Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Thursday indicated potential cooperation between Turkey and the U.S. in regard to Libya. According to him, during phone calls between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Donald Trump, the two leaders agreed to work together and told their top diplomats to coordinate on Libya.
In the last few months, following Turkey’s assistance of the United Nations-recognized government of Libya, there has been debate about whether the two countries can establish a working relationship in the country. Considering the nations' divergences regarding U.S. assistance to the YPG/PKK in Syria and the crisis of the S-400s and F-35 program, many started to raise this issue as a potential bright spot in their relations.
There is definitely potential for both countries as each wants a unified, stable Libya and effective governance that can eliminate terrorist groups in the country. The convergence of these long-term interests, however, may only turn into effective cooperation through the coordination and implementation of policies.
In the last few years, some critical long-term strategic convergences did not transform into a working relationship. This time in order to achieve cooperation in Libya, some conditions should be met. The first and most important of these conditions is the clarity of messaging and objectives of U.S. foreign policy.
For the last few years now, the unpredictability and indecisiveness of America's foreign policy have been the biggest hurdles for the establishment of efficient partnerships with allies. Especially in regard to Syria, we have seen the U.S. administrations giving mixed messages and not fulfilling their commitments for the last eight years.
The rhetoric and actions of U.S. foreign policy demonstrated inconsistencies and even contradictions. This has become one of the most important reasons for the failed partnership between Turkey and the U.S. In the midst of the debates about their cooperation, the U.S. administration should make its message and objectives clear so it can reestablish and build trust with Turkey.
Since the beginning of the second civil war in Libya, different U.S. agencies took different positions in regard to Libya. Initially, following putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar's attacks, the State Department made a statement calling for an immediate cease-fire. The Government of National Accord (GNA) was the actor recognized by the U.S.
At the time, the White House also expressed recognition of the GNA as Libya's legitimate national body. Soon after, however, Trump had a phone call with Hafter and signaled a change of position for the U.S. administration. According to the White House, the main topic of the discussion was counterterrorism efforts.
The readout said that Trump “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.” This was a shocking development for many observers in Washington as well as for the Libyans.
Many argued that Trump's attempt to change the U.S. position was a result of efforts by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. During this time, then-Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan also expressed support for Haftar and his forces on the ground. He even stated that Washington needed Haftar’s “support in building democratic stability there in the region.”
This was reminiscent of other problematic U.S. policies in the Middle East. In Syria, in order to defeat Daesh, U.S. Central Command and the Trump administration chose to work with another terrorist organization, the YPG/PKK. This issue became the biggest challenge in bilateral relations with Turkey.
Then the U.S. started working with another warlord in Libya, claiming that the strategy would be a major step toward defeating Daesh there. These examples raise the question of whether partnering with these kinds of groups is becoming a pattern of behavior for U.S. foreign and national security policy.
The emphasis of the Department of Defense on democratic stability reminded people in the region of U.S. attitudes during the coup in Egypt. Following the uprising organized by Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Secretary of State John Kerry stated that the military in Egypt was restoring democracy. Now in the midst of another conflict, U.S. officials were expecting a warlord to establish democracy in Libya. Many in the region thought that the outcome of the situation in Egypt ought to be a lesson. Thus, it raised many more questions about U.S. policy.
Soon after, however, some officials started to argue that there had been no change in the U.S. position and that Washington still recognized the GNA as the representative government of the Libyan people. These officials stated that the statements on Haftar were a personal decision of Trump as a favor to el-Sissi.
In the meantime, the U.S. African Command (AFRICOM) emerged as one of the most significant, and neutral, players in Libyan policy. According to AFRICOM commanders, their priority was to fight against terrorism in Libya. During this time, Turkey began its military support for the GNA against Haftar's forces, and in a few months, their backing changed the tide in the conflict.
The main question for Turkey was: What did the U.S. want in Libya?
Following the success of Turkish-backed forces in Libya, there are now different statements coming from the U.S. Once again the State Department emphasized the significance of the GNA in this process. As mentioned above, Trump also apparently changed his mind and, during a call with Erdoğan, the two leaders agreed to work together.
As the situation progressed over the last few months, AFRICOM had been making statements underlining the increasing Russian presence in Libya.
These different actors raise different issues and give different messages, which may complicate the process of establishing a working relationship. Thus, in order to work efficiently with this critical country, the U.S. needs to make sure that it has a policy that is more than wishful thinking – something with continuity. Turkey, or any U.S. ally, should not have to worry that Washington will change direction next month.
Libya can be a bright spot for Turkish-American relations, but it is important for the U.S. to take this first step to build trust with Turkey.