Foreign Affairs Foreign Affairs
Photo Credit: Presconferentie Erdogan

Turkey under the Justice and Development Party (“AKP”), led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has pursued a muscular foreign policy.  Seeking to influence events in her near abroad and beyond, Turkey is most active in the former Ottoman Empire.  In the early twentieth century, Libya was the furthest reach of Ottoman power in Africa.  A short war with Italy resulted in the Empire’s loss of Libyan provinces.  One hundred years after the Italo-Turkish War began in 1911, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was killed at the hands of Libyan rebel forces. 

The resulting power vacuum ushered in a decade of civil war.  Two power centers emerged at historically competitive areas:  Tripoli in the West and Benghazi and Tobruk in the East.  As Robert D. Kaplan has noted, Tripoli has for centuries been pulled west towards Tunisia, an anciently settled and civilized area.  Benghazi has been dragged in the opposite direction towards the demography of Egypt.  It is therefore no coincidence that these two communities now form headquarters of the two main factions vying for national control in Libya.

The civil war has been a multi-sided firing squad, with the Islamic State (“ISIS”) taking advantage of the poor governance and appearing as a powerful threat to all parties from 2014-2017.  The Caliphate lost it’s most prominent base in the city of Sirte in December, 2016.

Briefly, the current situation has evolved to a two-way battle.  The Government of National Accord (“GNA”) abides in Tripoli and enjoys United Nations support.  The GNA has extensive ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.  The Muslim Brotherhood is a pan-Islamic religious and political society founded in Egypt.  Fiercely Sunni and conservative, the Brotherhood briefly held power in Egypt after the expulsion of strongman Hosni Mubarak (2011).  The Brotherhood was then chased out by a military coup led by General el-Sisi, now the current president (2013).  Qatar and Turkey are significant international patrons of the Brotherhood and, coincidentally, the major sponsors of the GNA.  Turkey sent troops to Libya in early 2020 to shore up the GNA’s flagging fortunes on the battlefield.  Communities with thousands of Libyans of Turkish ancestry, a vestige of Ottoman imperialism, are located in Western Libya.      

The GNA rival in the East is the Libyan National Army (“LNA”), led by a former Gaddafi general, Khalifa Haftar.  Haftar toes a secularist line.  Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates provide military support to the LNA.  Russia sends mercenary forces to bolster the LNA, and these have engaged in combat operations.  The LNA launched an offensive in 2019 that nearly captured Tripoli, and left the GNA with only a small section of territory in the Northwestern corner of Libya.  Turkish military support, including drone technology, has allowed the GNA to consolidate a defensible position and drive back the LNA towards the central coastal region near Sirte. 

Neither side seems able to deal the other a knockout blow, and the threat of more intervention from foreign forces raises the stakes for any attempt to consolidate national power by main force.  Egypt feels bound to oppose the GNA government due to the threat of a Muslim Brotherhood-led government on Egypt’s vague Western border.  Egypt’s armed forces are large and conveniently located nearby.  With sufficient commitment, Egypt could probably deny any GNA attempt to capture Eastern Libya.  President el-Sisi has indicated Egypt could intervene in force if GNA forces drive too close to Egypt.

For her part, Russia seeks more influence in the Mediterranean and Europe.  A Libyan proxy state in thrall to Russia would be susceptible to Russian energy policy, as Libya is, like Russia, an important fuel exporter.  A pliant Libyan government would allow Russia another Mediterranean naval and air base and a political and economic entrepôt into North Africa.  Although Russia and Turkey have evidenced moves towards détente, see the Turkish purchase of Russian S400 air to ground missile defense systems, in Libya the two nations are engaged in a very hot proxy war.

Turkey’s intervention fits President Erdoğan’s recent pattern of behavior, in that Turkey is engaging in low level military deployment in a nation formerly part of the Ottoman Empire.  Turkey’s intervention protects Libyans of Turkish descent in Western Libya, boosts a Muslim Brotherhood friendly government, and expands Turkish influence in the Mediterranean.  A Turkish proxy state safely ensconced in Tripoli might allow Ankara energy export deals, allow overseas basing of Turkish ships, aircraft, and troops, and increase pressure on Egypt ( which is, since the expulsion of the Muslim Brotherhood government, increasingly an ideological foe). 

Critically, Libya has been a source of migrants to Europe, most landing in nearby Italy.  Europe has already been beset by thousands of migrants from the slaughter in Syria, and Italy in particular wants to avoid absorbing further waves of refugees.  Erdoğan already controls the crucial spigot of migrants seeking escape from Syria in Europe by virtue of his enviable position in Anatolia, and has used this leverage to pressure Europe.  If Turkey controlled a proxy state in Libya, Erdoğan could coerce Europe by releasing waves of migrants overland (from Thrace into Greece) and by sea (fleeing a war torn Libya).  Europe has struggled to absorb Muslim immigrants, exemplified by recent terrorist acts in France. Turkey would possess excruciating leverage against the EU.

Finally, Turkey’s geopolitical aspirations are bound up in the success of the GNA government.  Ankara and the Tripoli signed an agreement in November, 2019 delineating a maritime boundary between the two countries which cuts off a gas pipeline planned to flow energy from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe.  The agreement portends to establish the Exclusive Economic Zones (“EEZ”) of Turkey and Libya as a barrier to the pipeline coalition of Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt.  If the GNA government prevails, Turkey will have a key ally in the multi-faceted battle over EEZ boundaries in the Mediterranean.  Recent natural gas exploration in the region has boosted the importance of EEZ boundaries, which determine who may exploit natural resources. 

Given the close proximity of Mediterranean states, and the number of islands, drawing EEZs to the satisfaction of every state is an impossibility.  Turkey feels hemmed in by Greek control over the Aegean Sea, delivered by Greek ownership of the numerous islands, including many near the Turkish coast.  Cyprus is also a complicating factor, given that Turkey controls Northern Cyprus, but the Southern end of the island, which enjoys international recognition and Greek friendship, is ideally placed to take advantage of now crucial EEZ waters.

Turkey’s EEZ claims are therefore in dispute with Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt.  Each side dismisses the other’s maritime claims as illegal under international law.  Because Turkey needs another Mediterranean state to back her claims, she cannot allow the GNA government to fall.  Note that Turkey’s military intervention in Libya took place after the maritime boundary deal was inked with the GNA. 

Because Egypt and Turkey both have critical geopolitical stakes on the line, and each have the resources to prevent their proxies from being easily defeated, it is unlikely a battlefield victory will end the Libyan Civil War soon.  What the United States and European Union (“EU”) should do to end the disaster is attempt to de-incentivize the conflict.  Resolving the maritime boundary dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean would go far in disconnecting the result of the Libyan war from ownership of billions of dollars of underwater resources, and might de-escalate the conflict. 

Unfortunately for Egypt, it seems unlikely any assurances could be made against a Muslim Brotherhood dominated government becoming resident in Tripoli after the war is over.  The Brotherhood has demonstrated an ability to use democratic mechanisms as a path to power.  Likewise, it is unlikely Erdoğan would willingly absorb a defeat in Libya without escalating Turkish military involvement.  Absent decisive American and EU statesmanship of the highest order, the Libyan Civil War is destined to continue.

By Chris Crawford.

The author’s views are his own and not those of the Department of Defense, United States Navy, or any other entity.  The appearance of any external hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the Department of Defense to any linked website, product, or service.