Erdogan’s Libya Campaign Puts Africa on the Brink of War

Turkish intervention in Libya has not only significantly influenced the situation in the country but has also had a disproportional impact on the regional security

Nine years after the fall of Gaddafi Libya has not succeeded in rebuilding its state institutions from scratch, yet alone in adopting Western-style democracy. In fact, inherent political tensions between local power brokers have only turned more acute. Fierce turf wars brought the country into a stalemate, disrupting any effort to overcome the ongoing economic and social crisis.

The complete collapse of the state created a friendly environment for the terror groups and the proliferation of various radical ideologies. At the highest level of the erosion of social and political institutions a war-torn Libya became a battlefield for the external powers pursuing their adventurist foreign policy ambitions.

Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan is widely considered one of the most bellicose actors involved in the Libyan conflict. Ankara backs the UN-recognized Government of the National Accord (GNA) who employs radical factions. Turkey flies in thousands of Syrian mercenaries and advanced weapons to Libya to support the GNA’s offensive against the Libyan National Army (LNA) and legitimate Tobruk-based Libyan Parliament.

Turkey’s choice of allies in the Libyan conflict is not surprising. Ankara cares very little for the Libyan people as there is nothing in common between Turks and Libyans except the colonical legacy of the Ottoman Empire. It is fair to say that the Turks back the GNA with the sole purpose of countering Egypt and the Gulf monarchies, who oppose Erdogan’s hostile foreign policy.

Turkey – Egypt tensions: origin and perspectives

The relations between Turkey and Egypt quickly deteriorated after the Egyptian Field Marshal Abdul Fattah Al Sisi removed from power the Turkey-backed President Mohamed Morsi back in 2013.

Morsi and his supporters from the Muslim Brotherhood had seized power in the country due to Turkish meddling in 2011 amid large-scale protests. However, after the two-year-long reign of the Turkish appointee the Egyptian military managed to reclaim power and declared a “cold war” on Turkey countering the Turkish propaganda and Ankara-backed Islamic radicals with both military and political means. The tensions between Egypt and Turkey have been rising ever since, putting the two countries on the brink of war in Libya.

Late June Abdul Fattah Al Sisi said that Egypt was prepared to launch a military intervention in the neighbouring Libya because of a direct threat to his country’s security. He also called the GNA’s attempts to capture Sirte town and Jofra airbase a “red line” for Cairo. Such statements demonstrate Egypt’s deep concern about the Turkish quest for dominance in Libya that manifested itself in breaking a deadlock in a struggle between the GNA and LNA. However, Turkey had to pay a hefty price for the recent victories as it deployed its national Armed Forces to Libya despite the rapid deterioration of the economy, in addition to sending thousands of the Syrian mercenaries and modern weapons to its Islamist-weighted ally GNA.

Turkey and Egypt are almost equal in their military capabilities, but Cairo has a number of strong advantages. First, Egypt has a 1,115 km long land border with Libya. It significantly simplifies the logistics and deployment of the Egyptian armed forces. Besides, Cairo will definitely benefit from unique opportunities offered by Mohamed Nagib, the biggest Middle East military base located not so far from the Libyan border. As for Turkey, it has to overcome a lot of obstacles due to its geographical position. Put simply, the only locations able to receive the Turkish troops and the Syrian mercenaries are two cities of Tripoli and Misrata that both have an airport and a seaport. The Turks are literally trapped in this “bottleneck”. Direct confrontation with Cairo will most likely result in Ankara’s military defeat – due to the above-mentioned considerations the Egyptians are potentially capable of eliminating the Turkish troops faster than Turkey deploys reinforcements to Libya.

Besides, the Egyptian Armed Forces have acquired modern combat experience during the on-going Sinai operation against ISIS terrorists. To be fair, the Turks have also deployed their national troops to Syria and Libya, but they primarily act as advisers and are focused on local special operations, patrolling and militia training. As for the Egyptians, they operate in a classic military paradigm.

It should be noted that Al Sisi does not plan to limit himself with traditional warfare tactics. During a recent meeting with the Libyan tribal leaders the Egyptian President announced that Cairo intended to start training the Libyan militias loyal to LNA and supplying them with weaponry and equipment. These measures will allow Al Sisi to enhance the battle capabilities of his allies in addition to a possible direct military intervention.

Stakes in the Libyan conflict are rising

Even with these Egypt’s advantages in mind Al Sisi is not likely to ignite a war with one of the most powerful armies in the region. However, the Egyptian leader clearly delineated his “red lines” and is now waiting for Erdogan’s move.

Turkey’s defense minister Hulusi Akar signed an agreement on military cooperation with the representatives of the Government of National Accord (GNA) during his visit to Tripoli on July 4th. The deal between Turkey and Tripoli authorities stipulates that the GNA is “a guarantor of the Turkish interests in Libya”. The GNA also gave Turkey an official permission to establish military bases on the Libyan territory and granted Turkish troops diplomatic immunity and a number of important privileges.

As for the Eastern-based Parliament, in a resolution passed last Monday, the House of Representatives authorised Egyptian armed forces “to intervene to protect the national security of Libya and Egypt if they see an imminent danger to both of our countries”.

MENA witnesses a new critical challenge while the two most powerful countries in the region are marching to war. Will the Turkish President face Egypt’s army or will he resort to negotiations with the Arab states? Both scenarios will definitely shift the balance of power on the Libyan battlefield as well as in the whole region.

Alaeddin Saleh
Alaeddin Saleh
Alaeddin Saleh is a Libyan journalist with a long track record of studying and covering Libya and the MENA