Turkish involvement ushers in new phase of foreign interference in Libya

The conflict is fast developing into the most serious crisis facing the region in 40 years.
Sunday 05/01/2020

TUNIS - The approval by the Turkish parliament of the deployment of the Turkish Army to Libya added a ripple in the ever-expanding circle of international interference in North Africa.

The Libyan crisis has been both an internal conflict and a regional proxy struggle but as a relatively low-risk conflict. As long as the Islamic State was contained, migrant levels reduced and events did not seriously undermine their security, most foreign governments seemed prepared to live with it.

However, the conflict is fast developing into the most serious crisis facing the region in 40 years. Not since 1979, when Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement has there been such a bitter divide. No longer a case of regional supporters covertly supplying either side with equipment, intelligence, funding, mercenaries and air strike capacity, the Libyan conflict is going overtly international, with major risks to regional peace.

Following the recognition by the besieged Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli of Turkey’s controversial claim to a large part of the Eastern Mediterranean as its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the approval by Turkey’s parliament for Turkish forces to be sent to fight the advancing Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, could change the situation dramatically.

Haftar seems to be readying for new phase of the war against a foreign “coloniser,” now that Turkey is directly involved.

“We accept the challenge and declare jihad and a call to arms,” said Haftar in a televised address January 3. He called on “all Libyans” to bear arms, “men and women, soldiers and civilians, to defend our land and our honour.” He said the new phase of the war is of “facing a coloniser,” accusing Ankara of wanting to “regain control of Libya,” which had been a province of the Ottoman Empire.

If Turkish forces deploy in support of the GNA, the LNA could be forced to withdraw. However, the situation threatens to draw in Egypt, not to mention other earlier backers on the two sides, including Qatar, for the GNA and Saudi Arabia and more recently Russia, for Haftar.

With their plans to construct the $7 billion EastMed gas pipeline seriously challenged by the GNA-Turkey EEZ agreement, Greece, Cyprus and Israel have taken an open stand against both Ankara and, effectively, the GNA. They warned of “dire consequences” for the region because of Ankara’s approval of Turkish troops in Libya.

“It marks a dangerous escalation of the conflict and a significant deterioration of the situation,” said Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades in a statement January 2.

Even before the Turkish parliament vote, dividing lines were appearing. Furious over the GNA-Turkish EEZ agreement, Athens threw its support behind Haftar, expelling the GNA’s ambassador and sending Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias to Benghazi for talks with Haftar.

That was followed by LNA reports that Athens and Cairo agreed to Haftar’s proposal of a naval alliance in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made an unannounced visit to Tunis to discuss Libya with Tunisia President Kais Saied. That was followed by a claim by GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha that an alliance had been formed including the GNA, Turkey, Tunisia and Algeria. “If Tripoli falls, Tunis and Algiers will in turn fall,” he claimed.

The Tunisian government, however, denied any such alliance while Algeria said nothing about any pact. Although it has been wary of Egyptian influence in Libya, a Haftar victory in Tripoli would not be welcome news in Algiers.

Athens said nothing about any alliances but Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi again said he would never abandon the LNA. He warned against foreign attempts “to control” Libya, a statement clearly directed at Turkey.

That was before the Turkish parliament gave Erdogan authority to send troops to Libya.  Everything now depends on what Erdogan does next.

There were suggestions from Turkish officials that, rather than deploying troops, Turkey would move to counterbalance the LNA’s reliance on Russian, Sudanese and Chadian “mercenaries” by sending “mercenaries” of its own, mainly combatants, including Islamic militants, from Syria. It was also suggested that Turkish forces sent to Tripoli would be primarily involved in training and advising GNA fighters.

However, paying mercenaries to go to Tripoli would not require a Turkish act of parliament. As for Turkish military specialists, they have been in western Libya for several months.

It is unclear how effective either Moscow or Washington can be in turning down the heat. US President Donald Trump warned Erdogan in a telephone conversation that sending troops would create instability in the region. Erdogan, though, has shown himself capable of ignoring Trump even when the US president threatens to cripple the Turkish economy.