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Turkey poised to send troops to Libya

Chase Winter
December 26, 2019

Turkey is preparing to send troops and advanced weapons to the embattled UN-backed Libyan government. The military muscle flexing puts it at odds with Russia and several Arab states backing Libya's rival government.

Türkei l Erdogan will Truppen nach Libyen schicken - Special Forces, Spezialeinheit
Turkish special forces Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Altan

Turkey will send troops to Libya at the request of the UN-backed government in Tripoli as soon as next month, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday, in a move likely to deepen an international proxy struggle in the north African country ravaged by civil war.

Libya's internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) has been struggling to repel a months-long offensive by General Khalifa Haftar's eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA), which has been supported by Egypt, Jordan, Russia, the United Arab Emirates and France.

Read moreKhalifa Haftar: Libya's military strongman

Last month, Turkey and the Tripoli-based GNA leader Fayez al-Serraj signed a defense cooperation deal and a separate one on maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey is locked in a dispute with regional rivals Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel over access to waters rich in natural gas.

The defense deal, which came into effect on Thursday, allows Turkey to send military training personnel and equipment to GNA forces, but the deployment of troops needs parliamentary approval. 

"Now that there is an invitation [from Libya] we'll accept it," Erdogan told members of his ruling party on Thursday. "We'll put a resolution authorizing a military deployment on the agenda as soon as parliament reopens," he said, adding it would pass on January 8 or 9.

"We will give all forms of support to the Tripoli government which is fighting against a putschist general backed by various Arab and European countries," Erdogan said.

While no official request from Tripoli has been made yet, GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha on Thursday suggested his government would extend an invitation for the troop deployment.

Haftar has "provided foreign forces with military bases in Libya," GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha told journalists in Tunisia on Thursday.

"If this position continues we have the right to defend Tripoli and we will officially ask the Turkish government for its military support."

On Wednesday, Erdogan made a surprise trip to Libya's western neighbor Tunisia with his defense minister and spy chief to discuss steps to create a ceasefire. 

Ibrahim Kalin on Conflict Zone

Special forces, drones and proxies

Ankara, with NATO's second-largest army, has hinted for weeks that it would flex its military muscle in Libya to defend the embattled GNA government, which is also supported by Qatar. It has already been sending weapons and drones to the GNA and allied Islamist militias despite a UN arms embargo.

Turkey is likely to send elite special forces, military intelligence officers, drones and more advanced weaponry to Libya, Can Kasapoglu of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank wrote in a paper this week. However, it will be limited in providing airpower due to geographical limitations and logistical issues of flying F-16 fighter jets in Libya, he said, noting that a lack of air cover could leave Turkish forces vulnerable to attack.

Türkei l Erdogan will Truppen nach Libyen schicken - Bayraktar TB2 Drohne
Turkey has sent GNA forces its Bayraktar dronesImage: Getty Images/AFP/B. Bebek

"Adopting an ambitious military posture would motivate Ankara's rivals to bleed Turkey in a protracted hybrid war hundreds of kilometers away from the Turkish mainland," Kasapoglu wrote. He said that the Turkish military was also likely to rely on unconventional forces, including Syrian rebel mercenaries, as part of Ankara's "growing tendency to use proxies as a part of its regional military policy."

Turkey, with the support of the rebel factions it backs, has launched three military incursions into northern Syria since 2016 against the "Islamic State" and US-backed Kurdish forces.

On Thursday, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said that Turkish-backed rebel factions in northern Syria had opened four registration centers offering pay of up to $2,000 (€1,800) a month for fighters to go to Libya.

Türkei l Erdogan will Truppen nach Libyen schicken - Türkei unterstütztende Kämpfer der al-Mutasim-Brigade
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the Turkish-backed al-Mutasim Brigade was among the four Syrian rebels groups recruiting young men to fight in LibyaImage: Getty Images/AFP/N. Al-Khatib

Struggle for the Eastern Mediterranean 

Turkey's calculated escalation in Libya is intricately linked to its broader strategic interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, where it has ramped up offshore energy exploration, alarming Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel.

"Our goal in the Mediterranean is not to seize anyone's rights, rather it's to prevent the seizure of our rights," Erdogan said on Thursday as he spoke of the military deployment to Libya.

By striking a maritime deal with the GNA, Turkey ended its isolation in the Eastern Mediterranean and strengthened its position to contest the region's maritime boundaries.

Micha'el Tanchum, a senior associate fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, told DW that Ankara has been severely constrained in its ability to defend its interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, including the rights of Turkish Cypriots.

"Turkey's current Libya strategy has been over a year in the making that has witnessed a slow process of calibrated escalation by Ankara in the Libyan theater. However, Turkey's maritime agreement with the Tripoli government stands only as long as that government does," he said.  

"The Turkey-Libya accord on military cooperation that allows for Turkish troops in Libya was an essential step for Turkey. In this manner, an already tense Eastern Mediterranean has now been coupled to an escalation spiral in Libya," he added.

Russian bear vs. Turkish crescent 

Russia, a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, has expressed concern about the prospect of Turkish troops being deployed to Libya. The Kremlin-backed Wagner group of private military contractors are supporting Haftar's forces, which have also received Russian armed drones. Erdogan has voiced opposition to the Wagner group supporting Haftar's forces.

"Russia is there with 2,000 Wagner [fighters]," the Turkish leader said on Thursday, also pointing out that some 5,000 Sudanese fighters were in Libya. "Is the official government inviting them? No."

A Turkish government delegation has been in Moscow since Monday to meet with Russian diplomats to find a compromise on Syria, where Russian-backed attacks in northwest Idlib province have sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing to the Turkish border. The two sides also discussed Libya.

All eyes are now on a planned January 8 visit by President Vladimir Putin to Turkey, where he will attend the opening of the TurkStream natural gas pipeline. The trip is likely to be dominated by discussions on Syria and the Turkish parliament's vote to send troops to Libya, which could take place on the same day.

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