ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared Monday that Turkish forces would do their duty in Libya after being deployed to support the country's besieged Government of National Accord.
On Sunday, Erdogan confirmed the start of a military deployment to Libya.
"There will be an operation center [in Libya]. There will be a Turkish lieutenant general leading, and they will be managing the situation over there. [Turkish soldiers] are gradually moving there right now," said Erdogan. "The goal of the Turkish Armed Forces is not to fight, but to ensure a cease-fire in Libya."
The GNA is currently under siege by forces led by Libyan General Khalif Haftar, who controls eastern Libya. Last month, the Turkish Parliament sanctioned the deployment of military forces to Libya, following Erdogan's November signing of a military cooperation agreement with the GNA.
Ankara also agreed to a maritime agreement with Tripoli that extends Turkish control over a critical part of the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Turkey is currently embroiled in an increasingly bitter competition with regional countries in the search for hydrocarbons across the Mediterranean Sea. The rivalry is now extending to control over the distribution of natural gas.
"It's a very strategic move by Turkey to stop the emerging blocks by countries like Israel, Greece, Egypt against Turkey," said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University. "The deployment of Turkish troops to Libya is legitimate. Strategically speaking, it's about survival — will Turkey be in the eastern Mediterranean or not?"
There are growing questions over the sustainability of Ankara's Libya move.
"All these developments have been outright rejected by the international community and countries in the region without exception," said political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Athens University. "So, Turkey is pretty alone in this venture."
Mounting diplomatic pressure
Ankara is facing growing diplomatic pressure over its Libya plans. German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed Libya with Erdogan by phone on Monday. Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump advised caution to the Turkish president.
Cairo, which is backing Haftar, condemned Ankara, and warned of consequences in any Turkish military cooperation. Erdogan is likely to face further pressure Wednesday when he meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Istanbul. Russian mercenaries of the Russian paramilitary organization the Wagner Group, which has close ties to the Kremlin, are backing Haftar.
Analysts warn that Ankara's decision to militarily back the beleaguered Tripoli regime could predicate its demise.
"For sure, we can see efforts accelerate to overthrow this Tripoli government," Aktar said. "I am afraid we are heading in this direction because the Tripoli government has hardly any ally, except a few on paper. But Haftar forces are controlling most of the country, and for the time being, it looks like they will take over, and appear to have the whole world behind them. And the only country supporting the Tripoli government is Ankara."
Last month, Haftar declared his forces were ready to overrun Tripoli. On Saturday, a strike on a military academy in the Libyan capital killed at least 30 people and wounded 33 others.
"At the moment, the situation seems to be working on the side of Haftar. He has better weapons. He has jet fighters. He has superiority on the air and in the field," said Bagci. "I am not sure what kind of soldiers Turkey will send there."
Bagci added, "Erdogan has played the card. He will not allow the Tripoli government to fall. He will defend to the last man, because Erdogan has played a big card, a big gamble. But the arrival of Turkish troops may yet change the psychology, the balance of forces in Libya."
Former Turkish ambassador Mithat Rende, who is now an energy expert, suggests Ankara may be banking that its Libya move forces regional rivals to the negotiating table.
"What we have on the ground in the Mediterranean is unilaterally declared exclusive economic zones," he said. "We have unilaterally declared continental shelves, and they all are overlapping, all conflicting views. So here, international law suggests that you need to negotiate to reach an agreement with a fair agreement, and equitable principle should apply here. And Turkey is prepared to negotiate."
"We've haven't seen any diplomatic action in months, if not years, on seeking negotiation," he said. "The only action we've seen (is) aggressive deals and moves by Ankara. So, the final aims can be diplomacy and negotiation, but we've seen no concrete moves in this direction."
Some analysts question how far Erdogan is prepared to provide military support to Tripoli if Turkish forces fail to deter Haftar forces, and regional rivals harden their stances.
"Turkey has no capability for these out-of-area operations," Aktar said. "It will be extremely dangerous, costly, and deadly to go ahead with this military cooperation if more military forces are needed to sustain this deal with Tripoli."