Turkish plans for permanent military presence in Libya spark concern

“Turkey using al-Watiya … is on the agenda,” said a Turkish source.
Tuesday 16/06/2020
Watiya airbase, southwest of Tripoli, after recapture by GNA militants. last month. (REUTERS)
Watiya airbase, southwest of Tripoli, after recapture by GNA militants. last month. (REUTERS)

ANKARA,--Turkey and the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) are discussing possible Turkish military bases in Libya with a view to longterm Turkish presence in the North African country, a Turkish source told the Reuters news agency.

No final decisions have been announced yet over possible Turkish military use of the Misrata naval base and the al-Watiya air base, which was recently recaptured by the Turkish-backed GNA.

A more permanent air and naval presence in Libya could reinforce Turkey’s ambitions in the region, including in Syria, and boost its plans to control Libya’s offshore oil and gas resources.

Turkey has already flagged possible energy and construction deals with Tripoli once the fighting ends.

But Ankara’s military and energy designs in North Africa are sparking growing wariness among Libya’s neighbours and European nations north of the Mediterranean.

As the GNA and its Turkish backers continue to reject any truce with the Libyan National Army (LNA), heavy clashes have emerged near the LNA-held coastal city of Sirte, which is close to major energy export terminals on the Mediterranean seaboard.

Russia and Turkey postponed high level talks on Libya scheduled for Sunday in Istanbul due to discord over the GNA’s aggressive push to retake Sirte, another Turkish official said.

“Turkey using al-Watiya … is on the agenda,” said the first source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It could also be possible for the Misrata naval base to be used by Turkey.”

Turkey has a military base in Qatar and in 2017 added troops there amid a row between Doha on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on the other.

Ankara threw its support behind the government in Tripoli last year after the GNA signed a maritime demarcation accord that it says gives Turkey drilling rights near Crete, but that is opposed by Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel and the European Union.

A Libyan naval base in particular would “institutionalise” Turkey’s influence in the Eastern Mediterranean and give it leverage over Arab and European interests, said Galip Dalay,  a fellow at Robert Bosch Academy.

Russia’s foreign ministry said on Sunday it was pursuing a “prompt ceasefire” and that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would reschedule the meeting that was set for Sunday with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu.

“A result was supposed to come out (of the meetings), but that stage could not be reached. There are issues where the two countries are on opposing sides,” the second Turkish official told Reuters.

“One of the main issues for the postponement of the Lavrov visit is the (GNA’s) plan for an operation into Sirte…which has emerged as a target.”

The United Nations said last week the warring sides had begun new ceasefire talks in Libya after GNA forces, helped by Turkey, repelled a protracted LNA assault on the capital Tripoli.

Sirte, about halfway between GNA-held Tripoli and LNA-held Benghazi, is the closest city to Libya’s main energy export terminals. Haftar’s forces seized the city in January and the conflict’s new front line has emerged just to the west.

“Russia wants Turkey and the GNA to halt military operations, particularly not attacking Sirte, Jufra and the oil crescent – and Ankara has rebuffed this demand,” said Dalay.

“If Turkish-Russian talks don’t bear fruit, we might then see escalation both in Libya and in Syria’s Idlib region,” where Ankara and Moscow also back opposing sides, he said.

There are signs of increasing pushback against Turkey’s plans in Libya in the Maghreb and Europe. French officials, in particular, have expressed resentment at Ankara’s attempts to establish a permanent foothold in the North African country and to supply the Islamist-dominated GNA government with weapons, drones and mercenaries.

A French presidential official said Monday France wants talks with NATO allies to discuss Turkey’s increasingly “aggressive” role in Libya and the foreign ministry accused Ankara of thwarting truce efforts by breaking a UN arms embargo.

“These interferences are becoming very problematic and, despite our efforts, the situation is getting bogged down. This increasingly aggressive posture is not acceptable,” the presidential official said.

“Turkey is supposed to be a NATO partner, so this cannot continue.”

In a statement on Monday, the ministry of foreign affairs said that “foreign interference, in particular the intensification of Turkish support,” including what it said was a violation of the arms embargo, was thwarting efforts to secure a ceasefire.

Asked what Paris had in mind, the official said there would be discussions soon with Turkey and other NATO partners.

NATO defence ministers are due to hold talks on Wednesday and Thursday.