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Libya is a new regional flashpoint as Erdogan moves in

Dec 31,2019 - Last updated at Dec 31,2019

As if the eight-year-old Libyan crisis is not complicated enough, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan now wants to add fuel to the fire by deploying troops and sending arms to aid the beleaguered Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Erdogan has asked his parliament to give approval to a Libyan request to provide arms and fighters under a controversial agreement reached by the GNA, headed by Fayez Al Sarraj, and Erdogan last November. The agreement, which was rejected by Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel, includes a maritime treaty that virtually gives unlimited naval access to Ankara in the eastern Mediterranean.

The UN-recognised GNA has been losing territory since Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who heads the so-called National Libyan Army and is backed by parliament and rival government in Tubrok, launched a military campaign in April to capture the capital and unseat Sarraj. Haftar had successfully defeated extremist militias in the east, liberated Benghazi and took control of the oil rich region as well as most of southern Libya.

He and Sarraj had failed to implement a political agreement reached in Skhirat, Morocco, in December of 2015. Haftar accuses the Tripoli government of bowing to the control of militias affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and is being backed by Qatar and Turkey. On the other hand, Haftar himself is supported by Egypt and the UAE, the latter has allegedly supplied Haftar with modern drones, among other regional powers. The UN has imposed a weapons embargo on Libya, but that did not prevent both sides from receiving military aid from backers.

Turkey’s intervention will almost certainly widen the conflict and bring about a proxy war that would involve other regional powers. Erdogan has claimed that Haftar is using Russian mercenaries while he himself is being accused of recruiting Syrian insurgents to fight in Libya. While Russia has denied sending mercenaries to Libya, recent reports suggested that a Russian military group, associated with President Vladimir Putin, is working with pro-Haftar forces.

On Sunday, the so-called National Syrian Army, comprised of anti-regime militias backed by Ankara, issued a statement announcing the resignation of top military brass in protest of sending what it called fighting groups to Libya without their consent. It is now clear that Erdogan will hesitate to dispatch his own troops to Libya while relying on mercenaries. He is expected to send military advisers, drones as well as air defence and anti-tanks systems to help the besieged GNA.

Haftar’s forces have been making headway as they reached the outskirts of the capital. Turkey’s intervention, especially in delivering weapons to pro-GNA militias in Misrata, is expected to push back these forces and create an impasse. Erdogan hopes to achieve a number of geopolitical goals as he lays claim to large swaths of gas-rich eastern Mediterranean.

But by intervening in Libya he also risks facing domestic dissent as well as regional and international opposition. Already he has been warned by the Italians, the French and the Germans who have various interests in finding a political solution in Libya. But Erdogan is an opportunist. He has seen for himself how the UN has failed to implement the Skhirat agreement while looking the other way as Haftar’s forces took over most of the country. By throwing his hat into the ring he hopes to capitalise on Turkey’s growing influence in a divided and polarised region.

It is ironic that he now finds himself on the opposite side of his ally in Syria; Putin. Russia’s support of Haftar is in line with its backing of Bashar Assad against his foes. Egypt, which has a long border with Libya, sees Haftar as a protector of its western flank against Al Qaeda, Daesh and other extremist groups.

President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi will not be happy to see Turkey establishing a foothold in neighbouring Libya. What Cairo can do to offset this new challenge remains to be seen. Erdogan’s intervention also creates a problem for Washington, which is worried by Russia’s rising influence in a region that has been historically under US sway.

There is no doubt that Turkey’s meddling in Syria’s affairs has compounded that country’s plight. Just as he backed Syrian rebel groups, Erdogan is now seen as abandoning them in Idlib. Whatever deal he has reached with the Russians over Idlib, it has so far created a new humanitarian catastrophe for hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have been barred from escaping to Turkey. His planned involvement in Libya will bring out similar results. In fact, as we enter 2020 Libya will emerge as a critical regional flashpoint that threatens to unsettle north Africa while polarising the region even further.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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