Turkish involvement in Libya raises regional security concerns in Egypt

The Islamist militias in Tripoli are suspected of involvement in facilitating the movement of foreign jihadists from Syria and Iraq into Libya.
Sunday 26/05/2019
On the alert. Egyptian Army soldiers stand guard on their armoured personnel carrier in Cairo. (Reuters)
On the alert. Egyptian Army soldiers stand guard on their armoured personnel carrier in Cairo. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Growing Turkish involvement in Libya will destabilise North Africa, threaten to lengthen the Libyan conflict and harm Egypt’s national security, analysts said.

“Turkey is stepping up its military support to militias controlling Tripoli,” said Ahmed al-Quwesni, a former assistant to the Egyptian foreign minister. “This will have a heavy toll on Egypt’s security and stability in North Africa as a whole.”

Turkey on May 18 sent a large shipment of military equipment to Islamist militias controlling Tripoli and fighting the Libyan National Army (LNA), triggering concern in Egypt. The militias said they received weapons and armoured vehicles from Turkey.

This was not the first time Ankara offered support to Islamist militias, which are accused by the LNA and some international powers, including Egypt, of links with terrorist groups.

The Islamist militias in Tripoli are suspected of involvement in facilitating the movement of foreign jihadists from Syria and Iraq into Libya to transform the North African country into a base for militant attacks in Africa and the southern Mediterranean.

Last December, a Turkish ship arrived in Khoms, Libya, carrying fire arms and an estimated 4.8 million rounds of ammunition manufactured by the Turkish companies Zoraki and Retay, Libyan media reported.

Eleven months earlier, the Greek Coast Guard seized a Tanzanian-flagged ship heading for Libya and carrying chemicals that could be used to make explosives. The ship was loaded in the Turkish ports of Mersin and Iskenderun, its lading bill indicated.

In September 2015, Greek authorities seized a freighter carrying an undeclared shipment of weapons en route from Turkey to Libya.

Such Turkish arms supplies are apparent violations of the UN arms embargo on Libya and confirm international concerns over Ankara’s support for Libya’s Islamist forces.

The May 18 arms shipment came shortly after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to back the government of Tripoli. In a phone conversation with the head of the Tripoli-based government, Fayez al-Sarraj, Erdogan said Turkey would do everything in its power to aid Sarraj and his government.

The Turkish involvement in Libya comes within a context of a regional and international battle for influence.

Unlike other Middle Eastern states, Turkey and Qatar have positioned themselves as champions of political Islam, backing Islamist militias for ideological as well as strategic reasons.

The concern in Cairo is that Turkey’s moves are designed to besiege Egypt and undermine its security through the support of the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement.

“Turkey wants to control and set Egypt’s immediate vicinity in fire,” said Rami Ashour, a lecturer at Nasser Military Academy, the academic arm of the Egyptian military.

Apart from Libya, Turkey tried to forge closer ties with Sudan before the downfall of the Omar al-Bashir regime. Ankara especially tried to have control over the southern entrance of the Red Sea by signing a deal with al-Bashir regarding the Sudanese Red Sea island of Suakin. The deal was considered a direct threat to Egypt, which hopes to secure navigation in the Red Sea heading into the Suez Canal.

Turmoil in Libya has been specifically harmful to Cairo because of the long border between Egypt and Libya. Weaponry that was found with Islamic State militants fighting the Egyptian Army in Sinai were from Libya, Egyptian officials said.

Cairo has deployed an impressive amount of resources to secure its Libyan border, including the construction of military bases in the Western Desert. There is concern that the measures will mean little if the situation in Libya does not improve.

Egypt has not directly commented on Turkish involvement in Libya but Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry repeatedly denounced foreign interference in Libyan affairs.

On March 5, he said the international community is fully aware of the financing offered militias in Libya. He added that those offering the financing were known to everybody.

“How can we honestly fight terrorism when the international community turns a blind eye to support offered by some countries to illegitimate parties?” Shoukry asked at a press briefing in Cairo with his Algerian and Tunisian counterparts.

Egypt, which backs the LNA and its Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, is concerned that continued Turkish support to Islamist militias would protract the conflict in Libya, threatening various interests, especially those of Libya’s neighbouring countries, analysts said.

“Turkey wants to lengthen the conflict in Libya by providing the militias with arms,” said Hassan Salama, a professor of political science at Beni Suef University. “Apart from harming the security of Libya’s neighbouring states, protracted conflict in the country will open the door for terrorists from every part of the world to come in.”

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