Turkey and the Tumult Over Libya

“Libya has long since become the theatre for a proxy war and we are no longer willing to tolerate that. That is why we launched the Berlin Process,” said Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, according to a German Federal Foreign Office communiqué released on Thursday, January 16.

“We have been talking for months to countries that are exerting influence in Libya and we seek to cause them to commit themselves to support the political process under the aegis of the United Nations,” added Maas’ statement in the communiqué.

Germany’s Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel issued invitations to 11 countries to attend the Berlin Conference on Sunday, January 19, in relation to the current conflict in Libya.

Both Khalifa Haftar and Fayez al-Sarraj, who have been restlessly disputing the North African country’s rule in recent years, are expected to attend the talks, although tensions between the two leaders appear to have reached a near boiling point.

Part of U.N. Special Envoy Ghassan Salame’s efforts to bring an end to the conflict in the oil-rich country, the conference had already been postponed several times due to continued fighting along Tripoli’s southern outskirts.

In April, Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (L.N.A.), which already holds sway over most of Libya’s national territory, launched an offensive against the internationally recognized government led by Fayez al-Sarraj to seize the capital Tripoli.

Whereas Haftar enjoys the backing of several states such as Russia, France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates —all of which are attending the Berlin Conference— Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (G.N.A.) has seen a growing interest from Turkey, besides its recognition by the United Nations.

Previous talks in Moscow on January 14, two days after Germany’s Merkel and Maas visited Moscow in relation to the Libyan conflict, ended in a breakdown as Khalifa Haftar left Russia without signing an agreement that would have formalized a preliminary ceasefire.

After hours of negotiation, brokered by Russia and Turkey, Haftar was said to have asked to look over the agreement until Tuesday morning, when he left. The agreement, which he said “ignores many of the Libyan army’s demands”, had already been signed by his counterpart Fayez al-Sarraj.

That same day, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reacted to Haftar’s reluctance, and said Ankara would teach him “a lesson” if he resumed his offensive on Tripoli.

“We will not hesitate to teach a lesson to the putchist Haftar if he continues his attacks on the country’s legitimate administration and our brothers in Libya,” President Erdogan said during a meeting of his A.K. Party.

Ever since its inception in 2015, al-Sarraj’s G.N.A has received an unwavering support from Turkey, which had provided the Tripoli-based government forces with weaponry and armored vehicles. Last summer, the G.N.A. was reported to have bought 20 Bayraktar TB2 drones from Turkey.

Besides the ideological strain that Ankara shares with the G.N.A. in opposing Haftar and his alignment with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in the region, Turkey sees in Tripoli government a chance to further its influence in North Africa and the Mediterranean Sea.

On Thursday, January 16, President Erdogan declared that Turkey was beginning to send troops into Libya in support of Tripoli forces. Earlier in November, the two actors had already reached agreements relating to military cooperation and maritime boundaries that the two countries share in the eastern Mediterranean.

“In order for the legitimate government in Libya to remain standing and for stability to be established, we are now sending our soldiers to this country,” President Erdogan said.

The Turkish president also said on Thursday that Ankara will start granting licenses for exploration and drilling in the eastern Mediterranean, a move that neighboring Greece and Cyprus deem intimidating and transgressive.

“In the areas that remain between Turkey and Libya, it is now legally impossible for there to be exploration and drilling activities or a pipeline without the approval of both sides,” President Erdogan said.

The following day, Greece made public its for Khalifa Haftar, who had been in a visit to Athens on Thursday, saying it encouraged him to be “constructive” in the upcoming Berlin talks.

Greece had previously announced that it would block any European peace deal so long as the agreement between the government in Tripoli and Turkey on maritime borders is not scrapped.

“Greece, at the level of a [European Union] summit meeting, will never accept any political solution on Libya that does not include as a precondition the annulment of this agreement,” the Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in an interview, describing the Libyan-Turkish deal as “unacceptable and illegal”.

“To put it simply, we will use our veto even before the matter reaches the [E.U.] summit, at the level of foreign ministers,” Mitsotakis said.

Greece, which is closer to Tripoli geographically, objects to the maritime border deal between the government in Tripoli and Turkey, which it says ignores its sea rights in an area that contains potentially rich natural gas deposits.

Turkey’s relations with Greece deteriorated even more in recent months over undersea exploration and drilling rights in the Aegean Sea, near Cyprus, and in areas off the southern Greek island of Crete, which are included in the Turkish-Libyan agreement.

On January 2, Israel, Greece and Cyprus signed a deal to build an undersea pipeline to carry gas from deposits in the southeastern Mediterranean to continental Europe. Turkey objected to the pipeline project, a part of which would pass through waters Ankara now can claim under the deal it reached with the Tripoli government.

The Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis also expressed his disappointment about not having been invited to the international summit in Berlin on Sunday. “It was wrong that we were not invited,” Mitsotakis said. “We have sea borders with Libya and should have been at Berlin.”

Germany invited the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (The United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, China and France), as well as Turkey, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Algeria and the Republic of the Congo.

Although Khalifa Haftar refused to sign the agreement of Moscow, Germany said on Thursday the L.N.A. commander was still committed to a ceasefire. The German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, shortly after a visit in the eastern city Benghazi, also said Haftar was willing to attend the conference in Berlin on Sunday, despite sayings that he would not after his withdrawal in Moscow.

“It is a good message that he is willing to keep to the ceasefire,” Angela Merkel also said at a news conference with the Croatian prime minister on Thursday. “At the Libya conference we must above all see that the weapons embargo is adhered to again, which is basically agreed by the UN but unfortunately not kept to,” she said.

The talks in Berlin are expected to push the two Libyan fractions and their foreign backers to agree to a truce, putting further pressure on Haftar to halt the nine-month offensive against Fayez al-Serraj’s government in Tripoli.

According to the United Nations, more than 280 civilians and roughly 2,000 fighters have been killed since Haftar’s offensive in April. Also, 146,000 Libyans are estimated to have been displaced.