Turkey Faces a Dilemma in its Foreign Policy Toward Libya

On January 9, 2023, a Libyan court suspended an energy exploration deal between Turkey and Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU) that was originally signed in October 2022. The Turkish Foreign Ministry immediately protested the action, with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stating, “The text is a treaty, a memorandum of understanding. So therefore, just like the memorandums of understanding that Libya signed with other countries, it does not need to be passed by the parliament in Libya.” Ankara also declared that the Libyan government still stands behind the hydrocarbon agreement despite the court ruling, and dispatched its intelligence chief to visit Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah.

This complication reveals Turkey’s current impasse in Libya. On the one hand, the Turkish authorities have opened channels for dialogue with Libya’s Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), hosting Speaker Aguila Saleh and calling for a diplomatic solution that unites Libya’s two rival government bodies. But on the other hand, exclusive dealings between Ankara and the Tripoli government go against Turkey’s own goal of healing the divisions between Libya’s rival factions, which is ultimately the best means by which to secure Turkey’s interests in the eastern Mediterranean. Ankara may find Libya’s divisions useful for receiving more concessions in its negotiations, but exploiting said divisions would mean further deepening them rather than serving Libyan unity. Turkey is thus facing a foreign policy dilemma in Libya, and has yet to make a firm decision on how best to proceed.

Three Important Aspects

Several factors are shaping Turkey’s dilemma over its Libya policy. First, changing priorities in Turkish foreign policy more broadly are an important driver for policy decisions in Libya. The Turkish government has now begun to mend ties with the United Arab Emirates, which was a key challenger to Turkey in escalating a drone-based proxy war during the Libyan civil war. Ankara has also made diplomatic openings in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the other regional powers that are united in confronting Turkey’s ambitious policy in the Horn of Africa and Libya. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent handshake with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is an apparent sign that Ankara desires a diplomatic path forward to resolve the Libyan crisis.

Second, shifting dynamics among Libya’s political elite present a risk to Turkey’s strategic calculations. Ankara’s strong relations with Fathi Bashagha, Libya’s rival interim prime minister who was appointed by the HoR, have weakened after Bashagha’s turn to Egypt and France for support. Last year, Bashagha’s armed attacks against the Tripoli-based GNU government were foiled by Libyan militias, allowing Dbeibah to emerge victorious. Dbeibah, however, is still not able to fully control western Libya, a fact that makes Turkey unsure about where to hedge its bets.

Third, Turkey’s fast-approaching presidential election, which is scheduled to be held in May 2023, does not help to calibrate the strategic communications that Ankara aims to articulate. Turkish opposition leaders provide alternative visions for the Libyan crisis and therefore create both hope and suspicion about the future of Turkish policy toward Libya.

Libya and Turkey’s New Regional Diplomacy

Controversy erupted in Turkish politics after images of the Erdoğan-Sisi handshake were released. The Turkish President’s conservative supporters could not believe that Erdoğan took such a step, which may hurt his strongman image at home, especially at a time when he is conducting a campaign in a tight electoral race. Others opined that Erdoğan may be trying to reach out to secular and nationalist Turks who are often critical of his ideological proclivities. Whatever the reason might be, one fact about the Erdoğan-Sisi rapprochement is rather obvious to foreign policy wonks: the Turkish government is seeking a way to break the ties that exist between the various countries that form alliances against Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean.

By making new diplomatic overtures to Israel, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, Turkey is aiming to kill the momentum that Greece and Cyprus have gained in the past few years.

By making new diplomatic overtures to Israel, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, Turkey is aiming to kill the momentum that Greece and Cyprus have gained in the past few years. Sisi has become a key player in Mediterranean energy politics, which sometimes harm Turkish interests. Soon after becoming Egypt’s president, he held a series of meetings with Greek and Cypriot officials to reach a deal on importing natural gas from Cyprus. And he later led efforts to establish the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, which excluded Turkey. Thus, Turkey-Egypt relations cannot be separated from developments in Libya, which has geostrategic significance for both countries.

Before the Erdoğan-Sisi meeting in Qatar, Egyptian officials were singling out Libya as the main issue impeding normalization between Cairo and Ankara. Cairo demands the withdrawal of Turkey’s military personnel and affiliated foreign fighters, while Ankara refuses to take such steps, which could weaken its hand in diplomatic negotiations. In response to Turkey’s October 2022 deal with the Tripoli government, Egypt moved forward with a unilateral declaration to demarcate its western maritime borders. With this move, Cairo rejected every Turkish claim included in the 2019 and 2022 memorandums signed between Libya’s Tripoli government and Ankara. Egypt also signed a new intergovernmental cooperation memorandum with Greece to bolster its earlier exclusive economic zone agreement with the country in 2020.

The fact that Turkey has refrained from directly criticizing Sisi for this unilateral declaration is telling. The Turkish response was to call on Egypt and Libya to start negotiations to resolve their differences, emphasizing that Turkey prefers dialogue “as soon as possible.” Ankara knows that deals with the Tripoli government cannot be realized without third party ratification and that reaching a consensus with Cairo is the only way to guarantee Turkish economic interests in Libya. Ankara, however, has yet to figure out how to reach a consensus with Cairo without making too many concessions.

Turkey’s escalation tactics will have their limits. Ankara does not want to ruin its improved relations with the UAE, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. And an escalation in tensions may not only revive the Egypt-Israel-UAE partnership with Greece and Cyprus, but may also invite Russian military support to eastern Libya. What Turkey wants is to secure its economic interests in Libya, which will most likely be achieved by the establishment of a unified Libyan government.

Shifting Sands in Libyan Politics

Turkey’s struggle to find the correct path forward also stems from shifting dynamics among Libya’s political elite. The role of Fathi Bashagha, who was interior minister in the previous Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) before switching sides to join the rival Tobruk-based government in eastern Libya, is an interesting case in point. Once a spokesperson for the Misrata Military Council, Bashagha was known for his strong ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey. And as the GNA’s interior minister, some perceived him as more influential than then Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. With Turkey’s support, Bashagha also played a key role in defending Tripoli against General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, and promised to rein in armed militias that controlled Tripoli. But he then surprisingly made a deal with General Haftar and the HoR’s Aguila Saleh, and in February 2022, the HoR chose him to form an interim government on the grounds that Dbeibah’s Tripoli-based government’s term had expired on December 24, 2021, when nationwide elections were supposed to be—but never were—held under a United Nations peace plan. Bashagha’s long and twisted career on both sides of Libya’s current divide exemplifies the challenges that Turkey faces in deciding how best to conduct foreign policy.

Libya has also witnessed a violent escalation in the past year. In May 2022, the militias on both Bashagha and Dbeibah’s sides started to resort to armed battles in their contest for power. In response to Bashagha’s rise in the east, Turkey chose to engage with the Tobruk-based government and made diplomatic openings therein. Accompanied by Turkish businessmen, Turkey’s ambassador to Tripoli visited Benghazi to discuss prospects for Turkish entrepreneurs’ return to eastern Libya to finish construction projects that were interrupted by the civil war. The discussions also included issues such as reopening the Turkish consulate in Benghazi and reviving Turkish Airlines flights to the city.

In August 2022, Erdoğan met with Saleh, signaling Turkey’s seriousness in reaching a deal with the Tobruk government. And Turkish officials declared that Ankara would not discriminate between Libya’s regions because Libya is “an inseparable whole.” Soon after Saleh’s visit to Turkey, an emboldened Tobruk government aimed to strike a final blow to Tripoli with a swift military offensive. Dbeibah’s government and its allied forces, however, succeeded in repulsing the attacks, despite taking casualties. Bashagha’s political and military failures have thus raised serious doubts about his aptitude for leadership and have drawn sharp criticism in the HoR.

With Turkey currently talking to both Libyan governments, it now faces a dilemma. Ankara’s support for the Tripoli government is important as a bargaining chip to gain economic concessions in eastern Libya. But Dbeibah’s Tripoli government is not in a position to unify the country.

With Turkey currently talking to both Libyan governments, it now faces a dilemma. Ankara’s support for the Tripoli government is important as a bargaining chip to gain economic concessions in eastern Libya. But Dbeibah’s Tripoli government is not in a position to unify the country. It is not Dbeibah’s success, but rather Bashagha’s that would be more desirable for Ankara because such success would produce a unified Libya that enjoys workable relations with Turkey. And such a strategy will only be successful if Bashagha’s government can deliver unity without triggering a new episode of violent escalation. Turkish strategic support to Tripoli, however, undermines eastern Libya’s attempt to unify using diplomatic solutions. In other words, some of Turkey’s actions may conflict with each other, thereby hampering its goals in Libya.

Elections Matter

Still-to-be-determined elections in Libya and the 2023 presidential elections in Turkey will matter a great deal. Turkey’s opposition parties are sending different messages to Libyan and Egyptian authorities, who are on the lookout for cues from Ankara. Most recently, a visiting delegation of Turkish opposition MPs to Benghazi stated that it did not support Erdoğan’s one-sided maritime deals. Thus, it is reasonable to expect an Erdoğan victory in the elections would empower him in negotiating with eastern Libya, as well as with Cairo. However, if Erdoğan loses, Turkey’s Libya policy may not remain as ambitious as it currently is. Securing financial interests in Libya will likely endure in Turkish state policy regardless of the outcome of the upcoming elections. However, increasing maritime tensions in the eastern Mediterranean may possibly be dropped from Ankara’s policy agenda in the future. This is why the Turkish government cannot easily convince dissenting parties of the need for a shared future before these critical May elections.

The question, however, is how long Libya’s turmoil can remain under control without a serious prospect for nationwide elections. In some parts of Libya, a climate of impunity has fueled horrific crimes against civilians. A new report from Amnesty International on the Tariq Ben Zeyad armed group, for example, details how the militia, which is led by General Haftar’s son Saddam Haftar, has routinely targeted thousands of political opponents. In the areas under Haftar’s control, this powerful militia has inflicted “a catalogue of horrors, including unlawful killings, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearance, rape and other sexual violence, and forced displacement—with no fear of consequences.” Trauma and mistrust resulting from such crimes will make unification difficult.

Turkey’s Hard Choices

Turkey is currently sitting on the fence regarding the road map for its future decisions in Libya. Its dilemma is primarily about finding the right legitimate political body there that can deliver meaningful resolutions. This is why Turkish interest will be best served by supporting free and fair Libyan elections, even though this is a difficult goal to achieve. Nothing but elections could offer legitimacy and establish bridges among rival factions, and Dbeibah’s government has vowed to only hand over its mandate to an elected government. Therefore, Turkey’s efforts at encouraging Libyan elections will receive support from Tripoli. Without free and fair elections, the HoR in eastern Libya is also skating on thin ice. Bashagha’s failures may lead to divisions within the eastern Libya camp and thus to the erosion of whatever political legitimacy that the HoR enjoys. In such a scenario, Turkey’s hopes related to the Tobruk-based government would be dashed.

Without tapping into public legitimacy through free and fair elections, the Libyan political elite will likely remain divided and weak. And although Ankara may find Libya’s divisions useful for receiving more concessions in its negotiations with Cairo and with Libya’s rival governments, exploiting those divisions will harm the cause of Libyan unity that remains the key to securing Turkish geopolitical and economic interests in the eastern Mediterranean.

Featured image credit: GNU Press Office