Turkey’s Libya Policy: New Flexibility, New Goals

Written by | Monday, May 31st, 2021

In its latest iteration, which manifested itself more clearly between 2019 and 2021, Turkey’s foreign policy around Libya has been part of three interlinked policies. First, this policy aims to protect Turkey’s interests, financially, energy-wise, politically, militarily (naval and air bases), and geopolitically, in Libya. Second, this policy is part of Turkey’s ongoing power struggle with rival Arab forces (UAE and Egypt, most importantly) for the influence in the MENA region in general and North Africa in particular. Third, this policy is part of Turkey’s broader Eastern Mediterranean policy, where Turkey is facing a bloc of countries that comprises Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt as well as France.

In fact, of the two memoranda of understanding (the ‘delimitation of maritime jurisdiction areas’ in the Mediterranean Sea and the security and military cooperation agreement) that Turkey signed with Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in November 2019, the ‘delimitation of maritime jurisdiction areas’ deal was essentially about Eastern Mediterranean instead of Libya. Through this deal, Ankara wanted to undermine the emergence of an energy and security order in the Eastern Mediterranean which excluded Turkey. It has been contested by almost all European actors on the ground of its legality from an international law perspective. Plus, this deal has further increased tensions between Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, and France.

Through its forceful intervention, Turkey has largely fulfilled its initial goals. It has redesigned the conflict map and helped the GNA assert almost complete control over Western Libya on top of stopping and pushing back the onslaught of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA). Such turns of the events have led Turkey to reassess its priorities and set new goals. Furthermore, the UN-sponsored talks — which led to a new interim government in Libya with Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh serving as prime minister — has further motivated Turkey to reevaluate its policy measures and reorder its priorities in this country.

As a businessman in the construction sector, Dbeibeh is very close to Turkish business circles. Moreover, he is from Misrata, the stronghold of Turkish influence in Libya. All in all, this new interim government is good news for Turkey, especially considering it prevents Turkey from incurring in the cost of further escalation. But as the UN process moves forward, Turkey is likely to face more pressure to withdraw its allied Syrian fighters from the country. Its military presence, bases, and deals are also likely to become a problem. Given this new picture, what are Ankara’s goals at this stage? And what does the future hold for its presence in Libya?

Turkey’s primary concern at this stage will be to make sure that the deals that it has signed with the GNA (particularly during the Sarraj premiership) will not be impacted by changes in the domestic makeup of the GNA because the Turkish-Libyan maritime deal is of paramount importance in this respect. Plus, Turkey will seek ways to safeguard its economic energy gains and preserve the series of agreements it has signed with the GNA in these fields. Politically, Turkey will explore ways to establish channels of communications with Eastern Libya and to find a modus vivendi with Egypt. The latter point is particularly important for the fate of the recent Turkish-Egyptian normalization talks. In fact, while Turkey prioritises the Eastern Mediterranean in its talks with Cairo, Egypt prioritises Libya in its engagements with Ankara. As such, there is room for flexibility in Turkey’s foreign policy around Libya.

At the security level, Ankara will strive to strengthen the GNA’s military capacity through military trainings, army-building, and security sector reform. At the strategic level, Turkey will continue to upgrade the capacity of its military bases in Libya, that is, the al Watiyya air and Misrata naval bases. In any case, Turkey will double down on its strategy of institutionalising its influence in West Libya through security sector reform, institution-building, and army-building efforts. Particularly, military-training and army-buildings are low cost, high-impact endeavours for Turkey. Finally, Turkey believes there is a gap between its military influence and political influence and it, which it will strive to bridge. However, given the lack of committed partners, this is unlikely to happen.

In addition, many countries — such as Egypt — have voiced the demand for Turkish military withdrawal from Libya. Given the ongoing talks between Turkey and Egypt, Ankara will be more receptive to the Egyptian demand of withdrawing pro-Turkish Syrian fighters from Libya. Yet, it will condition this withdrawal upon the withdrawal of other foreign fighters from Libya, including Russian Wagner fighters. When it comes to the withdrawal of Turkish forces, Ankara continues to resist this idea on the grounds that Turkish forces are present on Libyan territory as a result of an agreement with Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). In other words, Turkey appears to be flexible when it comes to the presence of the pro-Turkish Syrian fighters in Libya; however, it will be more determined to keep its own military and strategic footprint in Libya.

‚Turkey’s Libya Policy: New Flexibility, New Goals‘ – Commentary by Galip Dalay
Italian Institute for International Political Studies / ISPI.

The Commnentary can be downloaded here

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