Earlier this week Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted that his government is considering the possibility of sending troops to Libya to prevent Russian-supported forces from capturing Tripoli. Erdogan was quick to point out that such an intervention would not occur unless the UN-recognized Libyan government requested it.
Erdogan’s comments indicate just how much the position of the Government of National Accord (GNA) has deteriorated. Forces under the control of militia leader Khalifa Haftar, heavily backed by Russian weapons, and advisers, have tightened their siege of Libya. Haftar is publicly claiming his forces will be inside of Tripoli by the end of the year, a realistic probability given the present situation on the ground.
Libya, at the moment, keenly represents the mishmash of competing interests, and actions by powers in the region. In the past three months Russia has thrown its lot in behind Haftar, contributing a considerable number of mercenaries, and equipment. These moves has enabled Haftar’s forces to successfully resume the drive on the Libyan capital. Government forces opposing them are reaching the breaking point. If they are unable to prevent Haftar’s troops from entering Tripoli, it will likely mean the collapse of the GNA. Libya could once again descend into a long period of fighting between militias opposed to Haftar, and his forces. This turmoil will inevitably bring on a fresh exodus of refugees looking to escape the fighting. The most likely destination of these people is Europe, a scenario the European Union can hardly afford.
Russia is not the only nation backing Haftar. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia have provided weapons, and material support in the hopes Haftar and his authoritarian style can restore stability to Libya. The US, and other Western powers have publicly supported the Tripoli government and UN efforts in Libya, but very little military support has been provided, on the surface at least. Behind the scenes is another matter entirely. Earlier this week the US claimed a Russian air defense system was responsible for bringing down an American UAV in Libya.
Turkey’s support for the GNA is partly due to the continuing rivalry between it and the Saudi-led bloc. It has become the major provider of military hardware for the Tripoli government, though its motivations are not confined to Ankara’s desire to counter the Saudis. There is an economic element as well. Just days ago Turkey signed a deal with the GNA giving Ankara drilling, pipeline, and maritime rights over a wide area of the Mediterranean between the two nations. That particular move has set off a firestorm in Greece, and across Europe, however, it has not deterred Erdogan. For better or worse, Turkish involvement in Libya appears ready to escalate now that the survival of the GNA is directly tied to Turkish economic and geopolitical fortunes in the region.