Economics, status drive Turkey’s Libya intervention, despite split domestic support

Ahead of a U.N.-sponsored conference on the Libya conflict in Berlin on Sunday, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced on Thursday that Turkey will begin deploying troops to Libya in support of the U.N.-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

Unlike foreign policy adventures in Syria, intervention in Libya garners less domestic support in Turkey. So, why is Ankara willing to invest greater resources in the North African country now?

“Economic and other more pragmatic motivations are certainly at play,” Lisel Hintz, assistant professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University, told Ahval, but Erdoğan “still wants to see more governments in the Middle East and North Africa that look like his – some form of Islamist authoritarian populism.”

Erdoğan has claimed that more than 1 million Turks live in Libya, legitimizing Turkish involvement in the conflict. "It is our duty to protect our kin in Libya," Erdogan said Tuesday, emphasizing Turkey’s “deep historical and social ties with Libya."

However, Howard Eissenstat, associate professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University and non-resident senior fellow at POMED, told Ahval that Erdogan is overselling the history, although noting, “it is true that Libya, Trablus Garp in Ottoman Turkish, was once an Ottoman province and the Ottomans fought against the Italians there.”

He says, “the real issues are less rarified. Turkey has long provided skilled workers at all levels for the region’s oil industry, and Libya has been an important site for Turkish foreign workers for decades.”

According to Hintz, the GNA led by Fayez al-Sarraj is an important guarantor for Turkey’s “potential access to oil supplies, nearly $20 billion in contracts that Turkish economy needs to see fulfilled, maintaining a Turkish stake in maritime debates over territorial waters and access to energy sources in the East Mediterranean.”

Complicating matters for Turkey’s interests and, more essentially, a resolution to the conflict, is the escalating internationalization of the conflict.

Mercenaries of the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group bolstered the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar late last year, along with drones and missiles supplied by long-time Haftar backers, the UAE and Egypt. Several other Arab monarchies, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan, have offered diplomatic support to Haftar, whom they see as a like-minded, strongly anti-Islamist leader.

Furthermore, while “Libya has become an element of Turkey’s rivalry with Egypt and the UAE,” Eissenstat said, “Perhaps even more importantly, Erdoğan sees Libya as key to challenging efforts to lock Turkey out of the Eastern Mediterranean natural gas exploration that is centered on Cyprus.”

Faltering under the LNA’s advances in Tripoli, the GNA called on Turkey at the end of December for military assistance under a memorandum of understanding between the two governments.

The Turkey-GNA military cooperation agreement was signed in November along with a bilateral maritime agreement asserting that territory around several Greek islands and parts of Cyprus belong to Turkey’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The agreement effectively seeks to cut the waters of Greece off from Cyprus, Israel and other eastern Mediterranean states’ EEZs.

Turkey’s aggressive maritime claims are a direct challenge to plans for a major pipeline agreed between Greece, Cyprus and Israel. These three states, along with the European Union, the U.S., and Egypt have declared the Turkey-Libya agreement illegal. Should the GNA fall, Turkey would lose its only international support for its claims.

On Thursday, Erdoğan said, “In the areas that remain between Turkey and Libya, it is now legally impossible for there to be exploration and drilling activities or a pipeline without the approval of both sides.” 

Turkey will begin granting exploration and drilling licenses for the area soon, the president said.

Denied an invitation to Sunday’s U.N.-sponsored conference in Berlin, Greek officials held talks with Haftar on Friday and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, “Greece will never accept any political solution for Libya at the European Council, which does not have as a precondition the annulment of the memorandum with Turkey.”

Germany, which sees a stable Libya as important to stemming the overwhelming wave of asylum-seekers to Europe, is eager to use its term on the U.N. Security Council to kick-start the Libya peace process. Along with Sarraj and Haftar, it has invited delegations from the external states involved in the conflict, including Russia, Turkey, the United States, France, Italy, and the UAE, many of which are flouting the U.N. arms embargo.

Hoping to take the lead in resolving the conflict, Turkey and Russia made joint efforts earlier this month to broker an effective ceasefire. In Moscow, Sarraj signed the agreement, but Haftar left without signing.

Turkey’s support for the failed effort reflects the core identity-based goal of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) to demonstrate Turkey’s ability to shape regional events and to be perceived positively as a legitimate regional leader.

“Related to the influence and status to be gained by bolstering Turkey's role as regional Muslim leader,” Hintz said, “is potential bargaining leverage to be gained vis-a-vis Russia, specifically, but also the UAE, Egypt, and other actors supporting Haftar.”

Turkey may also believe that its role in Libya gives it leverage with Russia in other conflicts.

“Military support to Libya is linked to Syria in the sense that Turkey may have believed it could gain a bit of bargaining power over Russia on the crucial case of Idlib, although this perception may not be accurate. Perceptions also shape Turkey’s ability to portray itself as a regional leader and mediator,” Hintz told Ahval, “to domestic and international audiences alike.”

Although the Turkish Parliament gave Erdoğan the authority to determine the timing and extent of military involvement in Libya, the vote on January 2 was highly split. The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), and the nationalist Good (İYİ) Party, which both supported Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria, joined the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in opposing intervention in Libya.

“Thus,” Hintz told Ahval, “military support to an ideologically and financially friendly power in Libya does not generate the same kind of unifying nationalism as incursions in Syria, with the latter fueled by both legitimate security concerns and anti-Kurdish sentiment.”

Erdoğan may lean into statements that Turkey has a duty to protect its “brothers” in Libya, but ultimately, Eissenstat said, “the ideological rhetoric here is a lot less significant than the practical strategic considerations.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.