January 13, 2020

IntelBrief: Turkey Enters the Conflict in Libya  

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands with Fayez al Sarraj, the head of Libya's internationally-recognized government, prior to their meeting in Istanbul, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020.  (Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool).
  • Turkey has intervened in Libya’s internecine civil war in an effort to prop up the increasingly beleaguered Government of National Accord (GNA).
  • A recent Russian-Turkish initiative seems to have produced a conditional cease-fire, though it remains to be seen how durable the cessation of hostilities will be, especially considering the level of external intervention.
  • Ankara’s involvement in Libya is aimed at expanding its influence in the region and solidifying its prospects for energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean.
  • Oil and natural gas have become the new commodities of conflict as countries seek to lay claim to energy resources while simultaneously blocking their adversaries from gaining access.


Turkey has moved aggressively to intervene in Libya’s internecine civil war. Ankara supports the Government of National Accord (GNA)—recognized by the United Nations—in an effort to prop up the increasingly beleaguered government. The deployment of Turkish troops to Libya is not an act of mere altruism. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to expand his influence in Libya and solidify Turkey’s interests in the Mediterranean region. Chief among those interests is energy security and the prospect of discovering hydrocarbons in the sea. Turkey recently signed an accord with the GNA to create an exclusive economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean as Ankara competes for resources with other regional players, including Greece, Cyprus, and Israel. There are significant concerns about the Turkish intervention, which is opposed by the United Nations, as well as Russia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Turkish troops are being deployed to provide direct military support to the GNA, which is under siege from the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by former Libyan Army general Khalifa Haftar. Trained and equipped by external actors like Russia, the LNA has been advancing on the capital of Tripoli, where the GNA is struggling to survive. Russia and its allies have blatantly ignored an international arms embargo and have provided heavy weapons, drones, and armed mercenaries.

The Turkish military force in Libya is modest in size, and Ankara faces significant logistical challenges in supporting an expeditionary deployment far from Turkey. The mission will likely be narrow in scope. Erdogan may be using the intervention as a means to force the international community to accelerate efforts to forge a negotiated political settlement. Fighting around Tripoli has led to hundreds of deaths and displaced over 140,000 civilians, while also shutting down schools and hospitals. Turkish military personnel will be in direct conflict with Haftar’s forces and possibly Russian forces from the Wagner Group, putting Moscow and Ankara at odds. This possibility exists despite a warming relationship between Russia and Turkey over the past few years, which includes growing linkages in security cooperation and foreign policy. Turkey has consulted with Russia on serious matters of international security, much to the chagrin of the United States and NATO.

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Erdogan in Istanbul on January 9 to discuss the conflicts in Libya and Syria as well as ongoing developments related to energy security. The two leaders called for a cease-fire for both their respective sides to begin at midnight on January 12, and early reports suggest that the Russian-Turkish initiative has produced a conditional cease-fire. Much of the focus will remain on Tripoli, which has been under siege by Haftar’s forces since April 2019. Even with support from France, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Russian mercenaries, Haftar’s forces have fallen short of being able to take the capital (Tripoli) from the GNA. However, they did recently take control of Sirte, which was a stronghold for the Islamic State in Libya just several years ago. Russia and Turkey have solidified their roles as the primary power brokers for this conflict, as they have similarly done in Syria. The United Nations, the European Union, and other external parties have been stalled in their efforts to push for an end to the conflict. For its part, the United States is playing a minimalist role, as it has never had meaningful leverage in Libya following the ouster of longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

Turkey hopes to extend and solidify its influence in the Mediterranean basin in an effort to secure access to critical energy resources. Ankara is currently locked in a dispute with the European Union and others over its claims to natural gas deposits near Cyprus. Turkey has sent warships into the area and remains sensitive to any criticism over its moves in the Mediterranean. A consortium of Greece, Cyprus, and Israel would seek to bring natural gas from offshore fields in the Mediterranean to Europe, lessening Europe’s dependence on natural gas from Russia, which currently supplies approximately 40% of European natural gas imports. The natural gas supplies transit through Turkey on the way to Europe. Oil and natural gas have become the new commodities of conflict as countries seek to lay claim to energy resources while simultaneously blocking their adversaries from gaining access.  


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