A startling discovery toward the end of the year revealed a new facet of Turkey’s ongoing efforts to once again become a major player in the Middle East and restore some of the glory of the fallen Ottoman Empire. Huge consignments of arms hidden in two containers from Turkey were discovered by customs authorities in the Libyan Port of Khoms on December 17 and 18. No less than 3,000 hand guns of Turkish manufacture, a number of hunting guns as well as ammunition were found in the first container, and 4.2 million bullets, also of Turkish manufacture, in the second.
Khoms is a relatively minor port in the western part of the country, a mere 100 kilometers from Tripoli and fairly close to Libya’s border with Tunisia and Algiers. It was undoubtedly chosen on the mistaken belief that controls would be more cursory than in the country’s main port in the capital Tripoli. From the nature of the contraband weapons, it is fairly obvious they were not intended for a regular army, but rather for terrorist activities of armed groups, most probably Islamic organizations linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The UN Security Council imposed a weapons embargo on Libya – which had plunged into civil war following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 – and renewed it last June. The civil war has not abated, and the country is divided between two rival governments: the Government of National Accord of Fayez al Sarraj in Tripoli, recognized by the UN; and the Tobruk government, formed by the House of Representatives elected in 2014 and dominated by general Khalifa Haftar, the de facto governor of eastern Libya and commander in chief of the Libyan National Army, the largest military force in the country. There are also dozens of Islamic and other armed militias, some supporting the Sarraj regime and others acting independently. The local branch of Islamic State is still active, though greatly diminished after being driven out of the main cities.
The discovery of the containers led to a public outcry and was roundly condemned by both governments. Sarraj ordered a thorough investigation while asking Turkey for explanations. Gen. Haftar demanded that the UN Security Council condemn Ankara for violation of the embargo, and launch an international inquest while accusing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of assisting armed terrorist groups and fomenting chaos. The UN delegation to Libya, striving for neutrality and attempting to reconcile the two governments, found itself forced to act and on December 22, expressed its concern and reiterated the importance of the embargo, stressing that the UN had constituted a panel of experts to examine what had happened.
Turkey, which had refrained from addressing the incident and the reaction of Haftar and Sarraj, could not ignore the stand taken by the UN delegation. On the same day, Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s minister for foreign affairs, made an unexpected trip to Tripoli and held talks with his Libyan counterpart, as well as with the head of the parliament, before meeting Sarraj.
CAVUSOGLU TRIED to minimize the incident and accused unnamed “Arab countries” of supplying tanks, missiles and drones to Libya. He probably meant Egypt, which is cooperating with Haftar to control their lengthy border and prevent intrusion by Islamic terrorists.
However, according to a UN report, a dozen countries are supplying weapons to both sides in violation of the embargo. Turkey was already one of them. According to the statement issued by Sarraj’s office after the meeting, Cavusoglu denied any involvement in the incident, adding that it was not representative of Turkey’s policy. Both countries agreed to launch immediately a common investigation. A response deemed unsatisfactory by a member of parliament who demanded that steps be taken against Turkey and requested an international investigation.
Meanwhile, an unnamed security source in Algiers reacted angrily to the discovery and told Saudi daily al Shark al Awsat that dispatching weapons to western Libya, close to the Algerian border, was intended to destabilize the region. As far as he was concerned, he said, it was a declaration of war; the army of his country was in a state of high alert. Both al-Qaeda and Daesh are active between the borders of Libya, Tunisia and Algiers, and there are frequent reports of clashes in the area. Weapons reaching the region, mostly from the Mediterranean, find their way to terrorist organizations in nations of the African Sahel such as Mali, Niger and Chad.
Turkey had sided with Islamic parties led by the Muslim Brotherhood immediately after the fall of Gaddafi. Those parties won the first parliamentary elections held the following year. It maintained its support when they lost the subsequent elections in 2014. The fact that Ankara was helping Islamic organizations involved in the ensuing civil war transpired accidentally already in 2013, when customs agents in Greece found Turkish-made weapons in a ship that had sought shelter from a storm in a Greek port and was bound for Libya.
There have been a number of similar discoveries since, showing a clear pattern of attempts to provide arms to these organizations. In December 2013, Egypt found four containers of contraband armament on a ship which had sailed from Turkey on its way to Libya. Three similar attempts were discovered in 2014: in August, the Libyan army stopped a vessel bringing weapons from Turkey as it was about to enter the Port of Derna, then the stronghold of the largest Jihadi organization at the time, Ansar al Sharia; in November, the Greeks again found arms on a ship coming from Ukraine and going to Libya; and in December, Libyan authorities arrested a Korean vessel carrying a consignment of weapons to Misrata, then the seat of armed militias.
TURKEY’S HELP was not limited to the supply of armament. In January 2017, Ansar al Sharia announced the death of its leader, wounded in a battle with the Libyan National Army, in a Turkish hospital where he had been sent for treatment. When, in September 2018, Libya’s attorney-general issued warrants for the arrest of 826 Islamic terrorists, it became apparent that most of them had fled to Turkey or Qatar, two staunch supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar had in the past supplied Islamic groups in Libya with weapons.
As the continued support of Turkey for Islamic organizations became more and more apparent, hostility grew between that country and Haftar, whose army is the main obstacle to the development of political Islam backed by armed militias in Libya. According to sources in Tobruk and in the army, the Libyan Air Force said it would target Turkish planes entering Libyan airspace while the Tobruk Parliament threatened to halt bilateral trade – estimated at two-to-three billion dollars a year. Turkish investments in the region before the civil war were over 15 billion dollars.
In the course of the last two years there were some new developments.
Turkey is wary of the growing political and military strength of Haftar; the UN is working hard at attempting a reconciliation between Tobruk and Tripoli as well as at holding elections which could bolster further Haftar’s position and hamper Turkish penetration.
This is why a delegation from the Tobruk Parliament was invited in September 2018 to meet President Erdogan in Ankara. Though the meeting was courteous, no agreement was reached, mainly because Haftar is deeply suspicious of Turkish intentions. Last November, Turkey attended the Palermo conference, convened at the initiative of Italy to find a political solution to the Libyan crisis. Haftar objected to the presence of a Turkish delegation. The Turks left in a huff, and a few weeks later a new consignment of Turkish made weapons was discovered in Khoms.
Interestingly, there is very little media interest in what Turkey is doing in Libya, and no condemnation or even reaction. But this is also true about Ankara’s deepening involvement in the Middle East. Turkey, after all, is a major player because of its geostrategic position between Asia and Europe, and the fact that it is a member of NATO and thus part of the defense of the West (though its links with Russia raise doubts on that point).
Then there is the refugee issue. Ankara has agreed to stop the flow of refugees trying to reach Europe from Islamic countries – in exchange for five billion dollars. It is working so far. A weak Europe, helpless to deal with the chaos in the Middle East, is not ready to address Turkish aggressive behavior. And with America departing the scene, the would-be sultan will be even freer to act.
Turkey is now vigorously pursuing its political and/or military penetration in the most sensitive parts of the region – from Syria and Iraq to Somalia and Sudan in Red Sea, and Qatar in the Persian Gulf, for the greater glory of its leader and the supremacy of Islam.The writer is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden, and a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
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