Turkish minister in Libya amid escalating tensions with France

News of the recent visit by the Turkish defence minister to Libya could further exacerbate tensions with France.

Saturday 04/07/2020
Fayez al-Sarraj (R), Prime Minister of Libya’s Government of National Accord receives Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar in the Libyan capital Tripoli, July 3. (AFP)
Fayez al-Sarraj (R), Prime Minister of Libya’s Government of National Accord receives Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar in the Libyan capital Tripoli, July 3. (AFP)

TUNIS – Turkey’s defence minister and military chief visited the war-torn Libyan capital Tripoli Friday, the country’s Turkey-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, said.

The visit is the second in weeks by a minister from Turkey, which seems newly willing to challenge allies and enemies alike in its pursuit of a larger role on the Middle East and North Africa.

According to a statement released by the GNA, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and Chief of General Staff Yasar Guler discussed “military and security cooperation” with Sarraj and Libyan military officials.

During the meeting, Akar reiterated Turkey’s support for GNA, according to Turkish state media.

“I want you to know that we are with you today and tomorrow, and will do whatever it requires for our Libyan brothers under the instructions of our president,” Akar said.

Akar and Guler also visited the Defence Security Cooperation and Training Assistance Advisory Command, which was created within the scope of a military cooperation agreement signed last year between Turkey and Libya.

The two met Turkish and Libyan soldiers.

“Turkish support [for the GNA] continues in the areas of military and security cooperation,” said Salah Namrush, GNA’s deputy defence minister, in a statement.

The visit comes a month after the GNA forces declared they were back in full control of Tripoli and its suburbs following a yearlong offensive by the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Turkey’s military and technological support for Sarraj’s government as well as the deployment of hundreds of Syrian mercenaries have  given  the upper hand to the GNA in its battle  against Haftar forces.

Ankara demonstrated its growing confidence in its Libyan interference on June 20, when it demanded that Haftar’s forces pull out of Sirte, a pivotal city linking the east and west of Libya – before lambasting a NATO ally, France, accusing it of “jeopardising” the Western alliance’s security by supporting Haftar’s forces.

Franco-Turkish relations soured further the following week, when French President Emmanuel Macron told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he was playing a “dangerous game” in sending arms, aerial support and allied fighters from Syria to boost the GNA – warning that France “won’t tolerate” such actions.

But Turkey’s support – with the provision of drones proving particularly effective – had already shifted the dynamic in the GNA’s favour.

News of the recent visit by the Turkish defence minister could further exacerbate tensions with France, which announced July 1 that it was suspending its involvement in NATO’s Sea Guardian operation in the Mediterranean over Turkish participation.

EU foreign ministers will meet at France’s request to discuss relations with Turkey on July 13 as animosity between Ankara and Paris is intensifying.

Meanwhile, Turkey is pushing at the boundaries of what is acceptable within the NATO alliance. However, given the distractions of the coronavirus pandemic and Washington’s ambivalent attitude towards NATO, such tensions are likely to simmer on.