To Advance Its Own Interests, Turkey Should Now Help Stabilize Libya
Ten years into Libya’s revolution, the proliferation of armed actors and a succession of sclerotic governments have taken their toll on the country’s security. Add organized crime and porous, ill-policed borders, and the country has become a major hub for smuggling weapons, drugs, and people.
It is against this backdrop of dysfunction that Turkey officially intervened in Libya in January 2020. By helping the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord repel Khalifa Haftar’s transnationally backed offensive on Tripoli, Turkey facilitated the ceasefire signed in October 2020, which brought an end to 16 months of overt hostilities. Now, Ankara’s military entrenchment in western Libya makes it a major player in the country’s security sector. What will Ankara do with this influence? Tracing the history of Turkey’s intervention helps explain the motives and future prospects of Turkish policy. It also shows why Ankara would do well to rethink its approach to Libya going forward.
Ankara intervened in Libya to secure its own economic and geopolitical interests, not to bring security to Libya itself. But with Libya embarking on a new political process, Ankara may have to engage in meaningful security sector reform to advance its own goals. Embracing a holistic security strategy that prioritizes government institutions over personal ties and private forces will ultimately benefit both Turkey and ordinary Libyan citizens.
Phase One: From Interference to Intervention
Turkey has been involved in Libya in various ways since the Gaddafi era and even more so since the country’s 2011 revolution. But the roots of Turkey’s current security assistance to Libya go back to 2019. In that year, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord was facing a military offensive launched by the rival forces of Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar. Lacking international support, the Government of National Accord signed two bilateral memoranda of understanding with Ankara. The first memorandum, on maritime demarcation, was meant to allow Turkey to redraw maritime boundaries and claim an expanded exclusive economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean. In return, the second agreement on military cooperation created the legal framework for Turkey’s involvement in Libya.
As a result, the first phase of Turkish security assistance in Libya was geared towards achieving a specific military objective — repelling Haftar’s offensive. In this initial phase, there was no strategic institutional endgame for Turkey beyond ensuring the survival of the Government of National Accord, which would secure Turkey’s maritime agreement along with a range of economic interests. Turkey scaled up its military involvement in Libya in the context of an internationalized armed conflict. This required a degree of nimbleness and strategic autonomy. Turkey quickly deployed human assets along with aerial and ground equipment in an urban setting to offset the material advantages of Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces. The latter were already backed by Russian mercenaries and Russian air defense systems along with Emirati-supplied Chinese drones and occasional Emirati airstrikes. Facing its own domestic economic downturn, Ankara had to overcome the logistical and technical challenges associated with intervening in a remote country situated over 2,000 kilometers from its borders at a sustainable cost. Unlike the Emirates or Egypt, Ankara could not transfer weapons to its local allies by land. Furthermore, the remoteness and insecurity of military airbases in western Libya also limited its ability to deploy manned jet fighters or helicopters. To overcome both of these economic and logistical hurdles, Turkey doubled down on its use of Turkish-made TB2 drones, along with aerial defense systems, armored vehicles, electronic warfare systems, anti-air weaponry, and its much advertised Syrian and Turkmen mercenaries.
Alongside all this, Ankara also deployed military advisors to specific bases and facilities. In addition to coordinating the deployment of Turkish drones, these officers were tasked with training Libyan personnel — mainly young aeromechanics and some older Gaddafi-era engineers — to operate them. This capacity building was administered to a select group of trainees in local Libyan control rooms in Tripoli and Misrata. According to interviews carried out by the author, this last phase of applied capacity building followed a three-month-long expedited training course that small groups of Libyan aerospace engineers had received in Turkey itself. This ongoing training effort has far-reaching implications, as Turkey’s intervention has created a growing level of indigenous knowledge pertaining to the effective use of drones.
Phase Two: Fragmentation and Informality
The swiftness with which Ankara needed to operationalize its intervention dictated an overreliance on personal networks in the process of decision-making and deployment. The Government of National Accord was the vehicle for signing agreements and maintaining a veneer of legitimacy for Turkey’s intervention. But the military effort was focused on local militia commanders as well as particular political or sometimes economic elites. Ankara was selective in which local groups it would supply arms to or embed mercenaries with.
Ankara had a variety of networks in Libya. Some were built through business links in the private sector, while others relied on ideological proximity. Turkey’s ties with Muslim Brotherhood members and other Islamists had been partly built in the period of Turkish-Qatari cooperation that occurred between 2011 and 2014. During the revolution, Doha had provided financial, military, and diplomatic support to revolutionary and Islamist groups through figures such as the cleric Ali al Sallabi and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’s former emir, Abdelhakim Belhaj. As Doha’s foreign policy footprint receded after 2014, this Islamist network’s epicenter gradually shifted to Turkey, which had also become a haven for political exiles, businessmen, and other entrepreneurs sidelined by Tripoli’s decision-makers or displaced from eastern Libya. Naturally, as Ankara stepped up its involvement, it also developed more formal ties with figures inside the Government of National Accord itself. All these networks had their separate links with factions and armed groups on the ground, and while they cooperated with Turkey, they also jockeyed over its backing. In short, Ankara’s security assistance was shaped to accommodate the fragmentation, informality, and hybridity of Libya’s security sector.
After Haftar’s offensive was successfully repelled, the second phase of Ankara’s security assistance began. In this phase, more akin to traditional security assistance, Ankara sought to secure its military footprint in Libya and establish itself as a power broker. Ankara significantly scaled up the transfer of military equipment to western Libya. Turkey essentially made Watiya Air Base, on the Tunisian border, its own. It also secured a presence in several military bases in Tripoli’s outskirts, built on its pre-existing military footprint in Misurata, and established a military presence at the port of Khoms.
This phase also saw Ankara more engaged at the level of capacity building. Several batches of fighters that had served under the banner of the Government of National Accord were trained by Turkey with an eye towards being integrated into the Ministry of Defense. Some basic infantry trainings were conducted in Libya, while cadets were also sent for training in Turkey. This plan was largely the byproduct of personal proximity between the Government of National Accord’s minister of defense, Salaheddin Namrush, and Ankara’s defense establishment. It once again illustrated how security assistance often relied on gatekeepers and personalized relationships. Turkey had participated in previous multilateral efforts to support Libya’s security institutions, such as NATO’s 2013 plan to train a 20,000-strong Libyan “General Purpose Force.” But these had largely failed, owing to minimal international commitment, local Libyan polarization, and the impulse of local armed groups to revert to regional loyalties. By opting for direct bilateral security assistance in a context where it could formally and informally exert influence over Libyan factions — and, if needed, reduce tensions between them — Ankara intended to circumvent the challenges that had plagued past efforts to rebuild Libya’s security sector.
However, despite being marketed by Ankara as a form of security sector reform, this second phase of security assistance failed to fundamentally alter the security landscape in western Libya. Turkish security assistance placed far more emphasis on “train and equip programming,” and there was little focus on improving security provision, management, or oversight. This may reflect Libyan disagreements over the shape of Libya’s military structures, but it was also a product of Turkey’s existing relationships with local elites and militias. Relationships with these groups, which often fought one another, constricted Ankara’s ability to transition into working with more formal forces and institutions, such as the Ministries of Interior and Defense. Reforming Libya’s security sector is a long-term state-building exercise that requires replacing hybridity with a more formal defense apparatus. Unfortunately, the origins and nature of Ankara’s intervention will make this reform harder to achieve.
Phase Three: Pivot to Stability?
The second phase of Turkey’s security assistance had overlapped with the launch of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, which builds on a ceasefire formalized in October 2020. This has shifted Ankara’s calculus and led it to begin trying to convert its military weight into political capital. Ankara’s personalized ties have left it vulnerable to a political reshuffle where its partners could be replaced. On the Libyan side, many of the elites that initially jockeyed for Ankara’s support are now publicly distancing themselves to maximize their political prospects. But Ankara nonetheless remains committed to the new political process. It realizes military escalation would jeopardize its room for diplomatic maneuver and undermine its current rapprochement with Cairo. There is also a financial element. The success of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum would allow the incoming Government of National Unity to access the country’s currently frozen oil revenues, giving both Turkey and local Libyan elites an incentive to support it.
In this new context, Ankara has begun to prioritize the geoeconomic and political endgame. One of the most direct threats that Ankara saw in Haftar’s takeover of Tripoli was a significant setback in its wider intra-Sunni feud with the United Arab Emirates. Yet, this oft-emphasized Islamist ideological rationale for Ankara’s intervention in Libya does not entirely explain its maneuvering since December 2019. Ankara sought to use its maritime accord with Libya to wrest concessions in its long-running disputes with Cyprus and Greece. It also saw economic incentives in recouping Gadaffi-era infrastructure contracts and winning new ones, such as rehabilitating the country’s electrical grid. More broadly, Turkey’s involvement in Libya is part of a larger strategy for using North Africa as an entry point for economic engagement with the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa.
This means that Turkey’s security relations and assistance are best viewed through a political economy lens. After all, phases one and two of Turkey’s security assistance were shaped with defense economics in mind. Ankara prioritized cost-efficiency in defending Tripoli through its domestically produced drones. Ankara also sought to minimize any domestic backlash by deploying low-cost Syrian mercenaries instead of Turkish soldiers. It did not focus explicitly on Libya’s long-term security, but rather, on how its military footprint could advance its economic interests. This is partly why Ankara is now doubling down on the validity of the military and maritime agreements it brokered under the Government of National Accord while seeking to sign profitable new deals as well. Amidst these efforts, Ankara’s interest in building the capacity of local security actors appears to have receded.
But from Ankara’s perspective, this might be a mistake. Carrying out big-ticket contracts and projects within Libya requires a degree of stability. Moreover, a protracted foreign presence that does not bring any security gains is bound to antagonize the local population. In other words, even to advance its economic and geopolitical interests, Ankara should adopt a more holistic security strategy. Ankara clearly wants to maintain its military presence and hard power options in Libya. But to do this without enhancing the security of the Libyan people will simply delegitimize Turkey’s role.
The coming phase of Libya’s transition will prove increasingly precarious for Turkey. For Ankara to sustainably secure its economic gains, it should resist the short-term benefits of buttressing militias and working with individual elites. Instead, Ankara should surmount the origins of its intervention and focus on supporting Libyan institutions. This means tackling the country’s fragmented security environment by bolstering state capacity. If Turkey continues on its current course, Libya’s security challenges will persist, and Ankara’s influence will wane, regardless of how hard it attempts to entrench itself in the country.
Emadeddin Badi is a senior analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He is the author of Exploring Armed Groups in Libya: Perspectives on SSR in a Hybrid Environment.