Turkey’s Increasingly Overt Role in Libya’s Civil War

Ankara’s Involvement in the War-Torn Country is Part of its Broader Competition for Regional Influence

It has been nearly a decade since Libya’s leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was deposed as a result of a popular uprising sparked by similar demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt. After an initial burst of optimism from Libyans and the international community, the political situation in Libya has gone from bad to worse. The power vacuum left behind triggered power struggles between multiple factions in Libya and no authority has had full control and the country is extremely unstable.  Making matters worse, the country’s descent into chaos and lack of governance also made it the de facto “gateway” into Europe during the continent’s migration crisis a few years ago.

Over the last few years, the country has been divided between two rival factions — the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez Serraj based in the capital, Tripoli, and the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Commander Khalifa Haftar who has commanded influence in Libya’s east.  There are other smaller groups, including some Islamist groups, that too wield influence in Libya’s major cities and in the country’s south. On April 4, Field Marshal Haftar and the LNA launched a large-scale offensive to capture the GNA controlled Tripoli. The attack marked the collapse of negotiations to form an interim government between Haftar and key leaders in western Libya and triggered Libya’s third civil war since 2011.  With the war still raging, the fight for the capital is escalating and a number of countries are involved in the conflict, among them Turkey, who is supporting the GNA, supplying drones, weapons and trucks, further impinging the political stability in the country.


While LNA and Ankara have always been at odds, the fierce upturn in rhetoric happened after the GNA captured the strategic town of Gharyan in late June, breaking the military stalemate that has prevailed since Haftar moved to capture Tripoli on 4 April. Since then, the crisis between Ankara and Hafter came to the brink of armed clashes.

On June 30, Turkey slammed Haftar's militia for detaining six Turkish nationals, describing it as "an act of thuggery and piracy." Ankara reacted strongly by warning the Haftar forces would pay a “very heavy” cost for this action. Turkish Foreign Ministry said Haftar's forces would "become legitimate targets" if the Turks were not released. The six hostages were released a day later 
 and returned to their ships.

Later on June 30, Haftar’s forces destroyed a Turkish drone flying over Tripoli’s Mitiga air base and declared a “general mobilisation” as tensions mounted. Haftar’s spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari also announced a ban on commercial flights from Libya to Turkey and ordered his forces to attack Turkish ships and interests in Libya. Haftar’s air force commander, Mohamed Manfour, stepped up warnings by telling Tripoli residents to stay away from any site that may be hit by airstrikes. Turkey said it would "retaliate in the most effective and strong way" to any threats from General Haftar's army.

Last week Haftar announced that its fighter jets brought down a second Turkish drone after raiding its forces in Tripoli. LNA Commander of the western operations Major General Abdul Salam al-Hassi said that the downing of two Turkish drones since the beginning of the battle to liberate Tripoli means that “Turkey is fighting the national army by sending aircraft and armoured vehicles to the illegitimate government. This also shows the whole world Turkey’s complicity and support for the armed and terrorist militias,” added Hassi, who has been leading LNA forces on the outskirts of Tripoli. Commander of the LNA Air Force's Operations Room Major General Mohamed al-Manfour told local media that 30 Turkish military experts are working for militias allied with the GNA.

Turkish Kirpi armoured vehicles in the port of Tripoli, Libya (Facebook)


Several incidents in recent years indicate that Turkey is supplying arms to Islamist elements in Libya in clear violation of the United Nations Security Council embargo on weapons shipments into the war-torn country. In December 2018, customs authorities seized three thousand Turkish-made pistols in Khoms, a Libyan port about forty miles east of Tripoli. Soon after, Libyan port authorities seized upwards of four million bullets onboard a Turkish freighter. The Libyan National Army blamed the Turkish weapons shipments on an upsurge of attacks and assassination in Tripoli. In January 2018, Greece captured a ship bound for Libya from Turkey carrying explosive material. Last January, officials in Misrata, a town near Tripoli, announced that they had intercepted another Turkish weapons shipment, this time in a container marked as transporting household goods and children’s toys. 

Haftar has consistently accused Turkey of aggressively violating Libyan sovereignty and bolstering groups, including extremists, who the LNA says run Tripoli, propping up the UN-backed government. In May, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for the first time, admitted his country was supplying arms to the militias of western Libya who are fighting the LNA for Tripoli. The Erdogan government has allegedly provided armoured vehicles and weapons, with even the Turkish president conceding it had provided drones. Serraj’s government has also boasted of the backing it has received from Ankara, releasing images of Turkish-made armoured cars, several weeks after disclosing that the Turks would be arming its forces. In early May, video footage published on social media showed the vehicles passing through the streets of Tripoli to the cheers of locals. Unverified videos have also been shared online to show Turkish-Speaking advisers showing Libyan fighters how to operate the arms. 

The first recorded use of Turkish-made drones in Libya was the attack on Haftar’s airbase in Jufra on 16 May, which involved Bayraktar armed drones launched from Misrata. Since then, such drones have played a prominent role near the front lines in Tripoli; there are persistent rumours that Turkish personnel are operating the vehicles while training Libyans to use them. 

Another intense source of ire is Turkey’s harbouring of figures the LNA regard as terrorists. Turkey supports militia commander Salah Badi who was sanctioned by the US Treasury last year for undermining Libyan security by attacking groups aligned with the UN-backed government in Tripoli. Badi has bragged about the lethal power of Turkish armoured vehicles. Libyan media said Badi returned from a long stay in Turkey to join the fight of Islamist militias against the LNA. Turkey has also become a sanctuary for Abdul-Hakim Belhaj, the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group leader - an Islamist faction linked to the Muslim Brotherhood that sought to overthrow long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi. Belhaj, who was placed on sanctions lists by UAE, Saudi, Bahrain, Egypt in 2017, operates openly from an office block in Istanbul and runs a pro-Islamist TV channel. 


Turkey has played a growing role in Libya as its interests there have developed. Initially, Turkey was almost wholly motivated by the desire to fulfil the contracts it had in Libya in 2011, which were worth roughly $18 billion. Among other things, Turkish companies were involved in numerous lucrative construction projects in Libya. Even after the fall of Ghaddafi, the Turkish government remained in close contact with the unity government in Tripoli, and Turkish firms continued to receive contracts — like the one to extend the coastal road in Tripoli. 

Turkey is also competing with Cyprus for control of potential offshore energy finds and wants to become the main conduit to Europe for natural gas supplies from the eastern Mediterranean as Libya has Africa’s largest proven oil reserves, is a player in the natural gas market and borders important Mediterranean trade routes. Turkey is increasingly pressing Cyprus, Greece, Israel and Egypt for access to natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, and it believes having Libya united under a Turkey-backed government could increase its leverage in these negotiations.
Thus, Turkey is trying to reach a deal with Libya about coastal sharing to curtail Greece’s naval sovereignty claims over the region. This could allow Ankara to increase its influence in the region.

But Ankara didn’t just strengthen its relationship with groups in western Libya because that is where its key economic interests lay - there is also an ideological aspect to Turkish interference linked to the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and it comes within a context of a regional and international battle for influence.

“Following the creation and initial success of the Justice and Construction Party – the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, fashioned in the likeness of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party – Turkey began to see Libya as important to its attempt to boost its influence in the region by cultivating the political Islamist groups that emerged across the region during the Arab uprisings,” a recent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations said.

“After the onset of Libya’s civil war in 2014, Turkey became a haven for Libyan exiles – including political Islamists – as one of the rare countries Libyans could travel to, and conduct business in, without encountering significant red tape.It took advantage of this connection – as well as its embassy in Tripoli and its consulate in Misrata, at a time when most diplomatic missions to the Libyan authorities were located in Tunis – to pursue its political and economic interests in Libya.” 

Erdogan also sees President Abdulfattah el-Sisi in Egypt as an affront, both because Sisi’s rise removed Muslim Brotherhood control from Egypt - a group that Cairo along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE have designated as a terrorist organisation - and because Erdogan lost contacts and influence inside Egypt. Turmoil in Libya has been specifically harmful to Cairo because of the long border between Egypt and Libya. The concern in Cairo is that Turkey’s moves are designed to besiege Egypt and undermine its security through the support of the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement.

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