Turkey rapidly succeeds in taking over Libya conflict - analysis

Libya is in the midst of a civil war that pits Khalifa Haftar, a general controlling most of the country, against a weak government.

A member of Libya's internationally recognised government forces carries a weapon in Ain Zara, Tripoli, Libya October 14, 2019. Picture taken October 14, 2019.  (photo credit: ISMAIL ZITOUNY/ REUTERS)
A member of Libya's internationally recognised government forces carries a weapon in Ain Zara, Tripoli, Libya October 14, 2019. Picture taken October 14, 2019.
Just weeks after Turkey’s parliament approved deploying troops to western Libya after Turkey signed a controversial Mediterranean deal with the embattled government in Tripoli, Ankara is now the central player in Libya. Nine years after he overthrow of the regime of Muammar Qadaffi, Ankara has transformed the Libyan conflict in weeks, more than many countries have accomplished in years. In Berlin at a summit on Libya's conflict Turkey's delegation has now met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss the future of Libya. This has long-term implications for Israel because Ankara's current leadership is hostile to Israel and has hosted Hamas. 
Libya is in the midst of a civil war that pits Khalifa Haftar, a general controlling most of the country, against a weak government in Tripoli that is called the Government of the National Accord. However, like other failed and failing states that have seen years of war, the government in Tripoli may not command most of the countryside but it commands a role internationally. It also has money and it has hired lobbyists and it realized that it can give away rights in the Mediterranean that it doesn’t control to Turkey. It did just that in November, which benefits Ankara by giving Turkey a claim to a huge swath of sea that gives Turkey overlapping claims with Greece and Cyprus and potentially frustrates a gas pipeline that Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Italy and others wants to build.
Good news for Turkey. With a bit of pluck and the usual nationalist religious chest-beating in Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan positioned Turkey as a player in the Mediterranean after years of watching international energy companies seek to explore off the coast of Cyprus, Israel or Greece. Turkey used the Libya deal to distract from its failures in northern Syria. In Syria Turkey has sold out Syrians in Idlib to constant bombing by the Syrian regime which is backed by Russia. Turkey has an S-400 deal with Russia and a TurkStream gas pipeline with Russia and it doesn’t want to jeopardize those. So Turkey is signaling an openness to the Syrian regime. Turkey’s main goal in Syria is to defeat Kurdish fighters who were aligned with the US until October 2019 when the US abandoned part of northern Syria so Turkey could takeover.
Fresh from the success in pushing the US out of part of Syria and attacking a US partner, Turkey set its sights on Libya. It recruited the same Syrian rebels it used to fight Kurds to go to Libya and fight Haftar. Within weeks of sending them Turkey was already discussing a ceasefire deal with Russia. Haftar, invited to Moscow earlier this month, left without signing the deal. Now Turkey is using its usual threats toward Europe, claiming that if Europe doesn’t back Turkey on Libya then extremists will flood into Europe, to get what it wants from a Libya summit in Berlin.
This is classic Ankara strategy. Insert Ankara’s troops and Syrian mercenaries into a conflict and then get a seat at the table. Ankara did this with the Astana process for the Syrian conflict, and has learned that nationalism, threats and combining economic, political and military strategy works well. Erdogan went to Berlin this week as if Turkey has always run Libya, rather than being a newcomer to the table. Turkey met its new ally, Fayez al-Sarraj of the Tripoli-based government, in Berlin. Now Turkey will gobble up influence in the Tripoli government as it bought up the Syrian rebellion, as it bought in to Northern Cyprus and also as it plays a role in Somalia and Qatar. Turkey’s strategy is to make Tripoli totally dependent on Ankara and nominate Turkey to do its work in international forums. This comes with a cost in the end, because Turkey will get its water and drilling rights and other economic rights. Turkey’s leaders have already claimed there are millions of Turks in Libya that give the former Ottoman Empire a right to influence Libya’s future. Where was this right a few years ago? Where were these supposed Turkish minorities a few years ago suddenly in need of saving?
To launder its role Turkey met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday in Berlin. It got the US to release a statement saying that “we agreed on the need for a formal ceasefire agreement and credible monitoring mechanism.” This is also the way Turkey got the US to do its bidding in northern Syria, by offering Washington a fait accompli of basically, “we are going in, so agree or get out of the way.” The US decision to back Turkey’s new role in Libya can be seen in how Pompeo spoke to Egypt and the UAE, two states that back Haftar. In speaking with the UAE in Berlin the US Secretary of State said that he emphasized the need to end “all foreign intervention.” Turkish intervention too? Turkey is the one foreign power sending ground troops and threatening to send more ground troops to Libya, whereas Egypt and the UAE have backed Haftar with other means.
Turkey has successfully portrayed Egypt and the UAE as intervening in Libya to justify its own intervention. By doing so it raised the profile of the conflict and also raised the profile of the Berlin summit. It appears US relations with Egypt have now cooled and that Turkey is Washington’s bet for its next steps in Libya and Syria. Egypt and UAE failed in Libya to push their agenda because they weren’t willing to do what Turkey does, sending soldiers and jumping fully in. They tip-toed quietly into the conflict. The current US administration admires Turkey’s strength because it is skeptical of international organizations like the UN’s ability to solve the Syrian or Libyan crises. The UN’s only role has been to generally prolong these conflicts. Turkey pushes for a ceasefire to cement its role.
For other US allies, such as Israel, this has longer term ramifications. Turkey ruling party is extremely anti-Israel, comparing Israel to Nazi Germany and claiming that Turkey is the lone champion of the Palestinians. Turkey hosts Hamas and seeks to prevent a pipeline that Israel and Greece want to build. Turkey’s real goal is not just to pressure Israel but to come away from Syria and Libya with ceasefire agreements and a greater alliance with Russia aimed at dividing the region between Russia, Iran and Turkey, with a reduced US presence and a US dependent on Turkey. Turkey understands the math there: If the US is faced with working with Iran, Russia or Turkey it will choose Turkey. That is also Ankara’s bet with EU countries.