Turkey is seeking to reap diplomatic rewards from its military success in Libya. Recent gains by Turkish-backed forces of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) are enhancing Ankara’s influence in Libya and with the European Union.
Turkey sent military personnel to Libya in January to support the Tripoli-based GNA. It had been under sustained attack from forces led by Libyan General Khalif Haftar, who has a power base in eastern Libya. Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) has the backing of countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Russia.
The Turkish military deployment to Libya, widely seen as a gamble by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, turned out to be a game changer in the civil war.
Haftar’s forces were driven from the suburbs of Tripoli and continue to sustain territorial losses.
Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, led a high-level delegation Wednesday to Tripoli, underlining the critical role Turkey is now playing in Libya. According to pro-government Turkish media reports, Ankara is looking to establish an air and naval base in Libya.
The Turkish government so far hasn't officially commented on the news reports, but Ankara's military presence in Libya could be a big bargaining chip with the European Union.
"Libya is so strategically important to the EU, as Libya is the gateway of Africa to Europe," said retired Turkish ambassador to Qatar Mithat Rende.
The Libyan civil war’s chaos made the country one of the main smuggling routes for migrants trying to enter the EU.
Ankara already has a deal with the EU to prevent refugees and migrants from trying to enter through Turkey, in exchange for billions of dollars in aid.
Political science professor Ilhan Uzgel of Ankara University said Erdogan now sees an opportunity to extend Turkey's role as the EU's gatekeeper to Libya. Ankara has myriad issues it's negotiating with Brussels in the renewal of a customs union on visa free travel.
"Turkey used the Syrian refugees as a bargaining chip against the EU, it was a policy of blackmail, and it worked somehow. Now with Libya, Turkey has a new card or leverage against the EU. So, they [the EU] may not be happy, but the EU is usually making a bargain with Turkey over the refugee issues," said Uzgel.
France and Germany have sharply criticized Turkish military intervention in Libya, although with Germany taking over the EU presidency in July, German Chancellor Angela Merkel could be looking to Erdogan for a deal.
"Turkish military presence in Libya would strengthen its position vis-a-vis EU in general and Germany in particular," said international relations expert Zaur Gasimov of Bonn University.
"The fears of more influx of refugees have never been stronger than now in Europe, already heavily challenged by the [coronavirus] pandemic and economic recession," he added.
Merkel spoke by telephone with Erdogan this month about Libya. Friday, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio flew to Ankara for talks with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, on stabilizing the North African country.
"They [the EU] don't like his [Erdogan’s] personality; they don't respect him. But they know that he can make a deal, and he keeps his promises in a way," Uzgel said.
In the U.S., the Trump Administration also could see Ankara as a partner in Libya.
"Turkey and the U.S. can together make a positive difference [in Libya]," Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said Friday.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Erdogan agreed this month to cooperate on Libya, although the nature of the cooperation remains unclear.
Also this month, the U.S. military accused Russia of seeking to push for a strategic foothold on NATO's southern flank at the expense of innocent Libyan lives. Moscow is a key backer of Haftar, although it denies any military involvement. But Turkey's Libya military intervention is seen as thwarting Russian ambitions.
A meeting between Russian and Turkish foreign ministers called by Russia for June 14 to discuss Libya was canceled.
"The cancelation came from Turkey," Uzgel said. " It's the rule of any conflict it's usually the losing side who asks for a cease-fire. Turkey does not want to stop in Libya."
Moscow, however, is accused of establishing a substantial military presence in Libya. On Thursday, the U.S. Africa Command published what it said were new images of Russian warplanes in Libya.
"Russia has sent its military jets to Libya, but we have not heard they had used their jets effectively against GNA forces. It could have been used effectively because [Turkish] drones are no match against fighter jets. But they haven't been used. It appears more like symbolic importance; it's more of a bluff than a tool in a fight" said Uzgel.
Moscow may be reluctant to risk its relations with Turkey, which have markedly improved in the past few years, much to the alarm of Turkey's NATO partners. The two countries have strong trade ties and are cooperating in the Syrian civil war, despite backing rival sides in the conflict. Turkey, Russia and Iran are part of the Astana Process, which is seeking to end the conflict. While Moscow and Ankara struck an agreement to enforce a cease-fire in Afrin, the last rebel-controlled region.
Observers say that despite Turkey's success in Libya, it still needs to handle Moscow with care. Russia can undermine Turkey's efforts to stabilize Libya or push back against Turkish interests elsewhere.
However, Gasimov believes pragmatism is likely to prevail.
"Turkey and Russia would highly likely manage a deal in Libya, as they did in Syria, and indeed the Libyan antagonism would even bond them closer," he said.
Gasimov said Russia could be accommodating to Turkey's demand to end Haftar's leadership role, as part of any Libyan deal.
"The Russian position is heterogeneous and dynamic. Haftar, who studied in the U.S.S.R., is not seen any more as the only key factor for Russia's presence in Libya. Moscow is searching for alternatives," he said.
Any Russian deal, though, is likely to be limited by Turkey’s desire to work with its Western allies in Libya.
"Ankara can make a deal with Moscow but on its terms," said Uzgel. “They may be a short-term limited deal with Russia. Anything more and the EU would not be happy or the United States. There may be a temporary small-scale deal with Russia."