Turkey’s Libya project threatened by political developments
Fayez Al-Sarraj, the prime minister of Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, this month announced that he would resign at the end of October. He added that he expected the dialogue committee set up to find a solution to the Libyan crisis would complete its work and that a new Presidential Council would be formed by that time. This open-ended resignation means that, if the dialogue committee cannot complete its work, there will not be a body to which Al-Sarraj can transfer his powers.
Turkey was probably affected by this decision more than any other country because Al-Sarraj was the signatory of the two memorandums of understanding that allowed Ankara to become a stakeholder in the Libyan crisis. He had to sign the two deals with Turkey because he had exhausted all other options and Khalifa Haftar’s forces were threatening to overrun Tripoli.
Despite Al-Sarraj’s important role, Ankara instead considered Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha to be its “No. 1” in Libya because the former was not supporting the Muslim Brotherhood as strongly as Bashagha. In turn, the adherents to the Islamist movement were trying to undermine Al-Sarraj’s efforts to gain control of the GNA’s security, intelligence and media. For these reasons, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reaction to Al-Sarraj’s resignation was a dry: “We are sad to hear that.”
The first of three key differences between Turkey and the GNA surfaced when Al-Sarraj last month announced a cease-fire at the same time as Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. This indicated that there were contacts between the Tripoli and Tobruk governments, unbeknownst to Turkey.
Egypt immediately supported the cease-fire. Turkey kept silent, firstly because it thought that the momentum of repulsing Haftar’s forces would be lost in the case of a truce. Secondly, Ankara was not eager to implement some of the conditions of the cease-fire, which was shaped on the lines of January’s Berlin conference, such as the departure of foreign troops and mercenaries. Turkey was also opposed to the keeping of the income that would accrue from the sale of oil in a bank account controlled by the two Libyan administrations. Ankara preferred to keep it in the Central Bank of Libya, which was controlled by the GNA.
The second difference between Turkey and the GNA surfaced after the representatives of Libya’s competing administrations held a meeting in Bouznika, Morocco, at the beginning of this month. The compromise reached there provided for the creation of a collegial leadership to be composed of a president, two deputy presidents and an independent prime minister.
The first of three key differences between Turkey and the GNA surfaced when Al-Sarraj last month announced a cease-fire.
Almost all stakeholders in the Libyan crisis welcomed the constructive outcome of the Bouznika meeting. Turkey also welcomed it, but not with the same enthusiasm because this formula would make Ankara’s tasks in the country more difficult, as one of the parties represented in the Presidential Council would be the one that it was fighting until recently.
The third difference between Ankara and the GNA is the way the Bashagha affair was handled. The interior minister is regarded by Al-Sarraj as a rival, while he is considered by Turkey to be a closer ally than the prime minister. Bashagha was also acting as a de facto minister of defense and he conducted the negotiations with the Turkish minister of defense. While Bashagha was on an undeclared mission in Turkey, Al-Sarraj filled the vacant post of defense minister by appointing deputy minister Salah Al-Namroush; dismissing Bashagha from his post as interior minister in the process.
Libyan media reported that the dismissal was motivated by the deteriorating security situation in the country, as civilians were protesting corruption and poor living conditions. The Turkish media claimed that Al-Sarraj could have been behind some of the incidents of live ammunition being fired at demonstrating civilians in a bid to discredit Bashagha.
After returning to Libya, Bashagha was reinstated — probably at Turkey’s behest — after a five-hour interrogation in the headquarters of the Presidential Council in the presence of Al-Sarraj and other council members.
The most important part of Turkey’s involvement in Libya is the memorandum of understanding delineating its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Mediterranean. This memorandum has yet to be ratified by the Libyan parliament. There are two bad potential scenarios for Turkey here: One is the possibility of the Libyan parliament voting down the ratification; the second is the possibility of the partition of the country into two or three states. In such a situation, the eastern shores of Libya would be controlled by a state hostile to Turkey and the parliament of this new eastern state would probably refuse to delineate its EEZ with Turkey. This would mean the collapse of so much that Ankara had put into its Libyan adventure.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar