Turkey walking a tightrope over Libya
When Turkey’s military assistance helped Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) push back Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army and change the course of events in the field, Ankara thought that the new power balance in its favor would become permanent.
GNA forces were threatening to recapture the strategically important harbor of Sirte and Al-Jufra airbase, which protects it from several hundred kilometers to the south. The seizure of these two important military targets was regarded by the Tripoli government as a must in order to secure the smooth flow of oil revenues into the national budget. It also expected that retaking Sirte would be completed within weeks, if not days, but this did not materialize due to the strong reactions of countries that have important stakes in Libya.
France and the UAE issued statements opposing the advance of the government’s forces toward Sirte. Egypt was more specific. President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi said any move by the GNA forces to seize Sirte and Al-Jufra was a red line for Cairo. He visited Egyptian military units at the Libyan border and convened a meeting with the leaders of Libyan tribes to seek their support. He later obtained the consent of the Egyptian parliament to send troops abroad.
Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj stated that the government was determined to push Haftar’s mercenary forces out of the country. These reciprocal recriminations took several days.
In line with a military rule that says, “Be ready for war if you want peace and stability,” Turkey continued to strengthen its position in the airbases under the GNA’s control. It installed anti-aircraft Hawk missiles in the Al-Watiya base close to the Tunisian border. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar visited Tripoli last month and held extensive talks with the Libyan authorities.
The main stakeholders in Libya believed that more bloodshed would be unavoidable if the GNA pursued its goal of seizing Sirte. Among them, Russia was working hard to secure a cease-fire.
Turkey and the GNA believed that, if a cease-fire were to be agreed, Haftar would use the opportunity to change the military balance in his favor by bringing in new mercenaries. Despite Turkey’s initial reluctance, Russia eventually persuaded Ankara to make a joint statement announcing a cease-fire in Libya on July 22. It may not be considered a full-fledged international agreement, but a relative calm prevailed in the field after this joint statement.
The idea of recapturing Sirte is not being raised by the Turkish authorities as frequently as it was in the past.
Hours after Akar’s visit to Tripoli, the air force of an unidentified country attacked the Al-Watiya airbase and destroyed the equipment supplied by Turkey. No human casualties were reported. Without accusing Russia of conspiring in this mission, it would be safe to presume that Moscow must have been aware of the attack. Russia may not have helped facilitate it, but it also did nothing to avert it.
The Turkish government’s attitude in the subsequent days indicates that Ankara got the message that installing new military equipment in Libya and protecting it permanently would not be easy. As a result, the idea of recapturing Sirte is not being raised by the Turkish authorities as frequently as it was in the past. They now use a narrative close to the one used by Russia: That the Libyan people need peace and stability and that the solution to the crisis has to be Libyan-owned.
Turkey’s agreement to a de facto cease-fire with Russia was definitely the wisest course in the present circumstances, but it also showed the limits of its cooperation with Moscow, because Russia’s primary target is to prepare the ground for its own future role in the country. This approach may jeopardize the achievement of Ankara’s aims in Libya.
When the time comes, Turkey will have to make a tough choice between cooperation with Russia or the Euro-Atlantic community. It cannot ride two horses at the same time. It is a member of the strongest alliance, NATO. Despite lively disputes over whether Turkey is an asset or a liability in the alliance, it continues to be a full-fledged member. Though discordant voices have been raised in certain member countries, there is no legal mechanism to kick Turkey out of NATO.
As to Ankara’s relations with the US, despite a plethora of unresolved thorny issues, there is a deep-rooted tradition in the Turkish army in favor of the Atlantic community. Most of their troops are trained according to NATO military education programs and NATO military doctrine.
Now, once again facing new tests of its cooperation with Russia, Turkey will have to walk a tightrope to find its way in Libya. It will require a lot of talent and refined diplomacy.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar