Interesting developments are taking place in Libya, where Turkey has been supporting the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and its legitimate armed forces under a November 2019 agreement. The Turkish government identified an original set of objectives and goals at the time, which have since been updated in light of developments on the ground. What is Turkey’s new objective in Libya? Before sharing the new mission’s details, I have to underscore several points.
The balance of power in Libya tilted against the warlord Khalifa Haftar and his militias. This change is reflected at the negotiating table and on the battlefield. With Turkish support, Libya’s legitimate government managed to stop a military offensive by Haftar, who enjoys French, Russian, Egyptian and United Arab Emirates (UAE) backing. According to sources, Turkey’s armed drone fleet, which played an active role in Operation Spring Shield to cripple Russian air defense systems in Syria’s Idlib province, is now operating in the Libyan theater. Turkish drones leveled the playing field by ending Haftar’s air superiority and enabling GNA forces to launch a counter-offensive and break the siege of Tripoli. That operation’s outcome remains to be seen, but we already know that the warlord Haftar finds himself under increasing pressure due to his military failure despite vast foreign support.
The same goes for diplomatic negotiations. It is no secret that Haftar refused to attend the Berlin Conference despite traveling to the German capital, and he ignored the international community’s calls for a cease-fire while continuing to kill civilians in Tripoli. Never mind Haftar’s bogus call for a cessation of hostilities during the holy month of Ramadan. With the balance of power shifting to his disadvantage, the foreign-backed warlord started hiding behind the word "cease-fire." Everybody knows, however, that all Haftar really wants is to topple Libya’s legitimate government, and that he is looking for an opportunity to accomplish that goal.
Two important developments took place last week in diplomatic negotiations for Libya. First, a group of Haftar’s backers, which oppose Turkey’s moves to defend its rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, issued a joint statement. Endorsed by France, Greece, the Greek Cypriots, Egypt and the UAE, it criticized Turkey’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean, along with its support for Libya’s legitimate government. Israel, which worked together with said countries in the past, notably did not sign that statement. Why Israel took this course of action is an important question and deserves to be discussed in greater detail.
The second important development took place on the NATO front, as Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned against the equation of Libya’s United Nations-recognized leader, Fayez al-Sarraj, and the warlord Haftar and pledging NATO support for the GNA in Tripoli. Stoltenberg proceeded to speak with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Libyan prime minister, telling them that NATO was prepared to assist the Libyan government to build defense and security institutions. It is possible to argue that NATO is unhappy with the Russian presence in Libya and that Stoltenberg’s pledge reflected the organization’s appreciation of the Libyan GNA’s military success on the ground. Regardless of Stoltenberg’s purpose, however, this latest move stands to significantly strengthen the Libyan government’s hand in diplomatic negotiations.
As for Turkey’s new objective in Libya, Ankara answered Tripoli’s call for help in an attempt to empower the country’s legitimate political leadership and force Haftar to participate in negotiations. Hence Turkish contact with European stakeholders and diplomatic negotiations in Moscow prior to the Berlin conference. In other words, Turkey engaged in facilitator diplomacy. Yet Haftar ignored those steps, and the Turkish-backed Libyan authorities conducted successful military operations to further weaken Haftar’s hand.
In light of the most recent developments, Turkey identified a new objective in Libya. Ankara no longer seeks to force Haftar to participate in diplomatic negotiations. Instead, the new mission is to put this source of instability, this murderer of Tripoli’s civilian population, out of business.