Three difficult scenarios for Turkey in Libya

The confrontation between Libya’s two rival prime ministers – Fathi Bashagha, appointed by the eastern-based parliament, and Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, the Tripoli-based head of government who refuses to cede power – is pushing Turkey to play more openly and with more confidence in the conflict.

Turkey, which maintains military forces and militias in Libya, has been angered by Bashagha’s association with eastern forces, namely Khalifa Hifter, the commander of the Libyan national army, and Aquila Saleh, the head of the House of Representatives, to overthrow the interim Dbeibah. government. Ankara had worked closely with Bashagha during his tenure as interior minister in the previous caretaker government in Tripoli. But for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a Bashagha government under the influence of Hifter and Saleh, who have fiercely opposed Turkey’s military presence in Libya, could mean losing the assurances offered by Dbeibah. Yet Erdogan is keeping the door open to Bashagha while maintaining his support for Dbeibah’s Government of National Unity (GNU). While Turkey is wary of provoking clashes at a critical moment in Libya, the fact remains that its military, intelligence and diplomatic presence in Tripoli affects the balance and makes the playing field safer for Dbeibah.

Following the formation of the GNU under the auspices of the UN last year, Turkey had sought contacts with eastern actors in a bid to melt the ice with the forces fighting its Libyan allies. Yet the quest for a fresh start with the east failed in February when the House of Representatives chose Bashagha to form a new government on the grounds that Dbeibah’s term ended on December 24 when failed elections were due to be held. under a UN-brokered peace plan. .

Now many believe that the positions of the United States and Turkey will be decisive in tipping the scales. The two Libyan camps were on the brink of an armed clash on March 10 when forces loyal to the Bashagha moved from Misrata to Tripoli but were stopped by forces loyal to Dbeibah.

US Ambassador to Tripoli Richard Norland and UN Representative to Libya Stephanie Williams have urged the two sides to focus on holding elections by forming a joint committee between the House of Representatives and the High Council of State. According to The Arab Weekly, Turkey intervened earlier this month, offer mediation between the two rivals. Bashagha reportedly accepted the offer, but Dbeibah feared Ankara’s intervention would amount to tacit recognition of Bashagha’s government and therefore the end of his own term. Dbeibah rejected the offer, “expressing his willingness to use military means” against Bashagha, according to the report. Dbeibah had met the Turkish ambassador in Tripoli on March 6.

Turkey reportedly tried to bring Dbeibah and Bashagha together at an international diplomatic forum in the coastal city of Antalya last week, but ultimately only Dbeibah attended the event.

Meanwhile, there was speculation that Dbeibah could hand over the mandate to Bashagha on the condition that he is running for president in the next elections. According to other reports, Norland suggested a intermediate formula that the GNU would continue until the elections after some cabinet reviews, but Dbeibah would give a written guarantee that he would not run for president. Bashagha’s associates denied the report.

Bashagha’s attempt to march on Tripoli has added urgency to efforts to find a middle way. On March 12, Norland announced that both parties were ready for talks after meeting Bashagha in Tunisia. The format and venue of the talks will be decided by the parties themselves in consultation with the UN and international partners, he said. According to Libyan sources, Dbeibah has now preferred Turkish mediation and the prospect of talks in Antalya has returned to the agenda.

A sign of the fluidity of the situation, three ministers resigned from Dbeibah’s cabinet. Many seem to conclude that the rug is slipping under Dbeibah’s feet, seeing international support for talks between the two rival prime ministers as veiled acknowledgment of Bashagha. Yet Bashagha’s eventual failure to prevail could raise the specter of Eastern forces refusing to cooperate with Williams’ election-focused efforts or take other steps to challenge the West, including even stopping oil production. As part of efforts to reduce energy dependence on Russia, Washington wants to avoid any disruption in the flow of Libyan oil. A blockade on oil production at two of Libya’s main oilfields earlier this month has sparked calls from the UN and the US for an immediate end to the shutdown.

Backing Bashagha would offer Turkey a chance to make peace with eastern Libya, but Ankara must tread carefully as the Tripoli and Misrata forces it has trained and equipped remain staunchly hostile to Hifter. Moreover, Hifter and Saleh, who are backed by Egypt and Russia, share the goal of pushing Turkey out of Libya despite the rivalry between the two. The Arab League’s March 9 meeting saw renewed condemnation of Turkey’s presence in Libya, showing that Egypt is maintaining its red line. In sum, pivoting to Bashagha is not easy for Turkey as it still does not know how western Libyans will react and what eastern Libyans will do next.

Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya researcher at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, described Turkey’s presence in northwestern Libya as “very entrenched”, consisting of “more than 700 advisers, officers and spies”. Beyond the Turkish nationals, “there are more than 3,000 Syrian mercenaries who could potentially be mobilized in a military operation should the situation deteriorate,” he told Al-Monitor.

Moreover, he continued, “Ankara has been very active as a coordinator. When a mature state like Turkey provides coordination, the cohesion among Libyans is bound to be greater and more effective – and that is what we have seen in recent weeks. This is not to say that Turkey alone explains the resilience of the GNU so far, but Turkey’s role is of immense importance. The combination of military presence, advice and coordination has been key so far.

The ambiguous approach of the United States, the UN, the European Union and other international actors also encouraged Dbeibah to resist. He maintained access to financial means, continued to work with the Chief of the General Staff and the Chief of Military Intelligence, and ensured the loyalty of a number of military forces. Abdul Ghani al-Kikli and Ayoub Abu Ras, two militia leaders in Tripoli, remain on Dbeibah’s side.

Bashagha, for his part, seems to enjoy the favor of a considerable number of Western groups in addition to the potential support of Hifter’s forces. According to Turkey Anatolia News Agency, 118 armed groups expressed their support in Bashagha and 65 in Dbeibah. The biggest disadvantage of Bashagha is that the central bank governorwho controls oil revenues and budget allocations, remains on Dbeibah’s side.

According to Harchaoui, Turkey is not the only factor preventing Bashagha from entering Tripoli. “Many Misrata elites, elders and tycoons remain skeptical of Bashagha’s alliance with Hifter. Moreover, Dbeibah remained active, offering financial arrangements to militiamen who were initially tempted to oppose him,” he said, citing Kikli and Ras as examples.

While Dbeibah cautioned against using force, Bashagha was more cautious, which Harchaoui attributes to Bashagha’s political risks, including his alignment with Hifter. “Geographically, convoys from Bashagha are trying to enter Tripoli from outside. … He stands to lose far more than Dbeibah if he or his allies use brute force. If they ran the risk of igniting a fight reminiscent of Hifter’s own war in 2019-20, Bashagha would lose everything politically,” the researcher said.

Because of its concerns about Hifter’s ties to Russia, Washington has taken an approach that aligns with Turkey’s position. Nevertheless, Norland maintained contact with Dbeibah and Bashagha. The United States has sought to pave the way for a UN plan to establish an electoral committee within 14 days of March 15. A possible change of position of the United States could also influence the position of Turkey. “Washington, which has known Bashagha well for many years, wants to keep its options open. If Bashagha somehow manages to enter Tripoli, the United States wants to be able to accept it and work with this new reality in a transparent way,” Harchaoui said.

Washington’s willingness to opt for Bashagha would also hinge on its ability to meet US expectations to limit Hifter-linked Russian influence over its government. Amid the Ukraine crisis, the tough US stance against Russia looks set to have repercussions in Libya as well.

Stakeholders in Libya are unlikely to allow an unconditional handover of power in Tripoli balancing Bashagha and his allies. For the United States, it would be the limitation of the influence of Russia and for Turkey, the preservation of its presence in Libya and the adoption by the Easterners of a 2019 agreement delimiting the maritime borders between Turkey and Libya.

What if Bashagha tried to enter Tripoli by force, supported by Hifter’s forces, without any assurances about Turkish and American interests? According to Harchaoui, such a scenario could lead to a repeat of the 2019-2020 Turkish intervention in favor of Tripoli with the blessing of the United States. This could involve “territorial expansion” into areas controlled by Hifter’s forces and Russia’s private military company Wagner Group, which are also home to key oil fields and terminals. After securing Tripoli in 2020, Turkey had stopped in Sirte and al-Jufra while Egypt and Russia were on red alert. This time Russia is too busy with Ukraine.

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