Pressure is building for foreign forces to depart Libya. In addition to two UN Security Council resolutions, last week the new Libyan Foreign Minister, Najla al Mangoush, called on all foreign forces, including Turkey’s, to leave the country. Turkey was also targeted for criticism by France, which is attempting to paint it as an interloper in a region that rightfully belongs under French stewardship. But our chief political scientist argues that Turkey has more of a historical connection to Libya than France and its ties to the region make it better suited for maintaining the fragile peace.
Adnan R. Khan: France would like the international community to believe that Turkey has no business interfering in Libya. But Turkey’s ties to the country are not new, are they?
Ilter Turan: Indeed not. In fact, it couldn’t be further from the truth that Turkey’s interest in Libya is a recent development. From the moment Libya became an independent country, Turkey developed close relations with it. The first prime minister of Libya was a Turkish citizen of Libyan origin who had come here during the Ottoman era and then went back to serve as prime minister, only to come back to Turkey
again after completing his “tour of duty.” Libya’s monarchs also had close relations with Turkey. King Idris was actually vacationing at the thermal springs in Bursa when he was toppled by military officers, one of whom had completed his training at the staff college in Istanbul. When I was teaching a course at the Naval College more than thirty years ago, we had about a hundred students training to become Libyan officers. Libya extended important military assistance to Turkey during and after the Cyprus intervention.
Turkey and Libya have also had very close economic relations since Libyan independence. Turkish construction companies first made their mark on the international stage after completing projects in Libya. There has also always been a rather lively tourist trade between the two countries. Before the war broke out, there was a weekly boat from Libya to Izmir where Libyans would come to do their shopping. Every week, the ship would return to Libya with refrigerators, washing machines and other items.
Adnan R. Khan: And yet there is a lot of international resistance to Turkey establishing a long term, or in fact any, military presence in Libya. Why is that?
Ilter Turan: The problem is that a number of countries have a military presence in Libya, which they take to be perfectly normal. In fact, the British and the French found it to be perfectly normal to go in and bomb Libya at the start of the Arab Spring. But when Turkey is present there, it is considered a problem. Former imperialist powers like France, it seems, cannot resist the temptation to display their continuing imperialist aspirations when they judge that they are presented with an opportunity.
But given the history, I find it perfectly normal that there is a Turkish military presence in Libya at this moment. The resistance to it is both a function of international and Libyan domestic politics. Libyan society is not particularly well integrated. Tribal forms of organization are very strong and these tribal organizations are geographically based. There are both tribal and regional rivalries. So, when there is a domestic conflict, international actors get involved in the pursuit of their own interests, each supporting a particular tribal constellation.
Adnan R. Khan: Does that framework explain why the new foreign minister of Libya recently demanded that all foreign troops, including Turkey’s, need to leave? Is she under pressure from others parties?
Ilter Turan: To achieve a negotiated settlement, factions have to disband and those coming from elsewhere leave. This means all factions. What the foreign minister is saying is that the informal military presence of a variety of actors has to come to an end. This is perfectly understandable. She is not in a position to single out any one faction. But clearly the major faction that is proving to be problematic for
a unified Libyan government are the forces attached to General Haftar backed by France and Egypt plus the Russian backed Wagner forces. Unless Haftar’s military presence is eliminated, the conflict is not going to be easy to solve. Once these forces leave, there will no longer be a need for other forces to remain, except those that are formally recognized by the Libyan government.
Adnan R. Khan: Everything is still quite fragile. The end to the conflict came at a breathtaking pace but the new unity government is still in a precarious position. How can Turkey support it?
Ilter Turan: I think Turkey has to be a part of any effort to cleanse the society of all external elements other than those that are legally there by the invitation of the Libyan government. Also, the Turkish government has to communicate clearly that it is not pursuing an agenda to establish the Muslim Brotherhood as the key power in the country. And, to the extent possible, Turkey should not attempt to impose its own program of bringing peace to Libya but remain part of an international coalition to support a Libyan-led peace effort.