Only weeks ago, Turkish officials regularly vaunted the country’s military intervention in Libya in support of their maritime borders deal with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).
“To help the legitimate Libyan government stay in power and to ensure stability, we are now sending our troops to this country,” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in Ankara in mid-January, stressing how protecting Turkey’s rights in the Mediterranean would lead to a new era.
Fast forward five weeks and Ankara and pro-government news outlets are playing down the Turkish military role in Libya, covering up negative news reports and silencing those who discuss the conflict online.
Turkey has been backing the United Nations-recognised GNA for a few years and has stepped up that support in recent weeks by dispatching some of its own soldiers along with as many as 6,000 Syrian rebels. On Tuesday, Erdoğan said Turkish military advisers were only there to train and coordinate the Syrian rebels. He acknowledged the death of two Turkish personnel, a reduction from last week when he spoke of “a few martyrs”.
Also last week, the email and social media accounts of two columnists for nationalist Yeniçağ newspaper were hacked after they said Turkish soldiers in Libya had been killed and buried with no official funeral.
Soli Özel, international relations professor at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, said few Turkish people backed the Libya intervention, particularly as Ankara had been sending thousands of troops into Syria’s Idlib province. Critics have accused the government of covering up the death of a colonel and others in Libya in an attempt to limit the political damage.
“I don’t think there is much support if any for a Libya intervention,” Özel told Ahval in a podcast. “But it’s started, it can’t be stopped, I suppose, so better to keep things quiet, especially if there are casualties inside Libya.”
While Turkey’s operations in Syria address widespread concerns about Kurdish militants and Syrian refugees, Özel added, Libya had no impact on the lives of Turkish citizens.
“Libya is just too remote and no amount of ‘Atatürk fought there’, ‘It used to be Ottoman Empire’, ‘Now we have this (maritime) agreement’ … will resonate with the larger public,” he said.
Many observers see Turkey’s intervention as mainly an effort to ensure its maritime borders deal with the GNA, which Ankara believes gives it a seat at the eastern Mediterranean negotiating table. The deal challenges maritime boundaries established by Greece and Cyprus. Those states, along with the European Union, have said the deal as null and void, while the United States has described it as provocative.
“I call it a unilateral deal because it was designed by Turkey and sold by Turkey to Libya,” Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and former EU ambassador to Turkey, told Ahval in a podcast.
He said the deal had no real legal basis and pointed out that while Turkey signed the agreement with the GNA, the landfall of Libya’s maritime area is controlled by the GNA’s enemy, General Khalifa Haftar. “It’s kind of a dubious logic that you have here at work,” said Pierini.
Last week the EU launched a new naval and air mission to enforce the U.N. arms embargo on Libya. Pierini felt the new embargo mission had a chance to significantly slow shipments from the likes of Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, Haftar’s main backer.
Whether its shipments reach Libya or not, Jalel Harchaoui, research fellow at Dutch think tank the Clingendael Institute, expected Turkey to continue to pursue an inconsistent policy in Libya.
“It is engaged in a logic that consists in announcing the military intervention in Libya in a very overt, official manner,” he told Ahval in a podcast. “If you are consistent with yourself then you should send 6,000 Turkish soldiers.”
Harchaoui acknowledged that Turkey could not do that because of the minimal public support, which is why it sent the Syrian mercenaries. Dimitar Bechev, Ahval contributor and research fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Erdoğan had to strike a balance between dispatching enough troops to shape the outcome without getting bogged down and suffering domestic blowback.
Bechev did not expect a few thousand Syrian rebels to shift the balance of power in Libya.
“If you want to minimise your footprint and just send Syrians, I don’t think that will do the trick,” he told Ahval in a podcast.
This is one reason why Harchaoui expects the next phase of the Libyan war to be much more intense, which will likely result in many more dead Turkish soldiers, and more cover-ups.
“Every clue points to a very negative destructive scenario, which is much worse than everything we have experienced over the last 10 months,” he said.