Turkey has begun sending troops to prop up the ailing UN-backed government in Libya, signalling a significant escalation in the proxy war that has engulfed the oil-rich north African state.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Sunday night that members of the Turkish military were already being dispatched to Libya in support of the beleaguered government in Tripoli, the capital, which is under attack from a military strongman backed by foreign powers.
“There will be an operation centre, there will be a Turkish lieutenant-general leading and they will be managing the situation over there,” Mr Erdogan said in an interview with the Turkish broadcasters CNN Turk and Kanal D. “Our soldiers are gradually on their way now.”
Mr Erdogan said the Turkish armed forces would not have a combat role and that “different units” would lead the fighting. Analysts expect Turkey to use Syrian militias who have spearheaded three previous Turkish operations in their home country as manpower.
The overt deployment of the Turkish armed forces to Libya will herald an escalation in a bloody conflict and is likely to exacerbate tensions with Ankara’s staunch rivals in the Gulf as well as the US.
While Turkey supports the struggling government of Libyan prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj, his opponent, General Khalifa Haftar, who controls most of the country and has been trying since last April to seize Tripoli, has the backing of Egypt, Russia and France.
Diplomats say the United Arab Emirates has provided Gen Haftar with Chinese-made drones and officers to operate them while Turkey has supplied the Tripoli government with drones and armoured vehicles. Moscow has dispatched hundreds of people from the Wagner Group, the private security contractor with close ties to President Vladimir Putin, to fight alongside Gen Haftar’s forces.
Amid mounting violence, and following a decision by the Turkish parliament to approve a motion to send troops to Libya, President Donald Trump of the US last week warned Mr Erdogan that “foreign interference is complicating the situation” in Libya.
On Sunday, the US embassy in Libya condemned the recent escalation, including a deadly attack on a military academy on Saturday night, and described the role of foreign powers in the country as “toxic”.
Turkey argues that it is acting to defend a legitimate, internationally recognised government that is under attack from a “warlord”.
Ankara hopes that by asserting itself more strongly in Libya it will help to restore the balance of power, strengthening the hand of the struggling Tripoli government in UN-led efforts to forge a negotiated solution to the conflict.
It is also counting on the support of Libya, a rare ally in the region, in a tense dispute with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt over hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean.
But many diplomats worry that a deeper Turkish involvement in the conflict will simply bring further bloodshed.
Following the signing of the military co-operation accord between Turkey and Tripoli in late November, the western part of Libya has been subject to an intensification of air and drone attacks against targets that include airports used by civilians.
On Saturday night at least 30 people, most of them young cadets, were killed in an air attack on a military academy in the Libyan capital.
Another 33 people were wounded, according to the health authorities, in an assault that Mr Sarraj’s government blamed on a “foreign air force” supportive of Gen Haftar.
The accusation is a probable reference to the UAE which, along with Turkey and Jordan, has been named by diplomats and UN experts as blatant violators of a UN arms embargo on Libya.
The UN condemned the attack in “the strongest terms” and warned that the “continued random bombarding” of civilian targets could reach the level of war crimes. Ghassan Salamé, the UN special envoy to Libya, has been trying for months to organise a conference in Berlin to get foreign backers of the warring sides to adhere to the arms embargo and to curtail interference.
Emadeddin Badi, Libya analyst and fellow at the European University Institute, said the escalation of Gen Haftar’s campaign in recent weeks was an attempt to make as much progress as possible before any dispatch of Turkish military reinforcements to aid his opponents.
“The Turks can’t do much if Gen Haftar’s forces are already in downtown Tripoli where the conflict will turn into guerrilla warfare,” he said. “Haftar’s backers believe that if he can enter the city, the GNA will fall and there will be a reshaping of the political landscape.”
They think the general could then seize control of the country’s resources by appointing new leaders to sovereign institutions such as the central bank, which controls oil receipts, he added.