What lies beneath foiled bids to smuggle Turkish arms to North Africa?

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Libyan authorities on Monday said they seized a shipment of Turkish arms into Libya through the country’s port of Misrata, the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported.

An official from the Misrata port customs said it had “managed to seize a shipment of weapons containing Turkish pistols inside a container with some household items and children’s toys used as camouflage,” in a move that marks a violation of the UN resolution banning the sale and transfer of arms to Libya.

The shipment contained 556 cartons, each containing 36 pistols, which is equivalent to about 20,000 pistols, officials noted, failing to give information on the sender or recipients.

The Libyan army accuses Ankara of supporting terrorists and armed militias in order to fuel chaos the country.

The incident marks the second seizure of Turkish weapons in less than a month.

The discovery last month of 3,000 Turkish-made guns and more than four million bullets hidden in shipping containers arriving in the Libyan port of Khoms revealed a new element to Turkey’s neo-Ottoman effort to again become a major player in the Middle East, the Jerusalem Post said.

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According to Ahvalnews, Khoms is a relatively minor port, likely chosen because controls might be less rigorous there, Zvi Mazel, former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, Romania, and Sweden, and senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, wrote in the Israeli news outlet on Monday.

“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,” said Mazel.

Violation of UN arms embargo

The shipments violate a United Nations’ Security Council weapons embargo on Libya since the start of the civil war in 2011. Today, the country is split between the Government of National Accord, led by Fayez al Sarraj in Tripoli and recognized by the UN, and the Tobruk government, led by General Khalifa Haftar, the de facto ruler of eastern Libya and head of the Libyan National Army.

As violence has continued, dozens of Islamic and other armed militias have emerged, and the local branch of ISIS is still active, though greatly diminished.

Haftar demanded the UN Security Council launch an international inquest and accused President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of assisting armed terrorist groups and fomenting chaos.

On December 22, the UN delegation to Libya reiterated the importance of the embargo and said the UN had constituted a panel of experts to examine what happened. The same day, Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, arrived in Tripoli and met his Libyan counterpart and Sarraj.

Cavusoglu’s denial

Cavusoglu sought to minimize the incident and accused unnamed Arab countries of supplying tanks, missiles and drones to Libya.

According to a UN report, a dozen countries, Turkey among them, are supplying weapons to both sides in violation of the embargo.

Cavusoglu denied any involvement in the incident, adding that it was not representative of Turkey’s policy. Both countries agreed to cooperate on an investigation.

Both al-Qaeda and ISIS are active between the borders of Libya, Tunisia and Algeria, and there are frequent reports of clashes in the area. Weapons reaching the region, mostly from the Mediterranean, often find their way to militant organizations.

“Turkey had sided with Islamic parties led by the Muslim Brotherhood immediately after the fall of Gaddafi,” wrote Mazel. “Those parties won the first parliamentary elections held the following year. Ankara 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 was already known. In 2013, Greek customs agents found Turkish-made weapons in a Libya-bound ship that had sought shelter from a storm in a Greek port. There have been similar discoveries since, showing a clear pattern of attempts to provide arms to these organizations.

“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 Gulf,” wrote Mazel, “for the greater glory of its leader and the supremacy of Islam.”