Top Turkish officials received a prominent leader of eastern Libya this week, signaling a significant policy shift in the Libyan civil strife two years after Ankara lent military support to the Tripoli-based government against eastern forces led by Khalifa Hifter.
Aquila Saleh, who heads the eastern-based House of Representatives and is considered an ally of Hifter despite discord between the two, met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and parliament speaker Mustafa Sentop during a visit to Ankara Aug. 1-2. Abdullah al-Lafi, vice chair of Libya’s Presidential Council, accompanied him on the trip.
Saleh sought support for the parliament-approved government in the east, noting that holding parliamentary and presidential elections was its priority and Turkey’s backing was important to achieve peace and stability in Libya. Sentop, for his part, stressed Turkey saw Libya as “an inseparable whole” and did not discriminate between regions. The Turkish parliament’s Libya Friendship Group is planning a visit to Libya, including the east, he said.
Power struggles have kept Libya fractured since the warring parties sealed a cease-fire deal in 2020. The country ended up with two rival governments after plans to hold elections in December 2021 failed. The Saleh-led parliament appointed a new prime minister — Fathi Bashagha — in March, but the head of the internationally recognized interim government in Tripoli, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, refused to cede power before elections. Bashagha has been unable to move into Tripoli, prevented by armed groups loyal to Dbeibah.
Saleh has been known for his rejection of two crucial agreements that the now-defunct Government of National Accord signed with Turkey in 2019. The first allowed for the deployment of Turkish troops to train and support Libyan forces, while the second delineated maritime borders between the two countries as Ankara sought to strengthen its hand in gas exploration disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean. Thus, Ankara’s embrace of Saleh is underlain by hopes of convincing the House of Representatives to ratify the agreements.
Turkey’s invitation to Saleh and his eventual trip to Ankara stemmed from changing dynamics in Libya that have forced the parties to adjust their postures.
Ankara could ill-afford continued hostility with eastern Libya after the opposing parties engaged in talks on forming a unity government and reunifying Libyan institutions under a roadmap resulting from the UN-sponsored agreement they signed in Geneva on Oct. 23, 2020. In a sign of a new beginning, Turkey’s parliament created a friendship group to advance ties with its Libyan counterparts in April 2021. And after the emergence of a rival government in eastern Libya, Ankara sought to preserve an appearance of neutrality in the crisis. In fact, neither of the contenders was objectionable to Ankara. Dbeibah was already an ally, while Bashagha, who had worked closely with Turkey while serving as interior minister in Tripoli during the Turkish-backed defense of the capital against Hifter’s forces in 2019 and 2020, raised hope he could help Ankara reconcile with the east.
Turkey’s ambassador to Tripoli, Kenan Yilmaz, met with Saleh in al-Qubah in January and verbally invited him to visit. Later that month, he traveled to Benghazi, Hifter’s stronghold, accompanied by Turkish businessmen. In his meetings there, Yilmaz discussed a number of prospects, including the return of Turkish entrepreneurs to eastern Libya to finish projects interrupted by the war and assume new ones, the reopening of the Turkish consulate in Benghazi and the resumption of Turkish Airlines flights to the city. In June, the envoy delivered Sentop’s official invitation to Saleh. Turkey, he said, attributed “great importance to the visit in terms of discussing all aspects of our ties and other political issues.”
Nevertheless, Turkey’s rapprochement with the easterners does not mean it has withdrawn its support for Dbeibah. Such a move, the argument goes, would make it easier for Bashagha to enter Tripoli and take control of the government. Despite having its own agenda in Libya, Turkey has been careful to be in rapport with the United States and Britain. Washington has been pressing for elections without going into debate on which government is the legitimate one. “Free and fair elections are the only means to establishing a national government with legitimacy,” US Ambassador to Tripoli Richard Norland said after a meeting with Libya’s foreign minister last week.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, Mohamed Eljarh, director of the consultancy firm Libya Desk, said he had been told by aides of Saleh that “Saleh's mission in Ankara [was] very clear: to convince the Turkish government to support and recognize Bashagha.” He added, “For Saleh, if no progress is achieved on that goal, there will be no progress on any other file, including the constitutional track or elections.”
While the prospect of Ankara dumping Dbeibah appears unrealistic at present, Eljarh said, “I believe Ankara only continued to recognize and somewhat support Dbeibah as a negotiation and bargaining chip. In his current status, Dbeibah cannot offer much to Turkey. Also, Turkey is very interested in normalizing relations with eastern Libya, and Dbeibah cannot offer them that. Bashagha is better positioned to offer an opening for Turkey in eastern Libya through his alliance with Saleh and Hifter.”
And could Saleh step back from his rejection of Ankara’s two deals with Tripoli? According to Eljarh, “The success of Saleh will depend on what he could offer the Turks, including normalization of relations and the potential for guarantees on respecting the maritime and security agreements signed with Turkey.”
Whether Saleh’s dialogue with Ankara has Hifter’s blessing remains unclear. There has been speculation that Hifter has reverted to his own plans after Bashagha’s failure to assert control in Tripoli and secure access to the central bank’s coffers and that his relationship with Saleh is deteriorating.
In mid-July, Dbeibah replaced the veteran head of the National Oil Corporation (NOC), Mustafa Sanallah, after which Hifter’s forces swiftly ended a three-month blockade of several oil fields and terminals. Some media outlets reported claims that Hifter’s son Saddam and representatives of Dbeibah had secretly struck a deal for Sanallah’s removal and the reopening of oil terminals, which would call Hifter’s support for Bashagha into question.
Asked about Hifter’s position on Saleh’s trip to Ankara, Eljarh said, “This is not really clear to me, to be honest. Hifter has been playing his own game recently, away from the alliance with Bashagha and Saleh. [Hifter and Dbeibah] made a deal on the NOC, but it is not clear if it will translate into a bigger political deal. So, for now, Hifter is still in the political alliance with Bashagha and Saleh, but also entertaining some cooperation and deals with Dbeibah. Double game.”
As for the balance between various militia forces in Tripoli, there have been certain shifts in Bashagha’s favor, but Dbeibah — being the man controlling the money taps — retains the loyalty of groups paid by the Interior Ministry.
On July 21-22, Tripoli was rocked by deadly clashes between the Deterrent Forces, known also as RADA, and the Presidential Guard, both affiliated with government bodies. The fighting resulted in RADA expanding its influence zone. The leader of the Presidential Guard asserted allegiance to Dbeibah, while RADA was noncommittal.
Some believe Bashagha might seize on the clashes to enlist the support of armed forces in Tripoli, including RADA. Interior Minister Khaled Mazen, a former aide of Bashagha, was dismissed for failing to stop the fighting. The 444 Brigade, affiliated with the Defense Ministry, was accused of siding with RADA instead of trying to halt the clashes. Forces from Zintan loyal to Usama Juwaili, a military commander supporting Bashagha, were deployed near Tripoli during the fighting. Back in June, Tripoli saw similar clashes between militia backing Bashagha and those loyal to Dbeibeh.