Background and History: Turkey in Libya

Turkey has been an active actor in Libya since the begin of the revolution [the Arab Spring] in 2011. Unlike in Afghanistan, Turkey took pride of being NATO’s spearhead in Libya, but at the same time it tried to assume leadership over the Muslim nations by achieving the impossible: Turkey’s AKP managed to merge the Ottoman doctrine with the Muslim Brotherhood doctrine. In a statement to Turkish channel NTV in 2011, former Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu told the Libyan rebels “[…] You must invade Tripoli like Prophet Muhammad invaded Mecca […].”

On March 24, 2011 the Turkish parliament approved a bill granting the government to a military intervention in Libya “as part of the international forces to establish security and stability in Libya, within the framework of the United Nations resolution issued on 26 February 2011.”

While NATO [U.S., Turkey and European countries], Iran, Russia and the Arab Gulf countries stood on the same side initially – the side of the rebels opposing Libyan president Gaddafi, the occurences in the Middle East developed after eight years and meanwhile NATO (especially Italy, France and UK), the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other traditional Gulf states are backing the eastern-based government and Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). Aiming for a more Islamist rule in Libya, Qatar and Turkey are backing the Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC). Russia, which has enabled the international intervention in 2011, but now regrets this decision, found a place in Libya and also supports a handful of factions including both sides: Haftar and the rebels. Iran, which motivated, funded and armed the rebels, like Russia supports more or less all sides.

When the Palermo conference was held in November 2018, the participation of Turkey and Qatar was vetoed by Libyan General Haftar. In response to its exclusion, Turkey withdrew from the conference, Turkish Vice President Fuat Aktay threatened: “Any meeting that excludes Turkey will have a negative impact on finding a solution.”

Turkey’s Support to Islamist Factions in Libya like in Syria

The Turkish intervention in Libya varies between financing, embracing, harboring and protecting terrorist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. The reason is the tendency of Turkish hegemony and influence that stems from the aspiration to regain the Second Ottoman Empire, which was divided with the succession of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Although in the early stages of 2011, Turkey contributed to the formation of the Libyan army under General Haftar, including its training and the unification of competing military forces (militias of the rebels), but with the fall of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Turkey’s stances changed. Turkey also issued back then a visa exemption for Libyans, this has benefit Libyan rebel figures to freely enter Turkey, and even intervene in the Syrian Civil War.

Turkey changed its position in Libya when Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi toppled Turkey’s ally, Head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi. El-Sisi, an opponent of Muslim Brotherhood, became a close ally of Libyan General Haftar. Sisi and Haftar teamed to oust Turkey from Libya, without success, as Turkey had Qatar’s moral and financial support to resist Haftar. Without Qatar’s moral support, as an Arab country, and its financial assistance, Turkey would not be able to fund its existence in Libya.

Early on in 2013, when El-Sisi toppled Morsi, Turkey was caught sending weapons in cargo shipments to Libya, which threatened not only NATO’s interests in Libya, but also Egypt’s battle against Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt borders to Libya and Sisi rightfully feared that the battle would transfer from Libya to Egypt. In January 2013, weapons loaded from Turkey were found in a cargo ship stuck on the Greek coast. In December 2014, Turkish weapons were found in a ship caught by Egypt. In August 2014, Haftar gave orders to hit a ship sailing from Turkey to Darna. In November 2014, Greek officials discovered 20,000 Kalashnikovs in a Turkish ship that sailed from Ukraine. In December 2014, it was reported that the weapons found on a Korean freighter that had reached the Libyan port of Misurata were loaded from Turkey. Qatar and Turkey continued to send weapons to Libya also via Sudan. In September 2015, Libya seized a ship with ammunition coming from the Turkish port of Iskenderun. Thus, Turkey has hugely contributed to the chaos in Libya by continuously supplying Islamist factions with arms and ammunition.

Turkey also embraces the most important heads of terrorism in Libya, the most wanted by the Libyan judiciary on charges of involvement in crimes of violence and terrorism and damage to internal national security, as well as a number of leaders of the first row of the Muslim Brotherhood, who had  suspicious roles in leading chaos in Libya since the fall Muammar Gaddafi regime in 2011. Turkey has offered protection to the former leader of the Libyan Fighting Group, Abdelhakim Belhadj, who is a suspect in the Libyan judiciary and one of the most wanted figures after being found guilty of several attacks on Libyan public facilities and crimes that destabilized Libya. Turkey granted a permanent residence to leading figures of the Benghazi Shura Council, a “terrorist organization.” Also a number of Muslim Brotherhood leaders enjoy the protection of the Turkish regime, including a member of the outgoing National Congress, Mohamed Mergham, who has previously demanded that Turkey intervene militarily in Libya against the Libyan army.

But the Turkish bet on the Brotherhood in Libya is not only due to the aspiration to restore the Brotherhood leadership, this latter is only a tool for Turkey’s strategy, in which its expansionism and the economic factor play an important role.

Turkey needed Libya as a pressure point on the European Union. Striving to become a member of the European Union, Turkey’s strategy was to have a decisive role inside NATO and inside Africa especially in a country like Libya with a paramount geographic location and an immense economic reservoir of resources, which European countries may need to substitute dependence on Russia. Thus, Turkey had calculated its options for its intervention in Libya, and thus chose that it has to be the leading front for both the NATO and the Muslim. As a front of NATO, it can set foot in Libya, pressure on NATO and E.U.- later it also used Libya to pressure U.S.- and as Muslim leading front it rallied Muslim around it in the whole region, from North Africa till the Middle East. As such, Turkey began to fund economic activities of a number of Libyan institutions at a time, when projects worth billions of dollars were halted since 2011.

Recently, amid the decline of the Turkish Lira against foreign currencies, including the Dinar, the Association of Independent Businessmen and Industrialists in Turkey announced the opening of an office in Libya without clarifying its economic plan. The Turkish expansion in the Horn of Africa is an attempt to find a foothold through the Muslim Brotherhood and to market the project of political Islam. Therefore, Turkey cannot exist in Libya without financially investing in the Libyan ruin, which it hopes would open for Turkey new markets, allow it to invest in the reconstruction process and penetrate Africa. Turkey also needs the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions in order to launder the Libyan money, which was smuggled into its local economy.

However, countries bordering to Libya are concerned with Turkey’s role in Libya. Not only does Egypt worry about its national security, also Algeria is concerned about Erdogan’s moves. Algeria is convinced that some of the weapons Turkey sought to smuggle into Libya were directed at terrorist groups in neighboring Algeria. Nigeria is also alarmed, and has accused Turkey of funding the Islamist group Boko Haram. In 2014, a tape recording of a conversation between a senior adviser to Erdogan and the chief secretary of the Turkish airline’s chief executive indicated that the Turkish state-owned airline’s leadership was displeased with having to smuggle weapons into Nigeria. When Boko Haram a branch of Al-Qaeda took control of northern Mali, one of Erdogan’s appointees described the French Army, which was sent to fight extremist groups, as “the real terrorists.”

All this indicates that Turkey’s role in Libya is a strategic role. It uses Islamists to pressure on its “allies” and foes, whether on NATO, U.S., E.U. or on Saudi Arabia and Egypt, or even on Russia and Iran. Turkey knew how to play the Islamist card, it merged the impossible: The Ottoman Caliphate with the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey is partially successful in leading the Muslim and is expanding freely in Arab countries, which held a grudge for 400 years against the Turks. At the same time, Turkey uses Libya to leverage itself against both NATO and Russia, and in every country it has deployed its Turkish Armed Forces, whether in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. But recently, the good news is that Turkey lost a strategic partner: Sudan. This may be the beginning of the fall of Turkey.


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