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The reasons behind Turkey’s ongoing military support of Libya

Unanimously declaring that there is no military solution to Libya’s crisis, the UN Security Council last month renewed an arms embargo on the country for another year.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan later told journalists: “We have a military cooperation agreement with Libya. We are providing to them if they come up with a request, and if they pay for it. They really had a problem in terms of defence needs.”

Erdogan’s statement seems at odds with the UNSC embargo, imposed since violence erupted in Libya in 2011. What are Turkey’s interests in Libya, and why would Ankara take the risk of supplying arms?

Trade relations

Turkey had significant trade relations with Libya under former leader Muammar Gaddafi, without causing any major political problems. In 2010, Erdogan received the Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights, but – moving with the tides – he started to distance himself from the longtime autocrat after the uprising broke out in 2011.

Erdogan first took a conciliatory tone towards Gaddafi, conducting private diplomacy to urge him to pay attention to the demands of the Libyan people. He later changed his rhetoric, openly asking him to step down for the sake of his country.

Turkey’s priority during this period was the protection of the 20,000 Turks in Libya, along with billions of dollars in investments and payments owing for completed projects.

Ankara claimed to seek an end to the civil war and a peaceful transition in governance, aiming to secure a long-term favourable environment for the expansion of trade and commercial relations, along with increased geopolitical leverage in the region.

Turkey’s early opposition to a NATO intervention in Libya without a comprehensive plan was another example of this thinking. Ankara’s objection came amid concerns that it could lead to protracted instability and give certain countries more leverage in Libya, at the expense of Turkey.

Rival influences

Turkey opposes General Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), for similar reasons. Haftar is a warlord pursuing an illegal struggle against the country’s Government of National Accord (GNA), and his actions have created insecurity in the country, destroyed infrastructure, delayed potential investments, and given rival countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, more influence in Libya.

For Erdogan, the GNA and its prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj is Libya’s legitimate government, backed by the UN. Ankara has signed security and defence agreements with the government of Sarraj, who underlined their importance in a recent phone call with Erdogan.

Turkey’s leadership does not consider its arms supplies to Libya problematic, as they occur under an agreement with the country’s UN-backed government.

While it may push the limits of the international community, Ankara believes it is worthwhile because it helps Turkey’s developing defence industry open up the Libyan market, balances Haftar’s weapons capabilities and brings Turkey’s military force to the forefront in a strategic region.

Turkey’s military bases in Qatar and Somalia, and its activities in Sudan, reflect Ankara’s military turn in foreign policy. This turn is also visible through Turkey’s military operations in Syria, and to a lesser extent in Iraq. Turkey’s ownership of the UN-led political process in Libya hints at a possible Turkish military presence there in the future.

Securing support

Such an engagement would be consequential, considering the issues at stake. Late last month, Turkey threatened Haftar and the LNA with military action for holding Turkish sailors hostage. Haftar’s forces took this threat seriously and swiftly released the Turks.

Turkey coordinates its Libya policies with Qatar, Ankara’s only close Arab ally at the present time. Turkey’s desire to protect a pro-Turkish ruler in Libya is also about expanding its margin of Arab allies – but its involvement further alienates a number of Arab countries, primarily Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt.

Haftar has utilised this rift to secure more support from Turkey’s rivals. At the same time, the US administration appears close to Haftar, Russia supports him, France deals with both sides in Libya, and Italy strongly opposes Haftar – all showing the situation’s international complexity.

In this sense, Turkey’s intervention in Libya is a risky move in an environment of competing interests. Turkish policymakers consider this risk worthwhile, amid the prospect of elevating Ankara’s level of cooperation with Libya, including in the defence and security spheres.

Turkey is likely to remain in the Libyan theatre as long as it continues to play a role.

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