Hulusi Akar a Tripoli (La Presse)

Turkey’s Strategic Plan for Libya

The Turkish and Qatari Defense Ministers recently visited Tripoli to meet the head of the Government of National Accord, Fayez al-Sarraj. Specifically, Hulusi Akar and Khalid Bin-Muhammad al-Atiyyah discussed what kind of support Doha and Ankara could provide to the Tripoli-based government. The discussion was held with the Libyan leader and other key figures of the GNA administration.

After examining the trilateral military cooperation agreement that was eventually signed, we can understand more about the long-term Turkish plans increasing their influence in North Africa.

Main Objectives of the Meeting

Akar was accompanied by Turkish Chief of General Staff Yaşar Güler. Both played a crucial role in the outcome of the meeting. Libyan Deputy Defense Minister Saladin En-Nemrush also took part in the meetings and provided insights into the current readiness of GNA forces in terms of structure, personnel, equipment, and operational capabilities. The defense ministers of the supporting countries agreed to provide the GNA forces with cross-functional support, from logistics and military equipment to operational planning and training through expat military advisors.

The long-term objectives of this strategic partnership include the complete restructuring of the quasi-organized GNA forces to build them into an appropriately structured and fully operational army. One of the largest challenges of the Libyan framework is related to the numerous autonomous military subgroups belonging to different local tribes and clans.

All these separate armed elements will be streamlined and structured in a unique entity that will set the base for the Libyan Armed Forces under the current GNA. This was the primary purpose of the agreement, which sets the strengthening of al-Sarraj-affiliated forces as one of its main conditions. Ankara and Doha are expected to play a key role in achieving this goal, as outlined in the recent deal.

Long-Term Turkish Plans

Shortly after the deal, Turkish President Recep Erdogan mentioned that Turkey is willing to officially deploy Turkish forces to Tripoli, if the GNA asks for it. So far Ankara has been supporting the Sarraj forces in a rather informal context, considering the standing ban on foreign military involvement in the Libyan conflict. A recent key fact that has probably gone unnoticed was the transfer of approximately 190 cadets to Turkey who survived a massive assault from Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) forces last July. All 190 surviving cadets have moved to Turkey to complete their studies.

Examining the Libyan-Turkish-Qatari deal we can clearly see that Erdogan is seeking to tighten his grip on Libya, so that if and when the GNA forces take control of the country, Ankara will have already secured a de facto devoted ally and another military base in the Mediterranean.

Erdogan’s plan will be materialized through a long process, where several different moves need to be made, one step at a time. Following the memoranda of understanding and the maritime deal with the GNA in the previous months, the latest trilateral deal indicates that Ankara is looking into engaging in the essential infrastructure of the state, which will potentially emerge once the civil war is over.

Turkey is actually looking to build one of the key institutions — the armed forces — in the part of Libya under the rule of the GNA, in a similar way that they helped the Azerbaijani army to be built back up in 1993. Taking advantage of the long and bitter Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Ankara stepped in, providing the necessary military assistance and guidance to the newly-sovereign Baku. Since then, Azerbaijan has been politically and militarily dependent on Turkey to a great extent. The same scenario is now taking place in Libya, where Ankara is gradually compiling the necessary political capital to be utilized under the right circumstances at a later date.

The Role of Qatar

Doha has been taking steps to boost the Qatari armed forces since 2015. Further to the mandatory military conscription applying to all the country nationals, a Turkish military base was also established back in 2015. It’s a base that has been building up year by year to eventually turn into a robust force under the Qatar-Turkey Combined Joint Force Command. It combines elements of army, navy and air force. The Turkish presence, alongside the deployed US forces in Al Udeid Air Base are two factors that have significantly contributed to the operational capabilities and deterrence capacity of the Qatari military.

Following the 2017 Qatari exodus from the Gulf Cooperation Council, Doha has been somewhat isolated in the region. Therefore it is completely reasonable for Qatar to seek expansion of its international standing and influence, through new alliances. This is especially true when Turkey, a long-term and trusted ally, is setting the scene.

However the planned Qatari military participation in the Libyan conflict by providing army experts and consultants, according to the deal, is rather questionable for a country who is partly relying its domestic defense on foreign deployed forces. Looking further into the latest pact, we can see that the Qatari involvement in the trilateral deal will come mainly in terms of financial assistance and material support. If Turkish military involvement has tipped the balance in favor of Sarraj, then the Qatari economy should be seen as the vital leverage to further push the power of these mutual Turkish and GNA claims at this crucial point of the battle.

The strong political and security ties that Ankara has built with Doha are now being utilized in a moment when the Turkish economy is stagnating. Turkey has used its close diplomatic relations with Qatar — one of the richest Gulf states — to secure further funding for the Libya front. Considering the currently grim position of the Turkish economy, the latest Qatari involvement in Libya and the ensuing tripartite agreement comes as a life-saving boost for Turkish plans in North Africa.