Turkey Under Fire Over Military Presence in Libya

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Voice of America, May 25, 2021, Dorian Jones, image: courtesy Xinhua

International pressure is growing on Turkey over its military presence in Libya. 

Turkey deployed hundreds of soldiers and thousands of Syrian fighters in support of the Libyan Government of National Accord in its battle against forces of Libya’s General Khalifa Hafta, who is backed by Russian and Sudanese mercenaries. 

Now, with a cease-fire in force and elections scheduled for December, Aya Burweila, a visiting lecturer at the Hellenic National Defense College, says pressure is growing for all foreign troops to quit.

« There has been two UN Security Council Resolutions already for the removal of all foreign presence from Libya, be it Turkish Russian Sudanese, so yes, the political terrain has changed very much, » said Burweila. « There has been an increasing realization that Turkey was building up its presence on the Mediterranean in Libya. So I think the EU as well as the United States had a rude awakening about Turkish intentions in Libya.”

Ankara insists its forces are in Libya at the invitation of Libya’s internationally recognized government.  But this month, Libyan Foreign Minister Najla El-Mangoush called for all foreign fighters to leave, including Turkish forces. 

Turkey has already established an air base in Libya and Turkish media say Ankara is now seeking to build a naval base. 

The growing Turkish military presence has drawn strong criticism from France, which observers say is increasingly competing with Turkey for regional influence. 

Analyst Ilham Uzgel, who writes for the Turkish news portal Duvar, says Ankara will likely have to, at least in part, heed to international pressure.

« Turkey will definitely withdraw the jihadists, the fighters that they carried all the way from Syria, » said Uzgel. « Turkey can maintain a small number of liaison officers there, not a combat force, not a tactical force. But Turkey’s military presence there, is a very strong bargaining chip for Turkey.”

A U.S. defense department report last year said Turkey sent thousands of paid Syrian fighters to Libya.  Ankara denies any Syrian fighters deployed in Libya have links to Jihadists groups.
Turkey is currently seeking to improve relations with both Washington and the European Union, and Ankara sees cooperation on Libya as leverage.  
Turkish presidential adviser Mesut Casin says the government is ready to withdraw if all foreign forces pull out. However, he says the Turkish military can play a new important regional role in Libya.

« Turkey did not want military influence in Libya; we don’t need it, » said Casin. « But Turkey and also European Union maybe work together. Turkey aims to support the Frontex European Union border security. This is not only for Turkey even Italy, and also Malta support this situation.”

Libya is one of the main jumping off points for migrants seeking to enter the European Union illegally, and analysts say the Turkish leadership is looking to use its cooperation on border protection to its advantage in any future negotiations. 

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