After Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj recently announced his intention to step down in October, the Turkish government was the first to question the move. After all, Ankara had been the Government of National Accord’s (GNA) largest supporter.
The prospect of a GNA without Sarraj at the helm threatens to disrupt Turkey’s efforts at seeing the GNA succeed. However, although Ankara is dismayed by the prime minister throwing in the towel, it reaffirmed its support for Tripoli’s UN-recognized government, as Reuters recently reported.
Turkey’s Heavily-Armed Guiding Hand
In particular, the Turkish government will continue to uphold agreements with the GNA including a security deal, which was signed in 2019. The statement was made by Turkish Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, who also downplayed the overall importance of Sarraj in the success of the partnership.
“These accords will not be impacted by this political period because these are decisions made by the government, not by any individual,” Kalin said.
Initially, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the news of Sarraj’s potential upcoming departure “upsetting.”
“A development like this, hearing such news, has been upsetting for us,” the Turkish president said. He also added that representatives from Ankara may visit Libya to hold discussions with Sarraj’s government.
For Turkey, a united Libya is has hinged upon Sarraj, who has dutifully played the part of Ankara’s puppet. However, it has mostly paid off: Turkey provides military technology, weapons and support, and Sarraj lets Ankara guide his hand. Until now, this strategy had been working.
Ankara Remains Involved
Even so, with Sarraj most likely on the way out, Erdogan still hopes to play an active role in Libya’s future.
“If Sarraj does not remain in office, there are some names who are involved in the processes and can take the GNA forward. These are, of course, Libya’s own issues, but Turkey may provide some support,” a Turkish official said.
With Sarraj gone, Turkey’s fight to dictate Libya’s future will begin anew in earnest. Whereas before Ankara was tasked with assisting the GNA in fighting a civil war, one that is still only on pause, now it must focus on preserving the GNA itself. In that mission, Turkey is mostly alone as several regional and Western powers are pushing for the Cairo Declaration to be enacted.
France, Egypt, the UAE, and Russia have already spoken out in favor of the idea, concocted by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in coordination with Haftar’s Libyan National Army. In the arrangement, which was unveiled in June, all foreign soldiers and mercenaries will be sent home, a ceasefire declared, and Libyans would relinquish their weapons to the LNA. Then, a national election would be called.
Iran Joins Turkey
The Libyan conflict has also spawned an unusual alliance in Turkey and Iran finding common ground. Turkey’s interest in Libya has from the onset been essentially an economic one, Tahir Abbas wrote for Modern Diplomacy. What other Middle Eastern state is having economic problems? Iran.
Tehran boasts the largest proxy network in the region and could summon forces to ensure the GNA keeps hold of power long after Sarraj steps down. In return, Ankara can help its neighbor by advocating for it on the global stage against US-imposed sanctions. Iran has few allies, and fewer still who are willing to speak out on its behalf.
Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey is positioned to be the strong regional ally Iran desperately needs, particularly as neighboring states join together on issues such as relations with Israel.
Turkey’s Libya Mission Grows More Difficult
The Turkish path forward in Libya will look strangely similar to the one it has already walked, mired by political discussions of how a new government should look and disagreements in how the Libyan people should be represented. Oddly, although Turkey and the GNA have proved successful, the strong, stubborn band of international actors aligned against it are determined to see it fail.
As leader of the GNA, Sarraj embodied and personified its success. With Sarraj gone, those states will ramp up their efforts to push for a government dominated by the LNA. To be clear, not all Libyans support the GNA, but it has legitimacy.
Fortunately, with international involvement, peace processes will continue to play out between the two factions even without Sarraj’s leadership. With his pending resignation, the nation is not suddenly doomed to spiral back into the civil war that has marred the state for six years.
However, for the actors that have backed the GNA, namely Turkey, the mission to keep it alive has grown incalculably harder.