[OPINION] Is Turkey sowing chaos in Libya?

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Türkmen Terzi

Libya has been on the verge of descending into another political crisis since the Tobruk-based House of Representatives appointed former interior minister Fathi Bashagha as the country’s next prime minister.

The move on Feb. 10, aimed at replacing Abdul Hamid al-Dabaiba, who has served as head of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) for just over a year, comes following al-Dabaiba’s failure to call new elections.

Dabaiba has refused to recognize Bashagha, insisting that he can only hand power over to a nationally elected government.

The Turkish government now finds itself in a dilemma as both Dabaiba and Bashagha have close ties to Ankara, and both leaders have visited Turkey.

Moreover, rival sides within the Turkish state all have different approaches to Turkey’s Libya policy.

Tension remained high in Tripoli as Dabaiba supporters moved into the city.

Turkey has undoubtedly become a permanent power in Libya as a result of its military assistance to the UN-recognized GNA during the early months of 2020.

Khalifa Haftar’s Tobruk-based Libyan National Army (LNA), which was supported by Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and France, failed to take Tripoli in a military offensive and eventually lost a significant amount of territory. It still controls the largest territory in the war-torn North African country.

Ankara has since then remained involved in Libya and currently has hundreds of soldiers and thousands of Syrian fighters in the country in support of the GNA.

Three groups in Turkey have great interest in the affairs of Libya: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist government, Turkey’s secular military establishment and Turkey’s mega construction firms.

Over the past four decades, Libya has been a key market for Turkish exporters and in particular its construction sector, which first began its international venture in Libya during the 1970s, when strongman Muammar Gaddafi was still firmly in control of the country.

The Turkish business sector is intent on recovering billions of dollars in losses incurred since Gaddafi was deposed in 2011.

The second group is Turkey’s military establishment, which drafted the Maritime Boundary Treaty, which was signed by Turkey and the GNA in November 2019 to establish an exclusive economic zone in the Mediterranean Sea.

Libya’s LNA, the European Union, the US and some regional powers opposed the agreement, but the UN registered the Turkey-Libya deal on the delimitation of maritime jurisdiction in the Mediterranean in October 2020.

Despite Erdoğan’s recently acquired control of the military, Turkey’s secular generals still see themselves as the guardians of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s republican regime, and there is a degree of nostalgia linked to Libya for them since the founder of the Turkish Republic, Atatürk, fought in Libya against the Italians in 1912.

Erdoğan’s Islamist regime has a much greater interest in the North African country since Libya agreed with Turkey and Qatar to sign a tripartite deal for military cooperation to boost the capabilities of the Libyan military in August 2020.

Turkey is a unique country and is strategically located among three continents.

Historically there have always been various groups competing against each other in Turkey; hence, Turkey at present does not have one official Libya policy but rather various powers competing for their own interests in the country.

Erdoğan’s Islamist government — the Justice and Development Party (AKP) — does not necessarily prioritize Turco-Libyans in their military strategies, and the focus remains predominantly on Muslim Brotherhood members.

Interestingly, more than 1.5 million people in Libya, especially in Misrata, the city that rose up in revolt against Gaddafi’s four-decade rule, regard themselves as descendants of the Ottoman Turks.

The Erdoğan government’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya has recently become a source of confusion for Turco-Libyans.

The Ottomans conquered Libya in 1551, and during the three centuries in which Turks settled in Libya, they married local women.

During Gaddafi’s rule, however, these Turkish descendants were kept in limited positions of power in the state, but following his death, some of the Turco-Libyans founded the Libyan Kouloughlis Association in 2015. The term “Kouloughlis” (from the Turkish kuloğlu) translates to “sons of servants,” describing the offspring of Ottoman soldiers in Libya.

But today Turco-Libyans are not on the same political side as Erdoğan, with many of them criticizing Turkey’s Libya policy.

“We are utterly at odds with the figures with whom Turkey collaborates. The Turkish government works with men of money and influence. It has not engaged with the leading figures of our community. But when Hifter targets the Turkish government, we are the only community that would defend Turkey,” an official from the Kouloughlis Association stated, criticizing the AKP’s policies in Libya, according to an Al-Monitor report.

Egypt, Greece and France all strongly oppose Turkey’s military presence in Libya, while the UN and the European Union have warned Turkey to obey their arms embargo in Libya.

Russia has also been keeping a close eye on Turkey’s military activities in the North African country since Moscow also keeps paramilitary groups there.

Ankara has been trying to gain control over Libya’s al-Watiya Airbase and wants to build a permanent naval base in western Libya.

Turkey has undoubtedly taken advantage of the ousting of the Arab nationalist Gaddafi by trying hard to increase its influence in the war-torn country through the Turco-Libyan population and by siding with the Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood.

The African Union has repeatedly warned all foreign forces, including those of Turkey, to leave Libya.

But major Western countries including Britain, Germany and the US tolerate Ankara’s military presence in Libya to counter Russia’s armed groups in the North African country.

Erdoğan’s government is taking advantage of the chaos in Libya to increase its military presence in the country as well as by re-establishing a strong Turkish presence in North Africa, where the Ottomans lost out to Western colonizers a little over a century ago.

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