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[Opinion] Why Turkey is reluctant to leave Libya

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Türkmen Terzi 

Global powers and participants of the ‘Second Berlin Conference on Libya’ held in Germany last week urged all foreign mercenaries to leave Libya ahead of this year’s December 24 general election. Despite repeated calls from Western, African and Arab leaders for the departure of foreign fighters, Russian and Turkish mercenaries — who are on opposite sides — are still in place. Turkey has remained in Libya in the interest of securing a permanent air and naval base to ensure its economic and security interests in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Turkish government contends that its troops in Tripoli were sent under a bilateral agreement with Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA); hence, the request for foreign troops to depart does not apply. In addition to Turkish troops, Ankara also reportedly has more than 10,000 Syrian mercenaries in place in Tripoli with an intent to remain for the foreseeable future in the North African country.

Turkey benefitted from strong business relations with Libya during the 42-year-long reign of the late Muammar Gaddafi. Turkish construction companies participated in their first tenders abroad in Gaddafi’s Libya during the early 1970s. However, among the hundreds of Turkish firms that signed contracts with Gaddafi, more than $19 billion has been lost in Libya since his assassination during the 2011 civil war. Turkey has had to evacuate more than 20,000 of its citizens from Libya over the last 10 years.

One may argue that more than concern over the welfare of the people of Libya, Ankara is looking to shore up its economy and hopes that Turkish construction firms that have experience in the war-torn country can rebuild Libya. Ankara aims to get multibillion-dollar contracts in the energy, construction and banking sectors from the oil-rich North African country’s GNA. Mithat Yenigün, head of the Turkish Contractors Association, told Germany’s international news channel Deutsche Welle last year that Turkish contractors have signed around $40 billion worth of contracts in Libya’s construction sector since 1972, and according to Yenigün there will be $50 billion in business opportunities in Libya’s construction sector in the near future, with Turkish firms well positioned to win contracts in Libya. Al-Arabiya reported last March that the governor of the Libyan central bank, Al-Siddiq Al-Kabir, has kept $8 billion in the Central Bank of Turkey for about four years interest free to help stabilize the Turkish lira.

According to Libya Review, the UN-recognized, Tripolibased Government of National Accord (GNA) has deposited $4 billion in the Turkish Central Bank, while a transaction of another $8 billion was made to pay for Turkey’s recent military intervention in Libya as the GNA remains dependent on Turkey for its war against Libya’s military strongman General Khalifa Haftar’s Tobruk-based Libyan National Army (LNA).

The Ankara government argues that Turkish troops have restored peace in the country by ending six years of internal war. Turkey claims to have done so by defeating Haftar’s forces, which tried to capture Tripoli in April 2019. Turkey’s direct intervention with drones and armament helped the GNA push Haftar’s eastern forces out of Tripoli after a 14-month siege of the south of the city.

Ankara has experienced a high level of geopolitical tension with its neighbors since the discovery of huge natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Fayez Al-Sarraj, who served as chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya and prime minister of the GNA from 2016 to 2021, signed an agreement on maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean Sea in 2019. The deal has expanded security and military cooperation between the Turkish and Tripoli governments. Israel, Greece and Cyprus are firmly against this deal as they plan to build an almost $9 billion pipeline to carry natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe. The huge pipeline project would have to cross the planned Turkey-Libya economic zone; hence, Ankara seeks to block the pipeline project.

Neither Greece nor Cyprus recognizes the Turkey-Libya maritime accord, and they assert that the deal disregards the rights of other eastern Mediterranean countries. The head of Libya’s new interim government, Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who took power last March, has tried to ease the tension between Ankara and Athens. He, however, made his first official visit to Ankara in April, and during his meeting with Erdoğan, Dbeibah affirmed his commitment to the 2019 maritime agreement that has angered Greece and Cyprus.

Warring parties in Libya in October 2020 agreed on a ceasefire under the mediation of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). The agreement states that all foreign fighters and troops must withdraw from Libya within three months. The deadline has since passed, but foreign mercenaries remain in Libya. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and then-acting US Permanent Representative to the UN Richard Mills called on foreign forces to leave Libya at the UN Security Council in January. “We call on Russia, Turkey and the UAE to immediately initiate the withdrawal of their forces from the country and the removal of the foreign mercenaries and military proxies that they have recruited, financed, deployed, and supported in Libya,” Mills later reiterated.

The energy-rich Arab nation of Qatar, which had faced a boycott by several neighboring countries over its alleged support of extremism, currently also supports Turkey’s involvement in the Libyan war. Qatar and Turkey have both supported the Muslim Brotherhood for many years, for which it has received criticism from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE. Qatar confidently opposes rival Arab countries with the support of Turkey and Libya.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights shared data disclosing how the Turkish government has transferred more than 300 Syrian mercenaries from the al-Amshat and Sultan Murad factions and the al-Hamza Division, among others, to Libya since the beginning of June and that more than 7,000 Turkish-backed mercenaries are in Libya at present. The Russian Wagner company has positioned around 2,500 to 3,000 mercenaries in the country as well.

Former Turkish foreign minister Yaşar Yakış said there are still approximately 14,500 Turkish-sponsored Syrian mercenaries left in Libya. Yakış clarified that Turkey’s reluctance to agree to a troop withdrawal stems from the threat the Wagner forces pose to the GNA.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu visited Libya on May 3 together with the defense minister and intel agency director. Cavusoglu met with Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, prime minister of the GNA, Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush and President Mohammed al-Manfi as well as Presidential Council of Libya members Abdullah Hussein al-Lafi and Musa al-Koni. Cavusoglu and Turkey’ top security officials discussed ways to improve and strengthen relations between Ankara and Tripoli.

Libya was the last part of Africa to be lost by the Ottomans to the Western powers, and now we see again that Tripoli has become a strategic partner for Ankara. Mesut Hakkı Casin, a professor of law at Istanbul’s Yeditepe University, said, “Libya was a gate opening to the Mediterranean Sea for the Ottoman Empire. Today, Turkey is the key to this gate and will open the gate to the sea again.” Turkey has its gaze firmly set on Sirte’s rich oil resources while also attempting to recover losses suffered by its construction companies during the Libyan civil war.

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