Turkey’s intervention in Libya at the beginning of this year raised questions about Ankara’s ambitions in the Mediterranean region. Those questions recur with especial force as Turkey has begun to turn the tide of the Libyan war in favour of the so-called Government of National Accord (GNA), which is less a government than a collection of Islamist militias that have little accord among themselves, let alone with the rest of the nation. As the GNA-loyal militias, and imported Syrian mercenaries, advance eastwards in Libya there are immediate concerns about the disorder that is coming along with them and the space this might provide for terrorists. More broadly, there is concern about what will happen if Turkey’s pro-Islamist vision for the region prevails.
Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the commander appointed by the last elected parliament, the House of Representatives (HOR), to lead the Libyan National Army (LNA), announced a campaign to capture Tripoli in April 2019 in order to “liberate the homeland from terrorism”. The LNA would “purge the remaining terrorist … hideouts,” said the LNA spokesman, General Ahmad al-Masmari, the LNA having already cleared the south-west of Libya, an area that had been controlled by extremists, including the Islamic State (ISIS).
With the LNA seemingly approaching victory in Tripoli, the Turkish parliament voted on January 2 for a bill authorizing the country’s authoritarian Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to send troops to Libya to support the GNA. The vote effectively rubber-stamped a decision that had already been taken, with former Syrian rebels, some of them from hardline Islamist factions, now working as Turkish mercenaries already shipped to Syria. Even on its own terms, the parliamentary resolution provided Erdogan a blank check, to “decide on the limit, extent, quantity, and timing” of any deployment in Libya.
With the help of Turkish drones, logistics, and mercenaries, the GNA captured the strategic Watiyya Airbase last month, and earlier this month began pushing into the east of Libya. Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi tried to mediate to end the violence on June 6 with the “Cairo Declaration”. Haftar and the HOR Speaker, Aguila Saleh, agreed to the Declaration, proposing a formula for each of Libya’s region’s to be represented in a political settlement to be worked out by negotiations. The Turkish-backed GNA president Fayez al-Sarraj rejected the Declaration and opted for more war.
The GNA is currently battling to control Surt, and is also trying to grab Al-Juffra as part of Turkey’s strategic designs: Russia had been building an airbase in the town that could have protected the elected HOR in eastern Libya. This continued GNA offensive is preventing peace talks from beginning, despite offers from both the Egyptians and the Russians to mediate a compromise. Should it become a battle for the east, the U.A.E. has provided air defence systems and the Egyptian army could be mobilised. Nonetheless, many in eastern Libya fear to fall under GNA rule, and understandably so.
The collection of Islamist militias that would come under the GNA banner seized power in Libya in an illegal coup d’état against the HOR in 2014. The militias were known as Libya Dawn back then. The next year, as part of a United Nations process intended to lead to a power-sharing government, the GNA structure was created. The GNA was supposed to be populated by officials from both Dawn and HOR, but it was hijacked by the Dawn militias. Al-Sarraj had been a member of the HOR when he went to Tripoli to join the GNA; he became a hostage of the militias. Since the U.N. process had failed, and the GNA had not been implemented, the HOR, the holder of the last democratic mandate in Libya, voted “no confidence” in the GNA in the summer of 2016.
For obvious political reasons, the Dawn militias continued to call their regime the GNA and Al-Sarraj was trapped in Tripoli as their frontman. There has been a degree of consolidation among the militias in Tripoli, but this has not changed the political character of the GNA coalition (key portfolios remain in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and like-minded groups) nor the degree of chaos (the criminality might be organised but it is not centralized, resulting in continued turf wars between GNA militias that catch civilians in the cross-fire).
Visiting Tripoli at the end of 2018, Francesca Mannocchi reported in The Guardian that people did not dare talk about the militias and what they called the “bearded ones” (Islamists). The media censorship was at least as bad as during the days of Colonel Gaddafi, and any outlet that dared to criticise the ruling authorities was burned down. Haftar at that time was saying he would march on Tripoli to crush the Islamists and disband the militias. “Many support him”, Mannocchi noted.
More recent visitors found the GNA-held areas still beholden to the same combination of warlords and jihadists—only now some of them are Syrian, tied to groups guilty of war crimes like Ahrar al-Shariyah or to Al-Qaeda’s branch in the country, Jabhat al-Nusra. Visitors to the LNA-held areas, by contrast, found that security had been achieved, rebuilding was in progress, and—in contrast to the portrayal from hostile media operations—journalists were quite free to “venture out alone”. When venturing out, journalists could meet, among others, refugees from the GNA-controlled zones, who remarked on the contrast between the LNA areas and the GNA, particularly the ability to go out after dark in Benghazi, which certainly was not and is not possible in Tripoli without being “kidnapped, mugged, or worse,” as one young woman put it.
The most important town taken by the GNA since Turkey helped it advance east over the last few weeks is Tarhuna, and the outcome is devastating, with massive looting and arson, plus abductions and extra-judicial killings on a horrific scale. “Everything is burned and destroyed, and everything has been stolen,” said one resident. About 40% of Tarhuna’s population were displaced and the GNA militias caused destruction effecting 500,000 people, according to LNA spokesman Al-Masmari.
The sabotage and murder was so extensive by the GNA in Tarhuna that it drew condemnation from the United Nations. These are the forces that Turkey is helping to expand in Libya, a threat to human rights and stability on their own, and forces that create disorder that gives groups like ISIS a chance to revive and threaten the region around Libya, which includes Europe close-by.
The regional aspect of the Libyan puzzle cannot be ignored as the war becomes ever-more internationalized. A key element to this is the treaty redrawing the maritime borders that Turkey signed with the GNA to legitimize its intervention. This deal dangerously destabilizes the region, raising the ire of every other local actor—Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, and (less publicly) Israel—who feel their security is threatened by Turkish expansionism in the Mediterranean, and who all object to the blatant resource grab, as Turkey redefines the oil and gas fields around Cyprus as falling within its territorial waters. This position also gives Turkey yet another leverage point against the European Union, after Ankara has demonstrated it is willing to use refugee and migrant blackmail to get what it wants from Brussels.
The Turkish foray into Libya, quietly supported by Qatar, is another example of the faultline that divides regional states, with Ankara, Doha, and the Iranians using Islamists to advance their agenda on the one side, and the bloc led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates trying to contain radicalism on the other side. The Saudi-UAE bloc has found partners in its efforts to counter extremism, both in the West (France has been particularly notable in the Libyan case) and increasingly with Russia. With the fractiousness of the militias reasserting itself after the immediate danger from Haftar has passed, the anti-Islamist camp might be able to recover and regroup.