Turkey’s Policy toward a Fractured Libya

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Recent exchanges between Turkey and Libya’s Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) have raised questions about the future of Turkish policy, considering Ankara’s long opposition to General Khalifa Haftar, the de facto military leader of eastern Libya. In the past two years, Haftar’s forces—the Libyan National Army (LNA)—have seized control of Libya’s main oil fields and forged strong relations with the HoR. In their meeting last September with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in Ankara, HoR representatives expressed interest in close cooperation with Turkey, adding that they want to change negative perceptions regarding Libya. The HoR delegation also declared that “Turkey certainly does not help terror groups in Libya” and that receivables of Turkish businesses from Libya are “guaranteed.” Such statements are remarkable given that as late as October 2017, the Libyan attorney general issued arrest warrants and travel bans against 826 individuals with terrorism allegations—most of whom living in Turkey and Qatar. In June 2017, at the height of the Gulf crisis after the blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt, the Libyan Army spokesman described Turkey, Qatar, and Sudan as “the triad of terrorism in Libya.”

Turkey has long been at odds with the HoR, popularly known as the Tobruk government. Ankara supported the General National Congress (GNC), which was dominated by Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated parties—the Justice and Construction Party and Loyalty to the Martyrs Bloc. In 2014, the HoR replaced the GNC after the national elections that dramatically changed the distribution of parliamentary seats at the expense of the Justice and Construction Party. Yet, the voter turnout was too low, 18 percent, down from 60 percent in the 2012 elections. The Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the elections were unconstitutional and the HoR should be dissolved. Not recognizing the legitimacy of the HoR, the Islamist parties formed a rival parliament in Tripoli, called the new GNC.

The HoR and GNC signed the Libyan Political Agreement in December 2015, brokered by the United Nations. As an outcome, the Presidency Council and an interim government—the Government of National Accord (GNA) under a compromise prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj—were formed with a vision to hold national elections in December 2017. The agreement, however, failed to resolve divisions. In the past two years, the HoR has continued to act as a parallel government and has not approved the GNA as the unity government. Worse, the HoR provided legitimacy for the military operations of General Haftar, who rejected the UN accord. Meanwhile, while the the Islamist-dominated GNC had announced its own dissolution to support the accord, deep skepticism led to short-term clashes between GNC and GNA loyalists. These clashes actually continued into the summer of 2017 when the GNC Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell, as leader of a self-declared Salvation Government in Misrata, led his militias against the GNA government.

As the Tripoli-Misrata-Tobruk divide increases and the balance of power changes in favor of the HoR, Turkey’s policy options in Libya become limited. Will Ankara choose engagement or confrontation in its relations with the Tobruk government? Previously, the Tobruk government accused Turkey of providing weapons to GNC-affiliated militias—the Libya Dawn coalition—so that “the Libyan people kill each other.” Since the UN agreement, however, Turkey highlighted its support to the GNA and refrained from working with the GNC’s Salvation Government in Misrata.

Turkey’s decision regarding engagement or confrontation will be shaped by several factors. First, Ankara is carefully observing the role of General Haftar in the Tobruk government. Although Turkey has developed good relations with some members in HoR’s parliament, Haftar’s increasing power grab troubles the Turkish government. Second, bilateral economic ties had paramount importance for Turkey during the Qadhafi era; therefore, Ankara’s approach to the Tobruk government will be pragmatic. Finally, the Turkey-Russia rapprochement in Syria may have implications in the Libyan context. Despite its strong support for Haftar, Moscow aims to assume the role of broker to bring the parties to the negotiating table. Therefore, in exploiting the lack of leadership by Washington, Russia may find Turkey most useful for Putin-led peace negotiations as Ankara has some leverage over Haftar’s main opposition—the GNA government in Tripoli as well as the Salvation Government in Misrata.

Turkeys Concerns about the Rise of General Haftar

Turkey is deeply concerned about the consolidation of power by the LNA Field Marshal General Khalifa Haftar—who may be Libya’s next dictator. Haftar’s call for arms against the GNC went far back to February 2014 before the controversial elections. He has gained legitimacy in the eyes of western powers as his militia forces crushed the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia and other Islamist militants in eastern Libya. Moreover, his war on the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Libya Dawn coalition attracted armed support from Sisi’s Egypt. Haftar also called on all citizens of Turkey to leave the country. At the ire of Ankara, his expansion in eastern Libya, especially in the Oil Crescent region, was facilitated by support from a wide range of actors including the UAE, Jordan, France, and Russia.

The Turkish government believes that Haftar’s controversial past—as Qadhafi’s general and later his archenemy supported by the CIA—is a serious impediment for Libya’s Islamic-leaning constituency to accept him, and hence, there is a danger of a never-ending civil war. The LNA’s field victories enabled Haftar to gain support only from some Islamist groups that are particularly anti-Brotherhood, such as Madkhali salafists. Known as quietist salafists, Madkhali groups have a long history of tension with the Muslim Brotherhood and formed an alliance with Qadhafi instead. Last year the leader of the group, Sheikh Rabi al-Madkhali, issued a fatwa to back Haftar.

Haftar claims his forces are now in control of 1,730,000 out of Libya’s total 1,760,000 square kilometers. Despite his exaggerated numbers and the fact that the LNA may not be able to exert direct control over more than 20 percent of the country, there are signs that the LNA is preparing for an offensive against the UN-recognized GNA government in Tripoli. Haftar recently met with some militia leaders from Tripoli to persuade them to desert the GNA. Shortly thereafter, GNA Prime Minister al-Sarraj paid a visit to the White House, demanding a guarantee for his personal security as well as the security of the Tripoli government. A challenge for Haftar is the Fezzan region in southwest Libya, where water pipelines, oil fields, and border control are claimed by a variety of competing groups including the Islamic State, pro-Qadhafists, Islamist militias, and foreign mercenaries. Without a victory in Fezzan, Haftar’s offensive in Tripoli would be a risky move. Last week, Qadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam declared a comeback, controlling the coastal town of Sabratha and promising to fight against “terrorist groups” in Tripoli. A potential Haftar-Qadhafi alliance is not unrealistic.

Economic Ties: A Key Issue for Turkey

The Tobruk government’s recent statement to pay the receivables of 140 Turkish business firms signals a policy change indeed. In 2015, the Tobruk-based prime minister, Abdullah al-Thani, had declared the end of all contracts with Turkish companies, further straining relations with Ankara.

Under the late Qadhafi, Libya was a significant market for the Turkish construction sector. The total value of the 304 contracts that Turkey’s business firms had received and could not complete due to the civil war is around $15 billion. Some of the projects were at the stage of final delivery but Turkish companies could not collect their receivables and fled the country after the eruption of the rebellion. Even the Turkish equipment that was left in Libya is worth a billion dollars. After the 2012 elections, Turkish firms started to return, hoping to complete the projects. Khalifa Haftar’s coup in 2014, however, started the second exodus of Turkish businesses.

Now giving signals to welcome Turkish firms back to eastern Libya, the Tobruk government aims to assess if Ankara is willing to cooperate, and to what extent. Economic interests are certainly of high importance for Turkey in shaping its Libya policy. Lately, Turkish authorities expressed interest in opening a consulate in Benghazi, which is under the control of Haftar’s LNA forces. Thus, Ankara may choose a pragmatic approach in Libya and engage with the Tobruk government in case the latter makes tangible offers. On the other hand, however, the Tripoli government already gave promises to Ankara for the revival of Turkish companies there and started to take concrete steps. The city of Tripoli is reaching out to Istanbul for assistance in restoring city services and archeological sites. Turkish companies will also open two advanced medical centers in Misrata and al-Bayda in early 2018. Security of the Tripoli government, therefore, is still essential for the return and expansion of Turkey’s financial interests in Libya.

To revive small business transactions, Ankara is currently working on resuming visa liberalization from the Tripoli-based Turkish embassy. Since September 2015, Turkey has introduced visa requirements for Libyans due to security concerns, annulling the memorandum of agreement in 2009 to waive visas for nationals of both countries. The new visa requirements caused a decline in bilateral trade and influenced the decisions of many Libyans to seek medical treatment in other countries instead of Turkey—the size of this group has increased, given the deterioration of the health sector in Libya.

The Russia Factor

Turkey’s policy toward a fractured Libya will be shaped by decisions of the powerful players in the Libyan civil war. The Russia-Egypt rapprochement is most noteworthy in indicating how Moscow now plays a proactive role in Libya, challenging Washington’s traditional leadership. Reminiscent of its strategy in Syria, Russia appears to seek an ultimate broker role without making an immense investment that would bring risk. Russia deployed special forces in western Egypt near the Libyan border and sent weapons to Haftar’s LNA via the Egyptian government. The LNA’s military capabilities rely almost entirely on Russian weaponry, and Russian technicians are active in helping to upgrade the armament technology. In addition, Moscow printed around 4 billion dinars (about $3 billion) on behalf of Haftar’s central bank in Tobruk.

The Trump Administration remains reluctant to back the UN-recognized government if LNA forces launch an offensive on Tripoli. Trump’s support of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the White House’s antagonism toward the Muslim Brotherhood cause confusion and illustrate a lack of strong signals from Washington.

Although Ankara and Moscow seem to be at opposing sides in Libya, Russia may want to take advantage of Turkey’s position—reminiscent of the Syrian context and Astana talks where Moscow is cooperating with Ankara to influence Syrian issues. Russia seeks a broker role for a resolution in Libya rather than relying exclusively on Haftar, whose capability to control all Libyan territory is still dubious. In other words, Moscow does not want to be dragged into the Libyan war by taking a risky path, one of providing unconditional support to Haftar’s LNA.

Thus, Moscow could find that Ankara wields influence on the Salvation Government in Misrata as well as the GNA government in Tripoli; it could play a role in potential ceasefires and peace deals. Russia still officially endorses the UN-proposed settlement, and thus, it has engaged with the GNA government at high-level meetings. Besides, Moscow even hosted opposition leaders from Misrata, indicating its willingness to become a diplomatic actor. With the United Arab Emirates, Russia pushed for meetings in Abu Dhabi in May 2017 between the GNA’s Prime Minister al-Sarraj and General Haftar. Considering mistrust against the UAE in Tripoli and Misrata, Turkey appears to be the best candidate for Russia to pursue its strategy as a broker.

In the messy complex of the Libyan civil war, the United States has thus far paid exclusive attention to Islamic State and al-Qaeda operations. In April 2017, President Trump stated that the only US role in Libya is “getting rid” of the Islamic State. The existence of extremist groups on the Libyan scene, however, is a direct result of governance failure and a power vacuum. Hence, without addressing the root cause that could save Libya from a vicious cycle of violence, Washington will never win its war against terror. Subcontracting the handling of Libya to US partners such as the UAE and Egypt is not only a nonstarter but also dangerous. Egypt and the UAE pursue their own political scores, and they are not necessarily concerned about the future and prosperity of the Libyan people. Although European powers are highly concerned about the migrant flow, human trafficking, and slave trade through Libya, they also need leadership to unify the war-ravaged country. Washington’s best option appears to be stronger cooperation with its NATO allies—primarily with Italy and France—to find a political path for conflict de-escalation in Libya.

Mustafa Gurbuz is a Non-resident Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Mustafa and read his previous publications click here