As Libyans Prepare to Turn a Page, Turkey Finds Itself More Isolated Than Ever

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


Peace efforts in Libya are beginning to show some early results. After months of fighting between the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) of Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj and the National Army in eastern Libya led by Khalifa Haftar, talks have taken place in Morocco meant to build on a tenuous cease-fire and the promise of national elections. It seems that one of the early “casualties” of the Morocco agreement has been Mr. Sarraj, who announced he would be stepping down by the end of October. His resignation is meant to open the way for the creation of a new government, which some hope will lead to a more stable political and security environment. News of the resignation, however, is likely to cause Turkey problems as it seeks to play an increasingly assertive role in the region, particularly in the resource-rich eastern Mediterranean.

As many celebrated last month’s ceasefire and the seeming success of diplomacy, long-time contributor to Gulf News, Linda Heard, cautioned against celebrating too soon, even amid news that the “oil-rich country, torn apart by a Western military intervention, divided along ideological lines and coveted by foreign jackals seeking a part of the action, is finally embracing a unifying path, the path to peaceful engagement…. If all goes well the Libyan people can look forward to an era of peace and prosperity which they enjoyed during the tenure of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi who despite his eccentricities made sure his people didn’t want for anything…. Libyans are experiencing a sense of relief and hope for a better tomorrow, but much will depend on the sincerity of the partners in peace and also whether Haftar will be offered a meaningful place at the table.”

The need to be wary of getting carried away by recent developments was driven home by Khaled Okasha, general manager of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies. In a recent op-ed for Al Ahram, he pointed out that, while the region’s attention has been fixed on the conflict between the GNA and the National Army, southern Libya has been slowly drifting away from the control of both sides: “In Libya, which is customarily treated one-dimensionally as a case of sharp polarization between the eastern and western parts of the country (a reductionism that is perhaps intentional on the part of some stakeholders), the south has reared its head as a bundle of threats with major security implications. These will inevitably work their way northwards with potentially destructive repercussions if the south remains ignored and if Libyans and their allies continue to lack the political resolve to incorporate that region in a concrete and integral way in the concept of the sovereign Libyan state.”

Given Turkey’s visible and growing role in Libya, it is not surprising that many have blamed Turkey’s involvement in the talks, as well as the consequences of Mr. Sarraj’s resignation, for the relationship between the GNA and Turkey. In an attempt to provide an explanation for the dramatic turn of events over the last two months, Daily Sabah’s Imad Atoui and Rania Khalouta propose “two different explanations. The first explanation is that the U.S., with its EU allies, seeks to shake the GNA and potentially risk the Turkish partnership with the GNA…. This will weaken the Turks, who will be forced to respond to U.S. demands to prevent the Russians from using the Bosporus…. The second explanation is that the happenings in Tripoli could have been crafted by Russia since its agent Haftar is ignored. This is because, after the division, the western Libyan wing, the Tobruk parliament headed by Aguila Saleh, fell under the Western powers while Russia became unrepresented with its wanted agent Haftar.”

Turkey has been quick to underscore the fact that any official acts that have taken place between Turkey and Libya’s internationally recognized government are still valid and expects the new government to stand by them. According to a statement by the Turkish presidential spokesman published by the Daily Sabah, “Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj’s decision to resign will not affect the country’s cooperation and agreements with Turkey…. The departure announcement comes nearly a year after Turkey signed security and maritime deals with Sarraj’s GNA…. Reminding that Turkey has been providing support to the country as part of the military cooperation deal signed last year with GNA, Kalın added [that] this support will continue regardless of who fills specific roles in the internationally recognized government.”

Turkey’s role in the Libyan conflict and its complicated relationship with Russia is also the subject of an op-ed by Syrian journalist Ibrahim Hamidi, who, writing for Asharq Alawsat, concludes that it is not surprising “Turkey announced the imminent conclusion of an agreement with Russia on a ceasefire in Libya after the two parties revealed a sudden crisis between them in northwestern Syria. It is not the first time that the two issues are intertwined. Moscow supports President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the commander of the National Army, Khalifa Haftar, in eastern Libya and brings them together. Ankara, for its part, backs opposition factions in northern Syria and the Government of National Accord forces in western Libya, and connects their elements together…. In Libya, the ceasefire and the activation of the political process are imminent. The statements of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu have indisputably expressed the extent of the interconnection between the two issues.”

Turkey’s increasingly assertive role in Libya has proven problematic for many in the region and has become a cause of conflict between, among others, Turkey and Egypt. Hamza Hendawi, Gaza Chief of Bureau for the Associated Press as well as a contributing writer for The National, recently weighed in on this matter in an op-ed for The National characterizing relations between the two countries as “tense over Turkey’s military intervention in Libya, Egypt’s western neighbor, where Cairo and Ankara support rival sides…. Tension has been heightened by Turkey’s attempts to muscle in on Egypt’s strategic partnership with Cyprus and Greece, both at odds with Ankara, to develop natural gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. Egypt and Greece last month signed an agreement defining their exclusive economic zones, furthering their ambition to tap into the gas reserves along with Cyprus and Israel and further isolating Turkey.”

This has led some to conclude that Turkey may soon find itself isolated, especially given that, as this Khaleej Times editorial points out, Turkey’s “currency has been losing value fast, foreign reserves [are] depleting at a pace not seen in emerging markets before, inflation is pinching household budgets, and a lot of people are without jobs…. In the Middle East and North Africa region, Turkish footprints are seen in Syria, Libya, and Somalia. Come to think of it, such tactics help divert attention from domestic woes and also strengthen Erdogan’s image at home. He is eyeing the next election in 2023 and wants to project himself as the greatest leader in modern Turkey. But will that work when Turkey’s foreign policy is at odds with its neighbors and undermines NATO? No country is an island, but it is hard to explain to a man who is putting his personal ambitions over and above his people and the country.”


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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