Khalid Zaka: The big picture on Turkey's troop deployment in Libya

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      By Khalid Zaka

      Turkey's parliament has approved by a vast majority a bill allowing its troops to be deployed to Libya in support of the Tripoli-based government in the country's worsening civil war.

      The vote, taken during a special sitting, comes amid fears that the threat of Turkish intervention, in addition to that by other regional competitors, could intensify violence in Libya. MPs voted 325-184 in favor of the deployment.

      President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that the Fayez al-Sarraj government requested the Turkish deployment after he and Sarraj signed a military deal that allows Ankara to dispatch military experts and personnel to Libya.

      That deal, along with a separate agreement on maritime boundaries between Turkey and Libya, has drawn ire across the region and beyond. Ankara says the deployment is vital for Turkey to safeguard its interests in Libya and in the eastern Mediterranean, where it finds itself increasingly isolated as Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt have established exclusive economic zones paving the way for oil and gas exploration.

      The Fayez al-Sarraj’s government has been fighting Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army, which is backed by Egypt, France, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. U.S. officials have expressed concerns about the conflict amid reports of Russian mercenaries backing Haftar's forces.

      The deployment of Turkish troops in various Middle Eastern countries—one after the other—has raised questions regarding the real motives behind it. Turkey already has troops in Qatar and Syria, and now it is sending troops to Libya.

      Let us try to find out the purposes of deploying forces in Libya.

      Is it a move to claim past Ottoman empire territory? Does it relate to the control of Libyan oil and gas? Does Turkey want to take advantage of the changing geopolitical situation in the Middle East to become a regional superpower?

      Before we deliberate these questions, let us take a quick look at Libya as a country.

      This map shows the three major geographic regions of Libya.

      Libya's geography and recent history

      Once an oil-rich and prosperous nation, Libya remains fractured and devastated since long-time leader Moammar Gadhafi was ousted and killed by rebel forces in 2011, with the backing of a NATO bombing campaign. With Gadhafi removed, the country degenerated into a no-man’s-land blighted by militia clashes, jihadism, and human trafficking.

      Libya is in North Africa. Most of the country lies in the Sahara desert, and much of its population is concentrated along the coast and its immediate hinterland, where Tripoli, the de facto capital, and Benghazi, another major city, are located.

      It comprises three historical regions Tripolitania in the northwest, Cyrenaicia in the east, and Fezzan in the southwest. The Ottoman authorities recognized them as separate provinces. Under Italian rule, they were unified to form a single colony, which gave way to independent Libya. For much of Libya’s early history, both Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were more closely linked with neighboring territories than with one other.

      Before the discovery of oil in the late 1950s, Libya was considered poor in natural resources and severely limited by its desert environment. The country was almost entirely dependent upon foreign aid and imports for the maintenance of its economy; the discovery of petroleum dramatically changed this situation.

      The government long exerted strong control over the economy and attempted to develop agriculture and industry with wealth derived from its vast oil revenues. Ghadafi established a welfare state, which provides medical care and education at minimal cost to the Libyan people.

      Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi was ousted from power and killed in a popular uprising in 2011.
      Ricardo Stuckert/PR/Agencia Brasil

      Reactions to Turkey's actions

      There have been international reactions to the Turkish troop deployment. Following the vote, it was disclosed that the U.S. president, Donald Trump, had discussed the situation in Libya with his Turkish counterpart, Erdogan, in a phone call in which the two “stressed the importance of diplomacy in resolving regional issues”.

      Russia, which has been calling for dialogue and silent about taking sides in Libya, said this month that it was unlikely” that interference from third parties in Libya would lead to a settlement. 

      The Arab League is warning against the deployment of foreign fighters in Libya.

      Egypt strongly condemned the vote by Turkey's parliament, which allows a troop deployment to Libya. Egypt said that any such deployment could “negatively affect the stability of the Mediterranean region” and called on the international community to urgently respond to the move.

      German chancellor Angela Merkel discussed efforts to reach a diplomatic solution for the Libyan conflict in separate phone calls with Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Erdogan.

      A German foreign ministry spokesman in Berlin said Germany was following the reports about Turkey's military plans in Libya with "great concern". He urged all involved parties to exercise maximum restraint, respect an international embargo on arms exports to Libya, and step up efforts for a diplomatic solution. Germany has offered to host an international peace conference on Libya that the United Nations is planning.

      Cyprus and Greece also strongly condemned Erdogan's decision to send troops to Libya. According to them, this violates the international law of the sea. 

      Turkish motives

      Based on the review of the unfolding events and changing geopolitical situation in the Middle East, one can argue that the following could be the Turkish motives.

      Turkey has a strong ambition to become a regional superpower. Someone very rightly said that “to be at the big table, you need to be present on the ground”.

      Erdogan has long harboured grand ambitions for Turkey, regularly repeating that the world is “bigger than five”—a reference to the five members of the U.N. Security Council.

      Turkey, by deploying troops in a war-torn country rich in oil and gas, desires to control and take a share of Libyan natural resources. It is reported that Sarraj’s Tripoli-based government has given Turkey rights to large areas of the Mediterranean where gas reserves have recently been discovered.

      What's currently Libya was ruled for four centuries by the Ottoman empire. Libya, the modern country, occupies primarily the same territory as the last Ottoman provinces Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica, which were ceded to Italy in 1912 after the Italo-Turkish war.

      It appears that Turkey has a historic affinity towards Libya, which very well fits into its dreams and designs to become a regional superpower.