Move meant as deterrent to Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar raises fears of escalation in violence
Turkey’s parliament has approved by a large majority a bill that allows troops to be deployed to Libya in support of the Tripoli-based government in the country’s worsening civil war.
The vote, taken during a special sitting, comes amid fears that the threat of Turkish intervention, in addition to that by other regional competitors, could intensify violence in Libya. MPs voted 325-184 in favour of the deployment.
The move, which is being seen as largely symbolic in the first instance, is aimed at putting pressure on rival eastern forces in Libya led by Gen Khalifa Haftar who have been challenging Fayez al-Sarraj’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord.
It marks, however, the emergence of a new potential front for confrontation in a region where Turkey is flexing its diplomatic and military muscle against rivals including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, coming on top of Turkey’s current intervention in the Syrian conflict.
Following the vote it was disclosed that the US president, Donald Trump, had also discussed the situation in Libya with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in a phone call in which the two “stressed the importance of diplomacy in resolving regional issues”.
Erdoğan is also expected to discuss Libya with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, next week.
The Turkish decision was quickly criticised by Egypt, one of the key backers of Haftar’s forces, which said in a statement it “strongly condemned” the plan.
Egypt said any such deployment could “negatively affect the stability of the Mediterranean region” and called on the international community to urgently respond.
A UN report late last year named Jordan and the UAE as regularly supplying Haftar’s forces, in breach of an arms embargo, while Turkey supports the UN-backed government. Turkey has also accused Russia of sending private mercenaries to back Haftar’s forces.
The fighting has threatened to plunge Libya into the kind of violent chaos to rival the 2011 conflict that ousted and killed the longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Erdoğan said last month that Sarraj requested the Turkish deployment after he and Sarraj signed a military deal that allows Ankara to dispatch military experts and personnel to Libya.
That deal, along with a separate agreement on maritime boundaries between Turkey and Libya, has drawn ire across the region and beyond.
While no details have been given on the scale of the potential deployment, which some reports have suggested could include a Syrian militia allied to Turkey, the Turkish vice-president, Fuat Oktay, told the state news agency Anadolu that the vote was intended as a political signal to deter Haftar’s offensive, which has threatened Tripoli and outlying towns.
“We are ready. Our armed forces and our defence ministry are ready,” he said, adding that parliamentary approval would be valid for a year.
“After it passes, if the other side changes its attitude and says, ‘OK, we are withdrawing, we are abandoning our offensive’, then what should we go there for?”
Ankara says the deployment is vital for Turkey to safeguard its interests in Libya and in the eastern Mediterranean, where it finds itself increasingly isolated as Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel have established exclusive economic zones paving the way for oil and gas exploration.
For its own part Turkey recently signed a maritime jurisdiction agreement with Sarraj’s Tripoli-based government giving Turkey rights to large swathes of the Mediterranean where gas reserves have recently been discovered, drawing criticism, particularly from Greece which says it ignores its own claims to the area.
Other analysts, however, have interpreted the Turkish moves as both a response to its increasing diplomatic isolation in the region and as part of its efforts to stake out its own footprint, not least around the Red Sea and Mediterranean, in opposition to its regional rivals.
Libya also has an emotional significance in Turkey with the modern country occupying largely the same territory as the last Ottoman provinces – Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica – which were ceded to Italy in 1912 after the Italo-Turkish war following almost four centuries of Ottoman rule.
“Ankara sees its involvement in Libya as a symbol of its new status as a regional power,” said Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The idea is, to be at the big table, you need to be present on the ground.”
Turkey’s main opposition party, however, has warned any deployment of troops by Ankara would embroil the country in another conflict on top of its intervention in Syria.
“We cannot throw our soldiers in the line of fire of a civilian war that has nothing to do with our national security,” said Aytun Çıray, a member of the opposition Good party, before the vote.
However, Erdoğan’s ruling party is in an alliance with a nationalist party and the two held sufficient votes for the motion to pass.
The vote came as Erdoğan said on Thursday up to 250,000 migrants were fleeing towards Turkey from Syria’s north-west Idlib region after weeks of renewed bombardment by Russian and Syrian government forces.
Turkey already hosts approximately 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population in the world, and Erdoğan said Ankara was taking steps with some difficulty to prevent another wave from crossing its border.