Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has just requested a one-year mandate to send troops to Libya, in support of the Tripoli-based internationally recognized government of Fayez al-Sarraj, engaged in an uphill battle against Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, a swashbuckling Libyan general backed by the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. The controversial move comes just days after Turkey’s Syrian proxies showed up on the streets of Libya—mercenaries shipped 2,000 km from one war-torn country to another by the president of a third.
The writing has been on the wall for months. In August, Haftar’s forces destroyed a Turkish military base in-the-making in Misrata, 200-km east of Tripoli. Haftar has constantly said that Erdogan has been sending arms and money to Prime Minister Sarraj, in clear defiance of the United Nations embargo that applies to all of Libya.
Syrians in Libya
Two videos have already gone viral on social media networks, showing Syrian fighters in Libya, with some speculating that they were members of the Sultan Murad Division and others saying that they were members in Faylaq al-Sham. One video shows a man saying that he came to Libya to defend Islam and uphold its banner. His Syrian accent left little room for doubt about their nationality, although Sarraj has denied the claim, insisting that that footage belongs to the northwestern city of Idlib in Syria.
Faylaq al-Sham first surfaced back in 2014 as a merger of several militias, all officially linked to the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. It tried to distance itself from the outlawed organization, hoping to obtain Gulf money for its war against Iranian forces in Syria, with no success. Until last November, it forces were still visibly present in Idlib, where they assembled after leaving the Aleppo countryside in late 2016. The same applies to the Sultan Murad Division, named after a former Ottoman Sultan, who were stationed in the Syrian city of Afrin, after it was purged of Kurdish militants connected to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in mid-2018.
A Parliamentary Mandate
Turkish Parliament Speaker Mustaf Sentop hopes to call on members of the Turkish Chamber to sign off the president’s motion as early as January 2, before a UN-mandated conference on Libya next month in Berlin. It would also be before Russian President Vladimir Putin lands in Turkey on January 8. Putin stands with Haftar against Erdogan’s support for Sarraj.
The motion to be presented to the Turkish Parliament already has the full support of both the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who combined, hold 339 out of 589 seats. For the troops to make a substantial difference, however, they would need to contain a land force of no less than 3,000 Turkish soldiers, backed by armored and mechanized infantry, warplanes, and AWACS. That is a far cry from the 200 men Sarraj had originally requested to train and equip his forces in their final battle against General Haftar.
The injection of Turkish troops and 1,600 of their Syrian fighters may not have a decisive impact, but rather help drag Libya into an unprecedented state of violence and lawlessness.
Libyan Safe Zone
Erdogan hopes that the joint contingent of Turkish and Syrian troops can enforce a safe zone over Fayez al-Sarraj’s pockets in Libya—a project that he has worked relentlessly on in Syria and finally got last October. The Syrian safe zone was much smaller than Erdogan’s original ambitions, only 100-km in width and 32-km in depth, where Erdogan had sought one 460-km in width and 35-km in depth. In the case of Libya, its main objective is to protect the capital Tripoli from Haftar and his National Libyan Army (NLA).
On December 25, Erdogan visited Tunis, hoping to create a united bloc against Haftar with Tunisia and Algeria. He also seeks access to Tunisian airspace, bases, and waters—a must for his operation to bear fruit in Libya. So far, it doesn’t seem that the Tunisian Government is willing to take part in such a wild operation, which would damage its relations with strategic countries in the region like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. The Tunisians did try to mediate between him and Haftar, but Erdogan refused, going for the military option only.
Erdogan feels vulnerable and isolated throughout the Arab World. His Syria project only materialized in a fraction of the land that he had originally coveted, while it was completely eradicated in Egypt by the 2013 ouster of President Mohammad Morsi, a Brotherhood member. His hope of regaining influence in both countries has all but vanished, prompting him to view Libya as the last outpost from which he can extend Turkish influence—and counter his rivals’ influence—in the Arab World and North Africa.
Turkey’s Syrian proxies are well trained in guerrilla warfare, having been in-uniform for an entire decade, and can help train, indoctrinate, and empower Libyan fighters. Copying the Syrian example in Libya is not a bad idea for Erdogan, after all. In Syria, he managed to bite off an entire chunk of territory on the Syrian-Turkish border, impose a safe zone, and impose himself on the political process, through a tactical alliance with Russia and Iran. He hopes to replicate this pattern of using military gains to become a political broker in the Libyan process in 2020, whether through the UN or some Astana-style ad hoc gathering of interested states.
As a glimpse of what might happen in Libya in the upcoming period, three terrorist attacks ripped through Benghazi last summer, presumably carried out by the Islamic State (ISIS). Judging by the amount of coverage they got in the Turkish press, it is clear that those attacks were a blessing in disguise for the Turkish President, who wanted to get a message across that if Sarraj falls, then ISIS will re-emerge in Libya.
The re-emergence of ISIS now becomes more likely as chaos spreads in the wake of the Turkish intervention. ISIS is well positioned, with large quantities of weapons available in all four corners of Libya, and impressive smuggling networks in the interior deserts of the country that stretch to the ISIS branch in Sinai (Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) and even Gaza (The Omar Hadid Brigade). The introduction of Syrian rebel forces who have worked alongside extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria, could also potentially provide a more permissive environment for Islamist militancy.
It is not only arms and proxy fighters that Erdogan can smuggle into Libya; a string of Turkish in Sarraj-held territory now become possible. And money—in relative terms, quite little of it—can be used to buy, or at least rent, loyalties in a devastated country, where poverty is endemic. Radicalism in Libya has become a serious security issue, affecting neighboring states that include Europe, and this next phase of the war might well see such ideologies spread and entrench as the violence escalates and cynical state agendas are played out.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
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