Libya: the theatre of Turkish isolation

(In collaboration with Termometro Politico)

On 10 May, a Turkish vessel was attacked by the Libyan internationally recognized authorities, led by Prime Minister al-Thani. The ship was called Tuna-1, it was sailing under the Cook Islands flag and it was owned by a Turkish company. Tuna-1 had left from Spain and was directed to Tobruk’s port but it was bombed when it was located 10/11 miles away from the Libyan coast. The following day, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that the vessel was shelled as it tried to approach its destination, the city of Tobruk. Mohamed Hejazi, spokesman of al-Thani’s government, told Reuters: “A ship was shelled about 10 miles from Derna coast. We have warned before about approaching Derna port”.

The Libyan political situation is very complicated as the confrontation between two governments is characterized by a system of alliances based on armed factions, local tribes and ethnic minorities. The Tripoli government is mainly composed of Muslim Brothers’ members and, among its supporters there are Islamist militant organizations close to the brotherhood. Derna is currently controlled by Muslim extremist groups, IS being the most influential one, and supplies arriving there could reach some radical factions committed to protect Tripoli. The Tobruk administration is making an effort in order to prevent Islamist militants to obtain material support. What happened on 10 May is not an unprecedented unexpected event: in January, forces loyal to the internationally recognized government bombed a Greek oil tanker.

Relations between Turkey and Libya progressively deteriorated as Turkey, along with Qatar, is accused of supporting forces opposed to al-Thani. General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Tobruk military forces which, in June 2014, publicly accused the two countries of supporting terrorism and asked Turkish and Qatari citizens to leave eastern Libya. Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani announced in February 2015 his administration would have stopped negotiating with Turkey as it was supporting a rival group in Tripoli, supplying it with weapons. Ankara obviously has always denied these claims and, with respect to the Tuna-1 cargo ship, Erdogan’s government declared the vessel was carrying plasterboard. However, the Turkish interpretation of political events in Libya and its connection with the Egyptian Muslim Brothers lead to the conclusion that Turkey has taken a precise position on the Libyan civil war. In November 2014, a ruling by the Libyan Constitutional Court based in Tripoli declared the 2014 legislative elections that had established the institutions now located in Tobruk, unconstitutional. Although the international community ignores this event (due to the conditions in which the judgement was issued), the ruling party in Turkey gives credence to the Libyan supreme judicial authority. In November 2014, Haftar forces launched a military campaign named “Operation Dignity” which aimed at retaking control of the Tripoli international airport “Mitiga”, fallen under the influence of rival militias. The Turkish Foreign Ministry stated: “We strongly condemn the airstrikes. The crisis in Libya can be resolved only by ceasing foreign interventions, reaching a cease-fire and a comprehensive political dialogue”. The government-controlled national news agency Anadolu sometimes referred to Haftar as a putschist, clarifying Erdogan’s position.

The ruling party in Ankara, the Justice and Development Party, is one of the most important Muslim Brothers supporters. The role played during the Egyptian post-revolutionary period is well-known and it explains the attitude taken by Erdogan in Libya. Turkey and Qatar economically backed Mursi in his effort to stabilize the country and the new government. Qatar allocated 4 billion dollars in credits and deposits, Turkey erogated a 1 billion dollars credit. The other Islamic countries only supplied the Egyptian Central Bank with deposits, in order to avoid a solvency crisis. Qatar and the Muslim Brothers administration signed an agreement in which the Gulf monarchy committed to invest 18 billion dollars within 5 years. The Turkish influence on the Egyptian President was clear also in Mursi’s attempt to bond the government with emerging economic and industrial elite, following what the AKP had done with MUSIAD. The experiment failed as well as the bid to reconcile with the business elite linked to Gamal Mubarak, Hosni’s son. In July 2013 el-Sisi, chief of the armed forces, ousted Mursi and reached power. El-Sisi obtained massive financial aid from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE, using these resources for public investments and unemployment reduction. Egyptian regime is now more stable than two years ago, and it is characterized by a strict connection between its military establishment and these three Gulf Cooperation Council countries. A coherent context presented in Libya, where the Turkish-Qatari axis supports Tripoli and some allied Islamist militias, while the Saudi-Egyptian coalition, including also Kuwait and United Arab Emirates, backs the Tobruk institutions. After Mursi’s ousting, Turkey experienced a quick deterioration in its relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Ankara is fighting Assad in Syria and political dialogue with the new Iraqi government is interrupted. An ambitious foreign policy in Libya could further isolate Turkey from the other MENA states. Although the improvement of relations with Islamic neighboring countries was one of the pillars established by the AKP government in foreign policy, Ankara does not seem worried enough to change its priorities.


Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)

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