It has been six months since Turkey entered the fray in war-torn Libya. In early January, the Turkish parliament, at the behest of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, voted on deploying troops to Libya to support the country’s Government of National Accord (GNA), the transitional body created in 2015 to govern the embattled nation.
Turkey’s military action has been framed from the start as an effort to prop up the GNA in the face of attacks by the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the control of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The LNA has stepped up attacks against GNA forces over the past year in a tremendous escalation of the long and costly Libyan civil war.
But observers have been quick to point out the more nefarious goals behind Erdogan’s invasion.
Like many conflicts in the Middle East, one of the central drivers for Turkey’s military presence in Libya is energy. Shortly before Turkish troops were sent to Libya, a quorum of the region’s leaders including representatives from Israel, Cyprus, and Greece met in Athens to discuss a joint framework for the construction of a massive undersea pipeline project. The purpose of the pipeline would be to transport gas from new offshore deposits in the southeastern Mediterranean to continental Europe. Turkey, which has not made any gas discoveries of its own, was excluded from this venture. Being forced out of the pipeline project not only strained relations between Turkey and its historical rivals Cyprus and Greece, but also brought Ankara to a new level of desperation.
After years of unsuccessful – and often illegal – attempts at discovering fossil fuel deposits, Turkey has turned to partnering with Libya as a way of securing energy sources. Already in late 2019, Ankara had signed a maritime boundary deal with the GNA giving Turkey access to Libya’s offshore deposits. Only weeks ago, the Turkish Energy Ministry announced their intention to begin oil exploration offshore.
Beyond simply securing access to energy resources, Turkey’s actions in Libya also form a grand strategy for both exerting its influence in the region as well as lashing out against the West.
The two main sides of the Libyan civil war have been firmly backed by both regional and international powers. While the GNA is recognized by the United Nations, the LNA is backed by the US, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and France. Both sides see the Libyan civil war as a way of furthering their visions for the Middle East as a whole. Indeed, the more moderate, pragmatic nations naturally back Haftar, a man dedicated to the crushing of extremist and militant elements in the country.
Turkey, by backing the GNA, has joined the terror-funding state Qatar and the extremist Muslim Brotherhood, in propping up a largely ineffective and corrupt governing body to ensure instability. Turkey’s immediate geopolitical objective in Libya is to limit the control of its regional neighbors, especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE who are committed to combating militias in the region.
However, perhaps the most malicious of Turkey’s goals in Libya is to hurt European stakeholders.
Libya is Europe’s prime exporter of crude oil. For years, the vast majority of Libya’s oil production has gone to fuel European countries. By controlling Libya’s energy sector, Turkey is capable of constricting the flow of vital energy resources to a continent already reeling from economic hardship in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to limiting oil supplies, Turkey has also threatened Europe with ceasing to stem the flow of refugees to the continent. Erdogan has repeatedly warned Europe that it could unleash a massive influx of migrants if its various economic demands are not met. Recently, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu alluded to a resurgence of waves of refugees attempting to reach Europe as the COVID-19 crisis begins to subside. If Turkey does act on its threats, Europe will witness a migrant crisis, and its social services will feel the brunt of it.
Both the energy and refugee issues present serious dangers to European society, and Turkey knows it. It is not surprising that several European powers have been increasingly attacking Turkey for its Libyan venture. Europe’s governments have been taking steps to actively counter Turkey’s policies in Libya with France seeking NATO assistance on the matter. Reportedly, President Emmanuel Macron has already met with US President Donald Trump, and more exchanges are expected in the coming weeks. Russia has taken a step further by discreetly deploying warplanes to the country’s center, fighters that are more than capable of countering Turkish military assets currently on the ground in Libya.
To protect European interests, it is vital to safeguard Libya from Turkish incursions and prevent Erdogan from gaining control over the country's assets. The EU and the West as a whole must remain steadfast in their positions on Libya. Only by this way can Turkey’s aggression be deterred.
Salma Mohamed is a London-based freelance MENA analyst and journalist focusing on the political and security issues of the region. Originally from the medical sector, Salma is a graduate of Cardiff University's political science program.
Note: Following the publication of this article, there have been reports questioning the author’s identity. Al Arabiya English has been unable to make contact with the author since the reports surfaced.