By intervening militarily in the Libyan conflict in January, Turkey helped forces aligned with the UN-backed Tripoli government of Prime Minister Faiez Serraj stand their ground against an offensive by a coalition headed by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and to speed up the political process. From Ankara’s perspective, supporting the Tripoli government is necessary to confront an arc of inimical forces bent on containing Turkey’s strategic and economic influence in the Mediterranean and broader Middle East. Haftar’s foreign backers likewise see Libya as a key geopolitical battleground and have shown no hesitation to escalate.
While Ankara deems its intervention worthwhile as long as it prevents Tripoli’s takeover, the costs may rise if, as a result, the conflict becomes more prolonged and deadly. It therefore should be in Turkey’s and Haftar’s external supporters’ interest to explore areas of mutual accommodation, work toward a ceasefire, and find ways to bring their respective Libyan allies around the table to pursue a compromise that would also meet some of their own core needs.
After six months of stalemated war in the Tripoli outskirts, Haftar-aligned forces started to slowly advance toward the city centre in November 2019 in a push to remove the Serraj government and disarm forces allied with it. Alarmed by this development, officials in Ankara calculated that, by balancing Haftar’s military power on the ground, they could create conditions for a ceasefire and negotiated political solution to the Libyan crisis. Starting in January, Turkey reportedly sent around 100 officers and at least 2,000 allied Syrian opposition fighters to Libya, as well as aerial defence and other weapon systems.
Ankara’s actions in Libya are also motivated by larger goals. From Turkey’s perspective, Libya intersects with two hostile axes that Ankara must confront. The first is a perceived campaign by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt (and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia) to contain Turkish influence across the Middle East and North Africa. The second is what Turkey sees as an effort by Greece and Cyprus (and, by extension, the EU), as well as Israel, to box it into a small corner of the Mediterranean Sea and thus exclude it from hydrocarbon projects that could also be geopolitically significant. From Ankara’s perspective, its Libya policy is closely intertwined with its desire to break through such imposed barriers.
Turkey is not alone, of course, in viewing Libya through the prism of strategic interests. In doing so, it joins a host of other countries – including the UAE, Egypt, and Russia, which are backing Haftar, and Qatar, which backs the Tripoli government. Publicly, Western countries have criticised Turkish actions, including its violation of the UN arms embargo on Libya. But the same Western governments (with the exception of France) have also expressed tacit sympathy. They, too, want to prevent the Serraj government’s collapse. And they, too, hope that Turkey’s direct involvement to bolster the government will first stop Haftar’s offensive and then compel him to negotiate. Diplomatic initiativeerds in January, in Moscow and then in Berlin, provided a glimmer of hope that negotiations would indeed begin, but these initiatives faltered, and the resignation of UN Special Representative to Libya Ghassan Salamé further undermined chances of reviving them.
Turkish intervention slowed the advance of Haftar’s forces, allowing the Tripoli government’s forces to regain some of the territory they lost when the war broke out in April 2019. But it did not halt the war. Haftar’s coalition condemned Ankara’s actions and recast its own efforts as a war against what it terms “the Turkish occupation”. It intensified artillery attacks on Tripoli’s port and airport, on the grounds that Turkish officers have been using these sites. At least two Turkish army officers and several dozen pro-Turkey Syrian fighters have been killed, although exact numbers are not available. Meanwhile, pro-government forces lost Sirte, the site of a military base in central Libya that has become an important staging ground for Haftar’s forces. Finally, and crucially, Haftar-allied tribal groups shut down the country’s oil production and all hydrocarbon exports in January, saying they did not want to see Libya’s oil revenues used to pay for Turkish and Turkey-backed forces. This shutdown has cut off the funds that were keeping the Tripoli government afloat.
To some extent, Turkey’s gambit paid off: the Turkish intervention contained Haftar’s forces’ advance into Tripoli. But ultimately, by intervening, Turkey has further enmeshed itself in an escalating conflict with a complex mix of players and stakeholders. As Ankara’s allies in Tripoli attempt counterattacks against pro-Haftar strongholds in other parts of the country, Turkey risks being dragged into a war well beyond what it originally signed up for. Further escalation is a distinct risk and could both backfire for Turkey and come at the expense of Libyans at large. Neither Turkey nor any of Haftar’s foreign backers is likely to make one-sided concessions. The choice is between further escalation and a search for mutual accommodation that paves the way for peace among their Libyan allies while meeting as much as possible their own interests. They should pick the latter.
‘Turkey Wades into Libya’s Troubled Waters’ – Report by a Team of Authors – International Crisis Group / ICG.