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Three challenging scenarios for Turkey in Libya

Turkey could face tough choices in Libya unless the power struggle between the two rival governments is resolved, including military intervention should the eastern-backed prime minister attempt to enter Tripoli by force.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Libyan GNU Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah.

The showdown between Libya’s two rival prime ministers — Fathi Bashagha, appointed by the eastern-based parliament, and Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, the head of the Tripoli-based government who refuses to cede power — is pushing Turkey to play more openly and assertively in the conflict.

Turkey, which maintains military and militia forces in Libya, has been irked by Bashagha’s teaming up with eastern forces, namely Khalifa Hifter, the commander of the Libyan National Army, and Aquila Saleh, the head of the House of Representatives, to unseat Dbeibah’s interim government. Ankara had worked closely with Bashagha during his term as interior minister in the previous interim government in Tripoli. But for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a Bashagha government under the influence of Hifter and Saleh, who have fiercely opposed Turkey’s military presence in Libya, might mean losing the assurances that Dbeibah offers. Still, Erdogan keeps the door open to Bashagha while maintaining support for Dbeibah’s Government of National Unity (GNU). Though Turkey is wary of provoking clashes at a critical juncture in Libya, the fact remains that its military, intelligence and diplomatic presence in Tripoli affects the equilibrium and makes the playground safer for Dbeibah.

Following the GNU’s formation under UN auspices last year, Turkey had sought contacts with eastern actors in a bid to thaw the ice with the forces that fought its Libyan allies. Yet the quest for a new beginning with the east faltered in February as the House of Representatives selected Bashagha to form a new government on the grounds that Dbeibah’s mandate ended Dec. 24 when the failed elections were to be held under a UN-brokered peace plan.

Now, many believe the positions of the United States and Turkey will be decisive in tipping the scale. The two Libyan camps came to the brink of an armed confrontation March 10 when forces loyal to Bashagha moved from Misrata toward Tripoli but were stopped by forces loyal to Dbeibah. 

US Ambassador to Tripoli Richard Norland and the UN’s Libya representative, Stephanie Williams, have pressed the two sides to focus on holding elections by forming a joint committee between the House of Representatives and the High State Council. According to The Arab Weekly, Turkey stepped in earlier this month, offering mediation between the two rivals. Bashagha reportedly accepted the offer, but Dbeibah worried that Ankara’s intervention would amount to a tacit recognition of Bashagha’s government and thus the end of his own mandate. Dbeibah rejected the offer, “expressing readiness to use military means” against Bashagha, according to the report. Dbeibah had met with Turkey’s ambassador to Tripoli March 6. 

Turkey reportedly tried to bring Dbeibah and Bashagha together at an international diplomacy forum in the coastal city of Antalya last week, but eventually only Dbeibah attended the event. 

Meanwhile, there was speculation that Dbeibah could cede the mandate to Bashagha on the condition that he runs for president in the prospective elections. According to other reports, Norland has suggested a mid-way formula whereby the GNU would carry on until the elections after some Cabinet revisions but Dbeibah would give a written guarantee that he would not run for president. Bashagha’s associates denied the report.

Bashagha’s attempt to march on Tripoli added urgency to the efforts for a middle way. On March 12, Norland announced that both parties were ready for talks after meeting with Bashagha in Tunisia. The format and location of the talks will be decided by the parties themselves in consultation with the UN and international partners, he said. According to Libyan sources, Dbeibah has now come to prefer Turkish mediation and the prospect of talks in Antalya is back on the agenda.

In a sign of how fluid the situation is, three ministers have resigned from Dbeibah’s Cabinet. Many seem to conclude that the rug is slipping from under Dbeibah’s feet, seeing international support for talks between the two rival premiers as a veiled acknowledgement of Bashagha. Yet Bashagha’s eventual failure to prevail might raise the specter of the eastern forces refusing to cooperate with Williams’ election-focused efforts or taking other steps challenging the West, including even halting oil production. Amid efforts to reduce energy reliance on Russia, Washington would like to avoid any disruption in the flow of Libyan oil. A blockade on oil production at two of Libya’s key oil fields earlier this month has prompted UN and US calls for an immediate end to the shutdown.

Backing Bashagha would offer Turkey a chance to make peace with eastern Libya, but Ankara needs to tread carefully as the Tripoli and Misrata forces that it trained and equipped remain fiercely hostile to Hifter. Moreover, Hifter and Saleh, who are backed by Egypt and Russia, share the goal of pushing Turkey out of Libya despite the rivalry between the two. The March 9 meeting of the Arab League saw yet another condemnation of Turkey’s presence in Libya, showing that Egypt retains its red line. In sum, pivoting to Bashagha is not easy for Turkey as it remains unsure of how the western Libyans will react and what the eastern Libyans will do down the road. 

Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher specializing in Libya, described Turkey’s presence in northwestern Libya as “very much entrenched,” consisting of “more than 700 advisers, officers and spies.” Beyond Turkish nationals, “there are more than 3,000 Syrian mercenaries who could potentially be mobilized within the context of a military operation if the situation were to deteriorate,” he told Al-Monitor.

Moreover, he continued, “Ankara has been quite active as a coordinator. When a mature state like Turkey provides coordination, the cohesiveness amongst Libyans is bound to be greater and more efficacious — and that is what we have seen in recent weeks. This is not to say that Turkey alone explains the GNU's resilience up to now, but Turkey's role is of immense importance. The combination of military presence, advice and coordination has been instrumental thus far.” 

The ambiguous approach of the United States, the UN, the European Union and other international actors has also encouraged Dbeibah to resist. He has maintained access to financial means, continued to work with the chief of general staff and the military intelligence chief, and guaranteed the loyalty of a number of military forces. Abdul Ghani al-Kikli and Ayoub Abu Ras, two militia leaders in Tripoli, remain on Dbeibah’s side.

Bashagha, for his part, appears to enjoy the favor of a considerable number of western groups in addition to the potential support of Hifter’s forces. According to Turkey’s Anatolia news agency, 118 armed groups have voiced support for Bashagha and 65 for Dbeibah. Bashagha’s biggest disadvantage is that the central bank governor, who controls oil revenues and budget allocations, remains on Dbeibah’s side. 

According to Harchaoui, Turkey is not the only factor keeping Bashagha from entering Tripoli. “Many Misrata elites, elders and magnates remain skeptical about Bashagha's alliance with Hifter. Plus, Dbeibah has remained active, offering financial arrangements to militiamen who initially were tempted to oppose him,” he said, naming Kikli and Ras as examples.

While Dbeibah has warned of using force, Bashagha has been more cautious, which Harchaoui attributes to Bashagha’s political risks, including his alignment with Hifter. “Geographically, Bashagha's convoys are trying to come into Tripoli from outside. … He stands to lose much more than Dbeibah if he or his allies were to use brute force. If they run the risk of sparking a bout of fighting reminiscent of Hifter's own war in 2019-2020, Bashagha would lose everything politically,” the researcher said.   

Due to its concerns over Hifter’s ties with Russia, Washington has followed an approach that aligns with Turkey’s position. Nevertheless, Norland has maintained contacts with both Dbeibah and Bashagha. The United States has sought to pave the way for a UN plan to establish an election committee within 14 days, starting from March 15. An eventual change in the US stance might sway Turkey’s position as well. “Washington, which has known Bashagha well for many years, wishes to keep its options open. If Bashagha somehow manages to enter Tripoli, the United States wants to be able to accept that and work with that new reality seamlessly,” Harchaoui said. 

Washington’s willingness to opt for Bashagha would depend also on whether he could meet US expectations to limit Hifter-linked Russian influence on his government. Amid the Ukraine crisis, the firm US attitude against Russia appears bound to have repercussions in Libya as well. 

The stakeholders in Libya are unlikely to allow a handover of power in Tripoli without conditions balancing Bashagha and his allies. For the United States, this would be the curbing of Russia’s influence and for Turkey, preserving its presence in Libya and the easterners’ adoption of a 2019 deal delineating maritime borders between Turkey and Libya. 

And what if Bashagha attempts to enter Tripoli by force, backed by Hifter’s forces, without any reassurances on Turkish and US interests? According to Harchaoui, such a scenario might lead to a repetition of Turkey’s 2019-2020 intervention in favor of Tripoli with the United States' blessing. This might involve “territorial expansion” to areas controlled by Hifter’s forces and Russian private military company Wagner Group, which are also home to key oil fields and terminals. After securing Tripoli in 2020, Turkey had stopped at Sirte and al-Jufra as Egypt and Russia went on red alert. This time Russia is overly busy with Ukraine.

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