Turkey’s actions in Libya restricted by other foreign actors
Turkey got involved in the Libyan crisis when an opportunity to do so arose. It was alienated from the cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean by other littoral countries. Despite the fact that Turkey is the country with the longest coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean, its neighbors had shared the entire sea space among themselves, not leaving any maritime jurisdiction to Ankara except in its territorial waters around the bay of Antalya.
This was mostly due to the fact that Turkey’s relations with the countries of the region were at their lowest level. It had no ambassador in three of the most important Middle Eastern capitals — Cairo, Tel Aviv and Damascus — and does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus.
The partitioning of the maritime jurisdiction area without taking into account Turkey’s wishes was a wakeup call for Ankara to make a move that it had to do long ago. This coincided with the dire need of Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (the Tripoli government) to look for a friendly country that could help rescue it. The fact that the Tripoli government was dominated by likeminded Muslim Brotherhood-supporting deputies became an additional incentive for Turkey to strike a deal.
The complications for Turkey started to surface after it had made its move. Russia is also involved in the Libyan crisis on the side of the Tobruk government, and the mercenaries of the Russian Wagner Group were the most efficient fighting units at the service of Gen. Khalifa Haftar. Therefore, there were risks of clashes between Turkish and Russian soldiers.
To avoid such a scenario, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin decided, during their encounter in Istanbul on Jan. 8, to invite the fighting sides to agree a cease-fire. However, it could not be achieved, mainly because of Haftar’s hesitance or delaying tactics. He first ignored the call for a cease-fire and seized the city of Sirte. He then agreed to go to Moscow to negotiate a suspension of hostilities. An agreement seemed to be emerging from the negotiations, but Haftar asked for time to reflect and left without signing up. He probably needed to consult the tribal chiefs who were supporting him.
The complications for Turkey started to surface after it had made its move.
There is an ongoing controversy over whether or not — according to the Skhirat agreement of December 2015 — the memorandum of understanding that the Tripoli government has signed with Turkey has to be ratified by Parliament. The Tobruk government claims that the agreement is not valid because it has not been ratified by lawmakers.
Turkey and Qatar are, so far, the only two countries that support the Tripoli government, which is also backed by the UN, but this support may not be sufficient to uphold it.
Because of the multitude of foreign actors operating in the country, it is difficult to tell what will happen next, but, even if Haftar fails to seize the city of Tripoli and its environs, the biggest part of Libya’s oil resources are already under his control. The actors that control oil sources in the country will hold the key to solving the crisis. Haftar will do everything to keep this key in his possession.
For Turkey, there are two possible outcomes. The US and EU are expected to do what they can to stop Russia’s growing role in Libya and, if this happens, the leading role may be transferred to them. They may then contain Turkey and Qatar’s role in Libya. If Russia’s role cannot be curtailed, its Wagner Group mercenaries will put stronger pressure on the Tripoli government. As a result, Turkey and Qatar will face tougher resistance from Haftar’s forces.
Many countries are keeping their options open because they don’t want to bet on a losing horse.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, commenting on Haftar’s attitude, fell short of blaming him outright. This is a sign that Russia is not entirely opposed to Haftar’s attitude. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that he expects Russia to solve the problem, which means that Turkey’s freedom of action in Libya has its limits.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and a founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar