Analysis: Turkey is winning in Libya, but challenges remain

Turkey wants an immediate political solution to the conflict in Libya – with or without Haftar’s collaboration.

Erdogan Sarraj AA
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al Sarraj hold a joint press conference at Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey on June 4, 2020 [Anadolu]

Istanbul, Turkey – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met on Thursday the prime minister of Libya‘s internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Sarraj.

During their meeting in the capital, Ankara, the two leaders reportedly discussed the details of a possible political solution to Libya’s war.

Turkey has been one of the primary supporters of the Tripoli-based GNA in its fight against renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), which lauched an offensive to seize the capital in April last year.

Initially, Ankara focused its efforts in Libya on securing a ceasefire between the GNA and the LNA, which is backed by Russia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt. But since Haftar refused to sign a ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia and Turkey in January, Ankara ceased its efforts to convince him to lay down arms and started to demand an immediate political solution to the conflict – with or without Haftar’s collaboration. To this end, it intensified the military and logistical support it had been providing to the GNA. As a result, the GNA in recent weeks made significant gains against Haftar’s eastern-based forces and captured several strategically important LNA strongholds, including al-Watiya airbase near the Tunisian border and the Tripoli International Airport. Earlier on Thursday, the GNA announced that its forces captured all areas surrounding the Tripoli city administrative area.

The GNA’s military victories encouraged Haftar to return to the negotiating table, and the warring sides announced on Monday they had agreed to resume ceasefire talks. Supporters of the LNA, namely Egypt and the UAE, welcomed the resumption of the negotiations and al-Sarraj’s deputy Ahmed Maetig swiftly flew to Moscow, presumably to discuss the details of a possible ceasefire deal. 

These developments, however, did not cause Turkey to drop its demand for an immediate political solution not tied to ceasefire efforts. “By taking back the coastline from Tripoli to Tunisia, recapturing international airports, and making further gains through air and land operations, the GNA essentially proved that Haftar cannot win this war,” Turkeys Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a televised interview on Wednesday. He added that parties who have been supporting a ceasefire in Libya should now focus their efforts on securing a political solution to the conflict. 

Encouraged by the GNA’s successes on the ground, Turkey is now working to consolidate support from NATO and Italy, which has been one of the GNA’s strongest supporters since the beginning of the war, to implement a political solution without wasting time with ceasefire negotiations.

It has also intensified its talks with the United States on the future of Libya. Washington has sent out a variety of signals about Libya under President Donald Trump, offering encouragement at different times to both al-Sarraj and Haftar. The US’s recent announcement that it is considering deploying a Security Force Assistance Brigade in Tunisia due to its concerns over Russia’s activities in Libya, however, raised hopes in Ankara that Washington could offset Moscow. 

While Russia still appears to be supporting Haftar, there are signs Moscow may also be growing tired of the renegade general’s antics. A senior security official in Ankara told Al Jazeera that Haftar has inconvenienced Moscow by “acting like a new Gaddafi” and this may push the Russians to replace him in the future. The official, however, added that cutting ties with Haftar would not be easy for Russia, as it would struggle to find a more suitable candidate to run the LNA.

Could Libya become a second Syria for Turkey?

For now, Turkey appears to have come out of Libya’s multi-faceted conflict as a clear winner. But some experts continue to voice concerns that Libya could soon become a new Syria for Turkey, where it is locked in a costly cycle of conflict and cooperation with Russia.

In Syria, where Turkey supports rebel groups and Russia backs President Bashar al-Assad, Ankara and Moscow agreed in March on a protocol urging parties to “cease all military actions along the line of contact in the Idlib de-escalation area”. Despite this agreement, Moscow continues to occasionally harass Turkish-backed rebels in Idlib and accuses Turkey of protecting Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, a former al-Qaeda affiliate. Russian fighter jets reportedly bombed Idlib for the first time since the ceasefire deal on Wednesday. Now, many Syria watchers are pessimistic about the future of Ankara and Moscow’s collaboration in Syria’s long-running conflict and predict an escalation between the two powers in the near future. 

Just like in Syria, Russia and Turkey are trying to cooperate in Libya despite actively supporting different sides of the conflict.

Turkey not only has troops in Libya, but it also has significant influence over Syrians fighting in the country on the side of the GNA. Russia does not officially have boots on the ground in Libya, but is believed to be active in the conflict through proxies such as the Wagner group which provides support for Haftar’s forces. Because of this, many believe there is a significant risk of direct conflict between Russia and Turkey in Libya, despite their continuing efforts to keep diplomatic channels open.

Turkish security analyst and former military officer Abdullah Agar, however, told Al Jazeera he believed Libya is unlikely to become a “swamp” for Turkey like Syria. Turkey found itself in a difficult situation in Syria, he argued, because it supported a wide range of rebel groups against an oppressive but established government in the conflict. In Libya, he explained, Turkey is supporting the only legitimate player, the GNA, against a strongman in a conflict that is gradually being transformed into a contest between major power blocks – namely the Sino-Russian Eurasian alliance and NATO.

This, however, does not mean Russia is going to easily give up on its ambitions in Libya. Moscow appears to want a divided Libya, which would allow it to exert influence over at least some of the country’s strategically important territories and energy resources. Turkey, meanwhile, defends Libya’s territorial integrity and says the legitimate government should control the country in its entirety.

As their end goals are conflicting, it is likely that Turkey and Russia’s fragile collaboration in Libya will face significant obstacles in the coming days just like their pragmatic and conditional partnership in Syria. 

Is Italy Turkey’s ally or rival in Libya?

When it comes to Libya, Turkey has a complicated relationship with Italy, too. Both countries have historical ties with and interests in Libya and they are currently supporting the same camp in the country’s conflict. 

However, last month, following NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s statement that NATO is ready to support the GNA, the two nations entered into a race to become the dominant force in the transatlantic alliance’s Libya strategy. Rome and Ankara’s shared ambition to take the lead in Libya could eventually translate into an open rivalry. 

A senior diplomatic source in Turkey recently told Al Jazeera that Italy is supporting Turkey’s involvement in Libya only because it believes that France, which supports Haftar, may increase its influence over the country in Turkey’s absence. There are, the diplomatic source said, concerns in Ankara that if Italy manages to take France out of the game, it may turn on Turkey and accuse it of allying itself with alleged Islamists in Libya. Experts warn Italy and Turkey in Libya may end up like Russia and Iran in Syria – supporting the same side, but trying to rule each other out.

Today, Turkey appears to have achieved most of its goals in Libya. With Haftar’s forces in retreat, it is in a perfect position to lay the ground for a political solution to Libya’s conflict favourable to its regional interests. Nevertheless, it is still facing challenges from allies and rivals alike. Only time will tell whether it will manage to avoid getting tangled in a web of conflicting interests like it did in Syria. It goes without saying that conventional wars require strong cash flows. Both Russia and Turkey’s economies are fragile right now and their cash flow issues may limit the leverage they have in Libya and Syria.

Source: Al Jazeera