close ties between the GNA and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the support for the GNA by radical Islamists, have complicated links between Tunis and Tripoli.

Now Tunisia faces even harder questions after Tripoli’s expanded military and security cooperation with Turkey. In an agreement between the two states, Libya endorsed Turkey’s claims to maritime and gas drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Tripoli’s government has received Turkish military support, including drones and troop transport vehicles, as it fought the eastern-based Libyan National Army since April.

Tunisian President Kais Saied met with Sarraj on December 10 in the highest-level encounter since the Turkey-Libya military deal was signed November 27.

“Libya’s matters are a Tunisian concern,” Saied said after the meeting, adding that the “two sides discussed lifting all the hurdles to movement of people and goods between Tunisia and Libya by land and sea and avoiding the closure of the border gate of Ras Jedir.”

Saied renewed his commitment to “a comprehensive political solution that serves the interests of the Libyan people while he insisted that Libya’s matters are a Tunisia’s matter,” said a presidential statement.

Saied’s advisers, many of whom have first-hand security and diplomatic experience with the Libyan conflict, indicated that the Libyan conflict is a foreign policy priority for Tunisia, as did Saied’s predecessor, the late President Beji Caid Essebsi.

However, political leaders and analysts in Tunis said Turkey’s manoeuvres in Libya are forcing Tunisia to make difficult choices because the deals angered the European Union and NATO, from whom Tunisia receives crucial military and security support.

The Turkish push in Libya is likely to change the alignment of forces in the Libyan conflict and ratchet up the support they receive from abroad. Experts said this could involve more security risks for Tunisia.

The shift in the Libyan conflict is also likely to test Tunisia’s political stability, where the Islamist Ennahda Movement is expanding its power and advocating a foreign policy vision at odds with its political rivals.

Ennahda eyes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a symbol of the “revival of the Muslim Ummah,” but critics say his intervention in Syria, Iraq and Libya revives bitter memories of Ottoman Empire’s colonisation of Arab lands.

“(The) security of Libya’s neighbours is in danger as Erdogan threatens to expand intervention in Libya,” wrote Tunisia’s Alchourouk newspaper after Saied met with Sarraj.

In addition to the maritime accord, Turkey and Libya signed an expanded security and military cooperation agreement.

Erdogan said the military pact granted Turkey the right to deploy troops in Libya at the Tripoli-based government’s request. He asserted that this would not violate a UN arms embargo on Libya, which has been mired in conflict for years but has seen increased violence since April over control of Tripoli.

“On the issue of sending soldiers… If Libya makes such a request from us, we can send our personnel there, especially after striking the military security agreement,” Erdogan said in a televised appearance December 10.

“With the new line drawn (by the maritime agreement), we will take steps to protect the interests of Libya, Turkey and the TRNC (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus). This is in line with international law,” he said.

This means Libya could be the first Arab country to be dragged into the stormy maritime dispute between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus.

Turkey and the GNA clinched the natural gas drilling deal last month in a step Ankara said was aimed at defending its rights in the region. The deal drew the ire of Greece and Cyprus, with whom tensions were high because of Turkish gas exploration off the coast of Cyprus. The European Union has readied sanctions against Turkey in response.

The area where Turkey and Libya have drawn their maritime borders is not far south of the Greek island of Crete.

“With this new agreement between Turkey and Libya, we can hold joint exploration operations in these exclusive economic zones that we determined. There is no problem,” Erdogan said.

“Other international actors cannot carry out exploration operations in these areas Turkey drew (up) with this accord without getting permission. Greek Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and Israel cannot establish a gas transmission line without first getting permission from Turkey.”

Former Tunisian presidential adviser Mohsen Marzouk said Tunisia’s National Security Council should convene to discuss the issue. He suggested that Tunisia could face a turning point in its relations with the Islamist-controlled government in Tripoli and must adapt its alliances to the shift prompted by the Turkish intervention.

“The Libya deal with Turkey requires that we contact our three partners: the European Union, Arab partners and NATO. We enjoy the status of strategic partner with NATO and this status allows us to get weapons and support from our allies. We cannot afford to lose it,” he added.

The pan-Arab nationalist People’s Movement, one of Tunisia’s main opposition parties, urged a “strong reaction” from the presidency and the government against the Libyan deals with Turkey.

“This accord constitutes direct danger to Tunisia, which is under the threat of the terrorist groups that are protected by the Tripoli government and by the government of Turkey,” it said.

Retired senior security officer Ali Zramdini said: “Turkey is attempting to assert its dominance in the region and it finds a weak ally in the southern Mediterranean, the Tripoli government that made concessions from Libya’s maritime sovereignty in return for Turkey’s military support to withstand the offensive of the Libyan National Army led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

“This accord is a real threat with its strategic and military dimensions to all the Mediterranean countries, including France’s border and the Strait of Sicily, which is adjacent to Tunisia,” he added.

“Sarraj is only interested in maintaining his hold on the government and he is implementing the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood, which does not recognise the national sovereignty of the nation-states,” said Zramdini.