Turkey's increased involvement in Libya raises regional alarm

Turkish interference in Libya is only a small part of Ankara's geopolitical strategy in the region, analysts said.
Friday 24/04/2020
Dangerous liaisons. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) receives head of Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez al-Sarraj in Istanbul, last February. (AFP)
Dangerous liaisons. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) receives head of Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez al-Sarraj in Istanbul, last February. (AFP)

CAIRO - Turkey is stepping up direct military involvement in Libya, stoking tensions in the North African country and threatening to turn it into another Syria, analysts said.

"Turkish interference in Libya is turning it into yet another centre of regional rivalries," said retired Libyan diplomat Mohamed Fayez Jibril. "The same interference is having far-reaching ramifications for regional security."

Turkey provides assistance to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), which is struggling to repel the advance of the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) towards the Libyan capital.

Turkish support has so far included the dispatch of thousands of hirelings from Syria, unmanned aerial vehicles and armoured vehicles.

The LNA recently posted videos of Syrian mercenaries it arrested that were sent to the country by Turkey.

The mercenaries state in the videos that they were recruited by Turkish intelligence, including at refugee camps in the north-eastern Syrian cities of Aleppo and Idlib, before travelling to Turkey, from where they were flown to Tripoli and Misrata.

One of the mercenaries said he receives $2,000 every month to fight side by side with the Islamist militias of the GNA against the LNA.

The LNA also posted videos showing Turkish officers in the battlefield fighting alongside GNA forces.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated the number of Syrian hirelings sent by Turkey to Libya so far to be more than 5,000.

Turkey, it said, is preparing to send hundreds more mercenaries to Libya.

Turkish support for the GNA is altering the course of events in Libya, as Islamist militias loyal to the Tripoli-based government score some victories even as the LNA keeps shooting down Turkish drones. The LNA has downed dozens of these drones so far.

Turkish interference in Libya is only a small part of Ankara's geopolitical strategy in the region, analysts said. The country is also ramping up tensions in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and in the Eastern Mediterranean, they said, keeping regional rivals on their toes.

Ankara's policy is driven by its aim to shore up natural gas wealth in the Mediterranean and its commitment to Islamist groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.

"But this is a policy that opens the door for further tensions in the region," said Mohamed Rabie al-Dehi, an independent Egyptian specialist in Turkish affairs. "Regional states will not likely fall silent while Turkey keeps encroaching on their sovereign rights or threatens their national security."

The latest example of Turkish encroachment was on April 21 when its Ministry of Defence revealed that Turkish drill ships and research vessels would maintain their activities in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Turkish Navy, it added in a statement, would provide security to ships and vessels as they operate in the area.

Greece condemned the move, accusing Ankara of infringing on the exclusive economic zone of Cyprus.

"(This) confirms, once again, Turkey’s destabilising role and its standing as the principal violator of international law in the region," The Greek Foreign Ministry said.

Nevertheless, Turkish interference in Libya is the most blatant violation of state sovereignty and international resolutions, analysts said.

Turkey ramped up its presence in Libya after signing two deals with the GNA in November 2019 – one on security cooperation and another on maritime boundary delimitation.

They allow Turkey to send military reinforcements to Libya and give Turkey a say in the exploration of minerals in the Eastern Mediterranean, according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

However, frequent shipments of Turkish arms to Libya and the dispatch of mercenaries from Syria violate an arms embargo imposed on the North African state in 2011.

"Turkey uses the ongoing global fight against the coronavirus in advancing its agenda in Libya," al-Dehi said. "Apart from trying to come on board of the newly found natural gas wealth in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey wants to gain influence in North Africa by supporting Islamist movements, including the Islamist-backed GNA."

Turkey appears to be preparing for even bigger moves in Libya. Earlier this month, a number of air traffic tracking sites traced intensive Turkish aerial activity over the Eastern Mediterranean on the road to Libya.

On April 18, Turkey received the first of six maritime patrol Leonardo ATR72-600 aircraft for testing. This came only days after Egypt had received an advanced submarine from Germany, in what seems to be an arms race in the region.

"Turkey's regional policies are very risky because they primarily aim at causing problems to regional states, especially Egypt and other rivals, such as Greece," Jibril said. "This is why war is not a far-fetched scenario, especially with Turkish insistence to move along the same line."

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