Aya Burweila, a senior advisor at the Research Institute for European and American Studies (RIEAS), spoke to participants in a November 6 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about Turkey's involvement in Libya.
Libya's rival alliances emerged in the wake of UN-monitored 2014 elections for the newly-formed House of Representatives (HoR). When moderate and secular-leaning candidates won the overwhelming majority of seats, Islamists rejected the result, seized control of Tripoli and established their own government, forcing the newly elected HoR to relocate to Tobruk in the east. In 2015, the HoR appointed General Khalifa Haftar as head of the Libyan National Army (LNA) to subdue the militias.
In 2015, the U.N. attempted to broker a resolution by establishing a Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, headed by Farraj al-Saraj. Although the GNA was never ratified by the HoR and fell under the influence of Islamist militias backed by Turkey, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood, it nonetheless became internationally recognized. Meanwhile, Haftar's anti-Islamist LNA captured Benghazi and consolidated its control of the east.
Enjoying "very little legitimacy ... among the Libyan people," the GNA managed to hold onto Tripoli and some surrounding territory only because of Turkish and Qatari support. "The GNA turned out to be a huge proxy for Turkey and Qatar. ... The entire country sees [it] as the conduit of a foreign occupation." Islamists co-opted many of the state's institutions, creating a host of security, financial, and economic problems for Libya. According to Burweila, "Libya was ... the site of one of the largest mobilizations of foreign fighters in jihadist history."
In April 2019, the LNA launched an offensive to fulfill the mandate to remove the militias in Tripoli and "integrate them into one national force." Turkey stepped up its support for the GNA, preventing the country's unification. In addition to pouring weapons and advisors into Libya, Turkey has deployed some 5,000-6,000 Syrian mercenaries and militant jihadists as an auxiliary army in Libya.
Through maritime and military agreements signed with the GNA, Turkey seeks to gain access to Mediterranean gas reserves and establish a "hub of influence" in Africa. Burweila emphasized that multiple agreements between Turkey and the GNA are unconstitutional and void without ratification from Libya's elected parliament. Qatar's military cooperation agreement with the GNA is "just as illegal" as Turkey's.
Turkey, which is dependent on energy imports, is also giving priority to helping its allies control Libya's oil reserves.
Turkey also seeks to control illegal human trafficking routes, said Burweila, noting that western Libya is a major migration transit point into Europe. Turkey wants to "weaponize" migrants and use them to "blackmail Europe," much as it has done with Syrians displaced by their civil war. The Tunisian national who carried out a recent terror attack in Paris had recently arrived from Libya.
Fortunately, Turkish-backed forces were "unable to advance on the Oil Crescent in Libya," where most production is located, thanks to Egyptian threats of intervention. In another positive move, the U.N. recently shepherded a cease-fire agreement whereby the GNA and the LNA pledged to remove all foreign mercenaries, much to Turkey's consternation.
Burweila urged the E.U. and the United States to play a constructive role in Libya by "foster[ing] legitimacy," emphasizing that there can be "no peace without legitimacy."
First is the need to combat illegal militias. "A lot of weapons need to be decommissioned ... [and] a lot of militias need to be either neutralized or reabsorbed into an official army." Burweila's urged the U.N. Security Council to revise the arms embargo against Libya that has been in place since 2011, which has imperiled its ability to field a legitimate army capable of enforcing law and order. "The army does not want to cooperate with mercenaries."
Libyans need a government "chosen by them, for them. ... They want elections and democracy."
Second, Burweila said, Libyans need a government "chosen by them, for them. ... They want elections and democracy." Libyans did not choose Islamists, who have been empowered by foreign sponsors to seize much of the country over the past six years. Libya needs external guarantors to observe fair and open democratic elections,
Burweila cautioned against the U.N. effort to appoint an interim government, which she dubbed "GNA 2.0," through the so-called Libyan Political Dialogue Forum. This project will circumvent legitimate elections because it contains Muslim Brotherhood members who are "advocates of terror" and is soundly rejected by Libyans across the political spectrum.
In order for government in Libya to be legitimate, "there's a lot of corruption that needs to be combatted," said Burweila. The EU needs to "create mechanisms where Libyan funds are under some oversight because before, it's been like a slush fund for every criminal ... a gangster's paradise." In particular, oil proceeds must be placed in bank accounts subject to rigorous, published audits.
Finally, Burweila emphasized the need for expertise transfer from the U.S. and Europe to help rebuild the country and expand its development beyond dependence on the oil market alone.
Burweila anticipates Turkey will make further attempts to "sabotage the peace process," but fortunately the international community's tolerance of Turkish adventurism is waning. She expressed hope that U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will "take a strong stance against Turkey, which would be incredibly welcomed throughout the Arab world and throughout Europe."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.