Turkey's troops in Libya: What's their mission?

Published 13.01.2020 00:48

The cease-fire call by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin has yielded a prompt and positive response in Libya. On Wednesday, the two leaders called for a truce "supported by the necessary measures to be taken for stabilizing the situation on the ground." Eyes are now fixated on the reactions of the Egyptians and Emiratis.

From the very beginning, President Erdoğan said Turkey's objective in sending troops to Libya is "not to fight but to support the legitimate government and avoid a humanitarian tragedy."

Turkish troops were dispatched to Libya after the Turkish Parliament approved the deployment of troops last month – a move that comes in accordance with the bilateral maritime memorandum of understanding between Ankara and Tripoli, which allows the legitimate and U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli to request Turkish military vehicles and weapons to use in ground, navy and air operations.

The Turkish troops that arrived in Libya will embark on establishing a joint office of defense and security cooperation.

Interestingly, many regional powers were infuriated by what they called a Turkish intervention in the Libyan conflict. Egypt and UAE's media outlets publically launched a campaign of warmongering and hatred against Turkey.


Both countries see Turkey as a backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political movement that is perceived as an imminent threat to the Egyptian and monarchical political structures. This perception by the regime in Egypt and the monarchies in the Gulf is not necessarily grounded.

On the one hand, Turkey doesn't support the Muslim Brotherhood exclusively as a political movement it backs the will and decisions of the people, be they in favor of a political Islamic party or any other political ideology. Secondly, the Muslim Brotherhood has never targeted any of these monarchies. On the contrary, in the 1970s, the books of the founders of the Brotherhood used to be part and parcel of the Saudi official syllabus at the states' religious institutes.

Thus, the Egyptian regime condemned the move in the strongest terms and warned against the dire repercussions of Turkey's involvement in the Libyan crisis.

The notorious Egyptian media anchors are beating the drums of war and running a campaign of hatred against Turkey and its president. One can't exclude the possibility that these warmongers with their preposterous statements are running the risk of starting a new war between Turkey and Egypt.


It is obvious that the Libyan dilemma has grown beyond the borders of internal disagreement between tribes, cliques and militias. To reach a political solution for the Libyan crisis, the wider regional and international dimensions should be considered. Therefore, it is quite important to clearly understand the dynamics of the stakes, standpoints and interests of the numerous international players.

Four European countries France, Germany, Italy and the U.K. in addition to the U.S. set up an unofficial communication group that backed the U.N. efforts to strike a reconciliation deal. Nevertheless, this ostensible unanimous backing to the U.N. intermediation was never harmonized by an operative and unified course of action. After the killing of a number of French military advisers in 2016, France joined the camp of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia to support Gen. Haftar's front.

At the same time, the U.K., which has been supportive of the U.N.-backed and internationally recognized government in Tripoli, accepted that Haftar should be given a greater role. Interestingly, U.S. President Donald Trump said that Libya is not of political urgency for his administration. Thus, Trump's non-interventionism has left a vacuum of leadership that Haftar's sponsors are trying to fill, giving a chance for regional and Arab powers to step in and take the lead.

In such environment of regional powers' direct intervention, rivalry among these countries has considerably boosted the risk of more deadly animosities between the conflicting parties. When Turkey and Qatar reinforce their support for Tripoli's internationally recognized government, Egypt and the UAE increase their military backing to Gen. Haftar, who pursues a military victory over his opponents. This stalemate has created the improbability of a negotiated solution.

More precariously, the more Haftar intensifies his fight against the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, the more Daesh steps up its attacks across southern and central provinces of the country. The Libyan forces are overwhelmed in the fight against Haftar's adventurism and reluctance to compromise. This status emboldened Daesh to carve out a safe harbor in which it can recover, mobilize and recruit more elements to launch more brutal assaults on the security forces and civilian infrastructure to confiscate natural resources that boost their resources.


Egypt argues that its national security is at stake. It has serious concern that the ongoing instability in Libya, which shares a 1,200-kilometer border with Egypt, may lead to radical groups invading western swathes of Egypt. Thus, Egypt promotes its mission in Libya as an extension of its crackdown against extremists, such as Daesh.

The Egyptian regime reckons that Turkey's main goal in the maritime agreement which was signed with the Libyan government is to prevent Tripoli from falling into the hands of Haftar. Striking the agreement with the legitimate government in Tripoli means that Turkey reserved a seat for itself in the negotiation table over gas in the Mediterranean – something that Greece, Egypt, Israel and Greek Cyprus were planning to deprive Turkey of, despite its exclusive economic zones in the Mediterranean.

With a deeper examination of the geography of the Tripoli-Ankara agreement, one discerns that Egypt is far from the maritime zones that may cause friction with Turkey. According to many Egyptian strategists and economists, the agreement preserves Egypt's rights to gas fields in the Mediterranean more than its agreement with Israel, Greece and Greek Cyprus had. Thus, Egypt's problem is focused more on the Turkish role in the Libyan arena.

There are those who believe the mounting tension will not escalate to the point of direct confrontation or all-out war between the Egyptian regime and Turkish forces. The problem here is that the Egyptian regime is not governed by the rules of international law, nor does it comply with international pressure or agreements. The regime is also looking for a way out from its internal crises caused by its utter administrative and economic failures. Most importantly, Egypt is now being driven by regional and Arab powers that were accused of participating in the thwarted coup attempt in Turkey in 2016. These forces may not hesitate to push the region into a comprehensive war. However, it is clear that the decision-makers in Ankara are fully aware of all of these dynamics.

* Palestinian-Turkish academic and journalist and visiting researcher at Leicester University who holds a Ph.D. from Istanbul Technical University in political campaigning.

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