Ankara responds to Tripoli’s request for military assistance as warlord Khalifa Haftar continues to pose a threat.

Since Libya descended into a civil war some eight years ago, international efforts to bring peace between different warring sides have faltered. 

The oil-rich country is under the influence of the internationally-recognised government based in Tripoli on one side and forces loyal to the renegade warlord General Khalifa Haftar who exerts power in the east. 

France, the United Kingdom and the United States, which played a crucial role in backing the uprising that toppled Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 have for the most part watched from the sidelines as local militias fight for control. 

In Europe, the issue is seen largely from the lense of a refugee problem and Italy’s colonial history.

The conflict has drawn regional and global players — Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. 

Since April, Haftar’s forces have been attacking Tripoli where the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) has formally asked Turkey for military assistance. 

Here are the key reasons why Turkey backs the GNA. 

It’s backed by the United Nations

In 2015, the UN Security Council (UNSC) brokered a deal and announced that the GNA is the only representative body in Libya. It asked UN-members to stop supporting other groups and help GNA establish control over the territory. 

“It called on Member States to cease support to and official contact with parallel institutions claiming to be the legitimate authority, but which were outside of the Political Agreement,” the UNSC said at the time. 

But as the conflict deepened, Russia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), France and Egypt put their weight behind Haftar, who was once the sweetheart of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Moscow is alleged to have sent mercenaries to help the warlord whose forces control the oil-producing regions. 

UAE and Egypt have shipped weapons to  Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) — a group that includes soldiers from the former regime and mercenaries from various countries.

The UNSC has also pointed fingers at Jordan, UAE and Turkey for violating its arms embargo. 

But Ankara says it is standing on the right side of history. 

“They are helping a warlord. We are responding to an invitation from the legitimate government of Libya. That’s the difference between us,” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday. 

Warlord vs the people 

Khalifa Haftar emerged as a power broker after the ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. He had lived a secluded life in the US for the previous two decades. 

He was once a top military officer under Gaddafi rule. But after a fallout in the late 1980s, he joined forces with a CIA-backed group in a futile attempt to overthrow Gaddafi. 

Khalifa Haftar wants to become the undisputed leader of Libya.
Khalifa Haftar wants to become the undisputed leader of Libya. (AA)

He soon after escaped to the US. 

After a civil war erupted in Libya in 2014, he won the US support by projecting himself as someone who can take on the religious extremists — much like Abdel Fattah el Sisi had done in Egypt. 

His forces, which included military commanders once loyal to Gaddafi, took control of the politically important city of Benghazi as Egyptian warplanes gave cover. 

In the last few years, Haftar, 75, has benefited from the competing foreign policies of regional players. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel are giving the warlord a clean pass. 

For instance, France is accused of playing both sides — while it recognises the UN-backed GNA, it has also stalled UNSC efforts to condemn Haftar’s aggression. 

That’s likely because France wants Haftar’s support in fighting militants in Chad and Niger, which share borders with Libya and where French troops have been active for years. 

The Eastern Mediterranean equation 

Last month, Turkey and the Tripoli government signed an agreement to demarcate the exclusive economic zones in the Mediterranean Sea.  

A fighter loyal to the internationally recognised Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) fires a truck-mounted gun during clashes with forces loyal to warlord Khalifa Haftar in the capital Tripoli's suburb of Ain Zara, on September 7, 2019.
A fighter loyal to the internationally recognised Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) fires a truck-mounted gun during clashes with forces loyal to warlord Khalifa Haftar in the capital Tripoli's suburb of Ain Zara, on September 7, 2019. (MAHMUD TURKIA / Getty Images)

The deal allows Turkey to explore gas reserves in the offshore territory where other regional players have shut Turkey out of the exploration efforts. 

Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel have all found substantial gas reserves while Turkey has faced international rebuke for trying to strike a find in its part of the waters in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

Security analysts argue Haftar’s control over Libya could disturb balance in the Mediterranean where Turkey is already in a tussle with Greek Cypriots on the question of sharing gas wealth with Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. 

Turkey meets almost all its energy needs with imports.

Renewed refugee crisis

Libya has for years played the role of a gatekeeper when it comes to stemming the tide of refugees heading towards Europe. 

As far back as 2008, Gaddafi was receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from the EU against the promise of keeping tight control over Libya’s 1,100 mile long coastline. 

Thousands of migrants have been killed while trying to cross the Mediterranean. 

Turkey, which hosts the highest number of refugees in the world, is wary of seeing another crisis that could impact Turkish towns and cities and also destabilize the region. 

Source: TRT World