Libyan front looks bleak for Erdogan

While struggling to achieve its objectives in Syria, Ankara has helped Damascus gain a new ally in the opponents of the forces Turkey is backing in Libya.

al-monitor Security forces stand next to a poster of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a demonstration against Turkish interference in Benghazi, Libya, Feb. 14, 2020. Photo by REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori.
Fehim Tastekin

Fehim Tastekin

@fehimtastekin

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turkish intervention in syria, recep tayyip erdogan, russian influence, turkish involvement in libya, turkey-libyan relations, khalifa hifter, libyan civil war

Mar 6, 2020

Engaged in two wars simultaneously in Syria and Libya, Turkey appears far from achieving its stated objectives on both fronts. The Syrian battlefield escalated dramatically after the killing of at least 36 Turkish soldiers in Idlib Feb. 27, but Turkey’s retributive strikes on Syrian forces resulted in little change on the ground by March 5, when it agreed to a cease-fire deal with Russia. Turkey’s war in Libya, meanwhile, has been more secretive, with the Turkish public often in the dark about the operations on the ground. 

Turkey’s military plans in Libya appear to be stumbling with its presence increasingly under attack and the diplomatic front is becoming more complex. 

The Tobruk-based government, which supports Gen. Khalifa Hifter’s Libyan National Army, the adversary of the Turkish-backed forces, sent a senior delegation to Damascus March 1, aligning with the Syrian government amid the crisis in Idlib. The two sides signed a series of protocols, including on cooperation against terrorism and foreign fighters, and reopened the Libyan Embassy in Damascus. In a sense, Turkey’s intervention in Libya earned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad another ally. 

In the eyes of the Turkish side, “The Assad regime has handed over the Libyan Embassy in Damascus to the self-styled government that backs Hifter, the leader of illegitimate armed forces [in Libya], becoming the first administration to recognize that government.”

Arab observers believe the United Arab Emirates and Russia are behind the rapprochement between Damascus and the Tobruk-based government that amounts to a joint stance against Turkey. Egypt, which maintains dialogue with Damascus, might have also encouraged the move. The UAE had already reopened its embassy in the Syrian capital in December. 

Ankara may downplay the Libyan-Syrian alignment, arguing that the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) is the one that enjoys UN recognition, but the move signifies a rising antagonism against Turkey in the Arab world. 

The situation on the Libyan battleground, meanwhile, points to an impasse as serious doubts emerge on how viable the Turkish involvement is. At best, Ankara’s military assistance to the GNA has helped prevent the fall of Tripoli. Yet the Libyan capital — held by the GNA and Islamist forces — has remained besieged and attacks on the Mitiga airport have continued, forcing frequent closures of the critical facility. In February alone, the airport was shut six times. 

Fighting has escalated since the Jan. 19 conference in Berlin, which was supposed to pave the way for a lasting truce. More than 120 missiles were fired on Tripoli and Mitiga on Feb. 28-29 alone, according to the GNA’s Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha.

Bashagha believes Ankara has been helping create a military balance that should bring Hifter to dialogue since it began sending Turkish forces and allied Syrian fighters to Libya in January. Yet the negotiation prospects appear bleak. Hifter has been receiving foreign emissaries while continuing to strike Tripoli. On Feb. 18, his forces pounded Tripoli’s seaport, prompting the GNA to suspend its participation in UN-sponsored talks in Geneva.The talks — part of decisions made in Berlin to achieve a lasting truce — involve military committee meetings as well as political and economic discussions. The political track got off to a chaotic start Feb. 29 as some participants walked out before the meeting even began. The UN’s Libya envoy, Ghassan Salame, has since resigned, saying his health “no longer allows this rate of stress.”

According to Libyan observers, the partial balance that Turkey’s intervention has achieved requires a greater military buildup to produce meaningful results. 

A Libyan academic who requested anonymity told Al-Monitor, “Turkey’s drones and anti-aircraft weapons have helped the defense of Tripoli to some extent. Hifter is now unable to use air power, shelling the Mitiga airport from a distance of 40 kilometers [25 miles].” 

Recalling the November accord between Ankara and the GNA on the demarcation of maritime borders, the academic argued that Turkey eyed economic gains in Libya, where major gas fields remain under Hifter’s control in the east. “Turkey wants to fight Hifter to take the east. It is all about business. Yet more needs to be done to win the war,” he said, and claimed that Turkey at times restrains the anti-Hifter forces. “For instance, [anti-Hifter forces] wanted to launch an offensive on Sirte but the commanders of the Turkish forces stopped them, saying the time was not right. We have no idea why,” he said. 

While international factors surrounding the Libyan conflict have made it hard for Turkey to expand its intervention, the Turkish involvement has strengthened Egyptian and Emirati resolve to stand by Hifter. Fresh munition shipments to Hifter’s forces are widely believed to be behind a recent increase in air traffic from the UAE to Libya.

Turkey’s Anatolia news agency reported that 40 Emirati cargo planes flew to Hifter-controlled areas, including the al-Khadim airbase, from Jan. 12 to Feb. 7. According to the French publication Intelligence Online, Abu Dhabi sent more than 3,000 tons of military equipment to Hifter’s forces in the second half of January, allegedly equivalent to the Emirati assistance in the whole of last year.

There are few signs of matching Turkish shipments to the opposite camp. Two Turkish frigates were spotted off Tripoli Jan. 28, while a Lebanese-flagged ship with a cargo of arms en route from the Turkish port of Mersin to Tripoli was seized in an Italian harbor Feb. 3. 

With their firepower apparently enhanced, Hifter’s forces have stepped up attacks and Turkey has suffered casualties. The most controversial attack targeted Tripoli’s seaport Feb. 18. Despite claims that a Turkish ship was struck, neither Ankara nor the GNA confirmed the reports. The attack caused loss of life anyway. The death of a Turkish intelligence officer became public knowledge only after schoolmates attending his funeral shared a message of reproach that he was not accorded an official ceremony. The media named a second intelligence officer killed in the attack, while some reports spoke of three people buried silently without ceremony.

As Ankara came under fire for covering up casualties, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan mentioned “a few martyrs” Feb. 22. “We are [in Libya] with our heroic soldiers and teams from the Syrian National Army against Hifter, the illegitimate mercenary legionnaire. Of course, we have a few martyrs, but we have neutralized nearly 100 legionnaires in turn,” he said. Erdogan’s reference to “a few martyrs” sparked a public outcry for being irreverent, leading him to confirm two deaths a couple of days later. 

Erdogan’s Feb. 22 remarks were also an admission of Turkey’s transfer of Syrian fighters to Libya. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported in early February that some 4,700 Syrian recruits had reached Tripoli, with about 1,800 others in Turkey for training. The fatalities among the Syrian fighters, who are allegedly paid salaries of up to $2,500, have not figured in Ankara’s tallies.

A spokesman for Hifter’s forces claimed Feb. 23 that 16 Turkish troops had been killed in battles in Misrata, Tripoli and al-Falah. There have been also frequent reports of Turkish drones being shot down. Libya's Al-Marsad, for instance, claims that as many as 20 Turkish drones have been downed thus far. Yet such claims are often part of the propaganda war and should be taken with a grain of salt.

By sending troops to Libya, Erdogan hoped to achieve some form of partnership with Russia, similar to the one in Syria that has alternated between collaboration and conflict. Libya has thus become the second most important topic in Turkey’s bargaining with Russia, which has backed Hifter through the private Russian security company Wagner. Yet Erdogan’s expectation that Russia’s involvement in Libya will play into his hands has not held true, both because of Russian reluctance and the much greater role that Egypt and the UAE play in backing Hifter.

The GNA, which has lost $2.6 billion in revenues since Hifter’s forces blockaded major oil ports and a key pipeline in January, is now calling on the United States to set up a military base in Libya to counter Russia. Washington may be wary of growing Russian influence in the region, but there are no tangible signs yet that it is willing to reopen the Libya file, shelved since the 2012 slaying of the US ambassador. And what Turkey could do in Libya is limited, given its growing involvement in Syria.

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