Dozens of pro-Turkish Syrian mercenaries reportedly landed at the recently re-opened Mitiga Airport on about five flights from Turkey to support Khalifa Haftar’s opponents in Tripoli. Allegedly in reaction — and video evidence purportedly showing Syrian fighters in action on the frontlines — Emirati assets showered the airport with another round of airstrikes.
After their late November military agreement was signed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had been hinting that, if requested by the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), he was prepared to send the Turkish army into Libya. On 26 December — two weeks after Haftar announced his latest ‘zero hour’ initiative to finally take over Tripoli following over eight months of fighting — the GNA sent its request on 26 December. It apparently wants a robust force of around 3,000 Turkish combat troops as well as air asset deployments, including F-16 aircraft, early warning systems, warships, and submarines.
Erdoğan paid a surprise visit to meet with Tunisia’s President Kais Saied on 24 December. He may have travelled to Tunis — instead of asking Saied to come to Ankara — in order to obtain Tunisia’s co-operation regarding the Turkish military intervention. Erdoğan then met a council of Libyan tribes to discuss a peaceful resolution to the conflict. According to official reports, however, he and Saied discussed a potential ceasefire in Libya as well as ways to compel the factions to a negotiating table. There was no mention of the West-led Berlin process.
The Turkish parliament was scheduled to consider the government’s proposed intervention in Libya on 9 January, just one day after the highly anticipated meeting between Erdoğan and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin when their Libyan policy will no doubt been discussed. Turkey’s on-going intervention may now be enough to demonstrate Erdoğan’s resolve in Libya to Putin and prompt Moscow to scale back its clandestine support for Haftar. By pushing parliament — controlled by his Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) — to approve the intervention, Erdoğan can meet Putin this week with a very credible threat of the use of force in Libya.
On 2 January the parliament voted roughly along party lines by 325 votes to 184, to approve the military intervention. Public support may be higher than outsiders might assume because Libya plays an important role in Turkey’s national history. Its military fought fiercely to hold onto its city states in Libya in the last throws of the Ottoman Empire. Modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, even fought in Libya as a young man in both 1908 and 1911-1912. The close historical and cultural ties between Turkey and Libya are augmented by around US$25 billion in contracts that Turkish companies have with Libya which would disappear if Haftar took power.
There may only be a gradual ramping up of Turkey’s military presence in Libya in the coming days and weeks because significant elements of its government remain ambivalent. There are even reports that Erdoğan is less interested in the actual intervention than using it as a tool to decisively shift the balance of power against Haftar and his external backers in this increasingly international conflict.
Turkish military intervention began on 5 January. ‘The task of our soldiers there is coordination. [Our soldiers] will carry the process forward at our operating base there. At the moment our soldiers are gradually going,’’ Erdoğan said. He added that ‘We will have different squads there as an opposition force.’
This is likely to complicate rather than decisively end the conflict. Turkey and the European states could indirectly clash because of their contradictory policies in Libya. Europe and the US have benefited from the nominally covert nature of the military intervention — by the UAE, Egypt, France, and Russia — for Haftar and particularly in the past year. This has enabled them to do nothing to outwardly condemn it or do anything about it but Turkey’s military intervention may compel a reaction. Washington is likely to remain largely non-committal because it is more pre-occupied with the aftermath of the US’ assassination of Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani.
For Europe, however, Ankara’s increasingly aggressive Libya policy after years of European ineffectiveness could mean:
- more confrontation over Mediterranean energy resources;
- other maritime confrontations if Europe begins stopping and seizing Turkish vessels headed to Tripoli and Misrata; and
- increased Turkish threats to open the spigot of migrants and refugees to Europe if EU states seek to impede Erdoğan’s ambitions in Libya.