Turkey in Tripolitania

Commentary: Tripoline Libya has gone back to being a wilayet, a peripheral part of the Ottoman Empire, but this time under the orders of Turkey alone.

Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (C) meets with the defence ministers of Turkey (R) and Qatar in Tripoli. Photo: The Media Office of the Prime Minister/Handout via REUTERS

General Haftar has already responded to Turkey's moves in Libya - all strongly supporting al-Sarraj's government - with various actions: on April 27, General Haftar declared the "Libyan Political Agreement" - drafted in December 2015 and later re-submitted by the UN envoy for Lybia, Ghassan Salamè, in 2017 - completely null and void. 

A move that Haftar's own allies in Eastern Libya have interpreted negatively because it has left them deprived of any international image or power, albeit limited.

Another fear of General Haftar - now that, however, he no longer has clear military superiority on the ground - is that his allies, who have not appreciated his move on the "Libyan Political Agreement", i.e. those of the House of Representatives, the autonomous Parliament in Tobruk led by Aguilah Saleh, may enter into direct negotiations with Tripoli and even with Turkey. 

General Haftar also fears to lose support from his international supporters, who no longer hope for the reunification of Libya under the political-military leadership of the LNA in Benghazi. 

This could mean, first and foremost, Russia’s greater support for Haftar’s forces, less strong than before and therefore no longer able to disobey or even deal seriously with the emissaries of the Russian Federation.

To date this would be the only real alternative to Turkey’s presence in Libya and to the possible reunification of the country under the military and political pressure of al-Sarraj, certainly recognized by the UN, but also a point of reference for an entire area of militant, "radical" and absolutist Islamism. Thanks to the United Nations, of course.

A significant point of Russia’s new penetration in Libya, also in view of opposing the Turkish one, is the new role of Aguilah Saleh, the man from Tobruk, who explicitly spoke about the Russian support for an attack on Tripoli, while Abu Dhabi, another non-secondary player in today's Libya, still supports General Haftar in declaring the old agreement brokered and mediated by Ghassam Salamé null and void. 

Another possibility in the connection between Russia and Turkey in Syria could be to trigger an "Astana-style" negotiating process for Libya capable of excluding any other external player in Libya, but with bilateral negotiations sufficiently effective to avoid the escalation of tension between Turkey and Moscow, as in Syria, and also capable of excluding any other external point of reference for the Libyan forces currently present in the field, except for Turkey and Russia.

Furthermore, after the many recent discoveries of oil fields and gas deposits throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, instead of strengthening regional cooperation, this has led to the creation of two opposing political-energy-military poles: on the one hand, the Greek-Greek Cypriot-Israeli axis, with Egypt and, on the other, Turkey alone. 

For the first axis of allies, the external point of reference, at least for the time being, is France alone. 

For Turkey, again for the time being, the "stone guest" could even be Russia. 

Obviously it also depends on the Turkish-Russian agreements pending in Libya. 

The United States, now outside Syria, has no credible positions in the Eastern Mediterranean, except for those on the Italian territory, while Russia has Syria on its hands and can operate in Eastern Mediterranean very easily.

Cyprus signed an agreement on its territorial waters with Egypt in 2003 and later with the Lebanon in 2007 - agreements immediately challenged by Turkey at the United Nations.

Another important issue is that Turkey was initially interested in the Arab Gas Pipeline project, which would have brought the Egyptian gas, extracted by ENI, from Zohr with ramifications in Jordan, the Lebanon and Syria, also with additional submarine sectors and a diversion to Israel and then to the EU - a project that would have connected Turkish gas to its potential EU customers.

In the 2010s, however, explorations and discoveries increased rapidly, leading to a rapid saturation of domestic consumption and, therefore, to a political possibility of selling surpluses abroad, which created a climate of strong rivalry between the Eastern Mediterranean countries. 

Another factor of change was also the reckless policy of the "Arab Springs", which destabilized - although without any result except for the jihad - precisely those Arab countries that could rebuild energy collaboration. 

It was precisely Turkey which immediately supported the uprising of the Muslim Brothers, also at the origin of Erdogan’s AKP party, both in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as in Jordan. 

At the end of the "Arab Springs" circus, there were only two concrete options for regional energy cooperation: the link between Turkey and Israel and the 2014 negotiations in Cyprus.

Indeed, Cyprus could have exported its gas directly to the EU with a pipeline via Greece and Turkey, to which also the Israeli gas could have been connected.

The potential agreement ended in 2017 even before it could start.

However, where was the Israeli gas going? The most rational option was that of a pipeline via the Lebanon and Syria to Turkey - a line which, however, was not politically acceptable to the parties. 

The other option was to pass through the Cypriot territorial waters, a route that would inevitably cross the Turkish Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). But this was certainly not liked by Israel, which would find itself entangled in the eternal issues and disputes between the two Cypriot areas. 

It was at that point that the Aphrodite gas area was discovered in December 2011.

A concrete way of linking Cyprus to Israel.

At that juncture, Greece developed a new line, namely EastMed, which passed through the Greek part of Crete and the Greek metropolitan territory, thus completely excluding Turkey. 

In January 2019 the East Mediterranean Gas Forum saw the participation of Italy - which, however, is now playing what jurists call the "part of the defendant", or even the part of the fool - as well as the participation of Cyprus, Israel, Greece, Egypt, Jordan and of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). 

Obviously, these operations have been seen by Turkey as eminently anti-Turkish ones.

Therefore, the AKP regime implemented the "Blue Homeland Strategy", previously developed by the Turkish Navy, aimed at defending - always and in any case -Turkish interests on the open sea. As if they were the territory of the motherland.

Secondly - and here we go back to Libya - Turkey signed an agreement with al-Sarraj’s Libyan government on November 27, 2019.

The agreement, which redefines Turkey’s entire maritime border line to the west, is primarily intended to stop the development of the EastMed natural gas line.

It also blocks Greek claims to Greek sovereignty over some of its islands, which supports not only Turkish claims, but also Libyan claims to the continental submarine base of their maritime areas.

Moreover, the Turkish and Libyan expansion and extension towards Kastellorizo and the Greek sea also support the rights defined by Egypt’s continental shelf towards Greece and Cyprus, with the criterion - always supported by Turkey - that, in principle, the islands of a "closed sea" such as the Mediterranean have no territorial waters defined - as always happens in other areas - by the purely geographical criterion of the "middle line".

Only after the Libyan-Tripoline acceptance of the maritime demarcation line proposed by Turkey precisely towards Tripoli, did the Turkish Parliament approve the deployment of armed forces in al-Sarraj’s GNA territory in Tripoli.

Hence the creation of the interdependence between the Libyan issue and the equilibria not only in the Maghreb region, but throughout the Middle East.

Greece immediately expelled the GNA Libyan ambassador and then urged Khalifa Haftar to "teach a lesson" to Tripoli. On the other hand, the United Arab Emirates, formerly supporting EastMed and hence interested in stopping the Turkish presence throughout the Middle East, moved in correlation with Greece and Israel.

It should be noted that the Turkish-Libyan line of their new EEZs passes just below the Greek area of Crete. 

But there are other additional sub-conflicts in the Eastern Mediterranean: the overlapping of Lebanese submarine deposits with the Israeli ones, for example, while Israel and Cyprus still have disputes over the borders of the Aphrodite field, which still borders on the Israeli gas area of Yishai, but with individual countries’ further disputes also with respect to extraction companies.

Erdogan, however, operates on a large scale, especially where he can afford to support his operations in the Middle East, i.e. in the Maghreb region.

Precisely on December 25, 2019, Turkey sent a high-level mission to Tunisia, with a view to supporting economic aid entailing the use of the island of Djerba for the passage of material and soldiers to Tripoli. Nevertheless, as in the agreements of January 8, 2020, a possible agreement is expected also with Russia, for a shift of the Russian operations in Libya from Haftar’s forces alone to the Wagner group’s paramilitaries. 

Furthermore, Turkey has so far sent at least 2,500 militants of the "Isis", i.e. the so-called Islamic jihadist Caliphate, via Tunisia (and hence Djerba) to Libya, and probably also the Somali "section" of the Isis could soon move towards Tripolitania, again via the Turkish intelligence. 

They are supposed to be 3,800 Somalis trained by Qatar, already deployed in Turkey to be later transferred to Libya-Tripoli as soon as possible.

A pleasant result for the Tripoli Libyan side, the only one "recognized" by the UN foolish officials.

On that occasion Putin also supported a ceasefire. It is obvious that Russia's interest in Libya is much weaker than the one in Syria and the Russian Federation does not want to create the opportunity for a series of Turkish energy operations that would stop the passage of Russian gas to the EU. 

On the other hand, Tripoli’s GNA is supported by Turkey only, while General Haftar’s "front" - which, indeed, has shown it cannot certainly reunify Libya - is still the point of reference for Egypt, Russia, France, but also for the United Arab Emirates, as well as for other non-State Arab actors and, always behind the scenes, Saudi Arabia.

Currently only Qatar is with Turkey, which the Italians keep on praising and incensing - following a sort of beggar-style attitude - for its possible investment in Italy, without imagining that this money has a strong energy and strategic equivalent consideration and counterpart.

It should be recalled, however, that Italian Prime Minister Conte did not sign the anti-Turkish declaration of Cairo - the eternal heir of the anthropological September 8 of our republican governments, inimico a Dio e alli inimici sua. (enemy to God and to his enemies). However, he discussed with Erdogan - although we do not know what - in Ankara on January 13, 2020, while on January 21 Italy denied having negotiated with Turkey for the joint exploitation of Libyan oil resources, but also asked Turkey –as in a Walt Disney movie - to "start negotiations with all the parties involved, especially for the new exclusive economic zones". 

A careful re-reading of Machiavelli's main book is urgently needed.

But the military agreements between Turkey and al-Sarraj’s regime, which were officially reached on July 4, 2020, explicitly state that al-Sarraj’s GNA is the only "guarantor" of Turkish interests throughout Libya.

Furthermore, the Tripoli government has officially allowed Turkey to establish its own military bases - not necessarily in cooperation with Tripoli’s forces - only on the GNA territory. 

A legal advantage of Turkey over the local population, as well as a strong privilege for Turkey and finally the definition of diplomatic immunity for the jihadists coming from abroad and for all arms transfers from Turkey or from "friendly" areas - an authorization that extends to arms and ammunition also internationally prohibited by UN agreements. 

As far as we know, on a strictly economic level, Turkey is thinking about a compensation to Tripoli for lost machinery and destroyed infrastructure, as well as 1.2 billion U.S. dollars for writing off the debt of Tripoli’s GNA and finally about a letter of credit for additional 1 billion dollars for future purchases.

Al-Sarraj’s government is also discussing whether, and especially how, to deposit at least 4 billion U.S: dollars in some Turkish banks. 

Who pays the Turkish support to al-Sarraj? To a large extent, obviously the support comes directly from Tripoli, but it is likely that Turkey finances itself, but above all receives sound support from Qatar.

Qatar has already paid many politicians in Tripoli and some anti-Haftar jihadist groups, but it has also paid for all the current military equipment in Tripoli, which is always sent only via Turkey. 

Since January 2020, however, Turkey has "exported" at least 15,000 Syrian mercenaries, including child soldiers, to Tripolitania with other jihadist soldiers from Yemen. 

The GNA has also abolished its autonomous right to check, even formally, Turkish ships and aircraft. It also allows Turkey to set up bases that are even outside the Tripoli GNA’s formal jurisdiction.

In short, Tripoline Libya has gone back to being a wilayet, a peripheral part of the Ottoman Empire, but this time under the orders of Turkey alone.

On the other hand, for France alone, at least formally, the support to General Haftar was justified by the will of the man from Benghazi to "eliminate the jihadist groups" that even France had supported during the war against Gaddafi’s (legitimate) forces. 

Meanwhile two Turkish sources inform us that the large air base of Al-Watiyah will be rebuilt and enlarged, with only the Turkish forces present, while the port of Misrata - in the areas of which there is still the large field hospital of the Italian armed forces, forgotten as usual - will host a vast Turkish naval base. Furthermore the entire port, including its purely commercial parts, will be granted to the Turkish government for 99 years. 

But Turkey talks also with Malta.

It should be recalled that Malta had withdrawn from the EU operation called "IRINI" as early as last May. It was a sign particularly appreciated by Turkey, which sees the EU operation - albeit useless - as a clearly opposing action. 

Italian Defence Minister Guerini, too, paid a visit to Tripoli.

For Italy, the topics to be dealt with were mine clearance, negotiations on territories, health in Libya and finally the planned return of Italian companies to Tripolitania, as well as the reactivation of oil production, which General Haftar officially reopened four days ago.

We lacked only “Nutella” and the little trains of the old, glorious Rivarossi company! 

Furthermore, Minister Guerini made places available for training the cadets of Tripoli’s Armed Forces that will anyway be at Turkey’s orders, as well as medical support for the GNA forces. Finally he also offered to move the Italian hospital in Misrata to "another more suitable location", in case it should cause trouble to the port in Turkish hands. 

Last thing we need is an Italian-Libyan film festival and a cooking course for the entire Tripoli government. 

Turkey, however, has officially requested that Italy leaves Misrata airport completely.

Already done, of course. 

Turkey also wants the full inclusion of Algeria, Qatar and Tunisia in the Libyan peace process - a move that would have been obvious for Italy but, as you know, you need a brain to think. 

Meanwhile, probably for broadening his international support base after the leonine agreements with Turkey, al-Sarraj is even proposing elections throughout Libya by the end of March and announcing the ceasefire, certainly to cover up Turkish rearmament, with the request that all "foreign militias" (including Turkey’s?) should leave Libya before the elections.

Negotiations with the United States in Morocco and Tunisia are well advanced, but this is doubtful considering that the militias of Misrata and Zintan are totally against the agreement, brokered and mediated by Aguila Saleh who, craftily, has not "his own weapons".  

 

Professor Valori is President of the International World Group

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