Turkey's gambit in Libya could tear the country apart

Recep Tayyip Erdogan's plan to send troops to Tripoli will further exacerbate tribal tensions in the region, leading to another migrant crisis

epa07907085 Turkey-backed members of Syrian National Army prepare for moving to Turkey for an expected military operation by Turkey into Kurdish areas of northern Syria, in Azas near Turkey border, Syria, 08 October 2019 (issued 09 October 2019).  US President Donald J. Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops from the area ahead of the anticipated action by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  EPA/STR
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The battle for control of Libya is about to enter a new and potentially disastrous phase if Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish President, is given the go-ahead to proceed with his plan to deploy forces to Tripoli.

The long-running Libyan civil war, which has been raging since the overthrow of its dictator Col Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, is approaching a decisive phase, with forces led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar closing in on the capital.

Widely regarded as the leader who has the ability to restore order to this war-ravaged country, Field Marshal Haftar, who enjoys the backing of countries including Egypt and Russia, recently announced that his forces had launched their "final battle" for control of Tripoli.

The aim of the 76-year-old rebel commander is to remove the Government of National Accord, led by prime minister Fayez Al Sarraj and backed by the UN, and bring to an end its chaotic attempts to restore order to the country.

But the prospects of the long-running Libyan conflict being resolved any time in the near future could be seriously compromised if, as now seems likely, Mr Erdogan presses ahead with his proposal to send Turkish forces to Tripoli in support of the GNA. A bill has now been sent to the Turkish Parliament seeking approval for the deployment which, if granted, could see forces from the country arriving in Tripoli within the next few days.

Such a development would undoubtedly complicate efforts to resolve the dispute and might even result in an escalation of hostilities as Mr Erdogan, who increasingly sees himself as a major powerbroker in the Mediterranean, seeks to consolidate his influence over a key North African state.

Although the GNA is officially acting under the auspices of the UN, its abject failure to bring any sense of stability and security to the country has meant that it has very few international backers.

epa08074038 A handout photo made available by Turkish President Press Office shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) shaking hands with Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya Fayez al-Sarraj (L) during their meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, 15 December 2019.  EPA/TURKISH PRESIDENT PRESS OFFICE HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands with GNA's Fayez Al Sarraj during their meeting in Istanbul last month. EPA

One of the main reasons the GNA has failed so miserably to assert its authority is because of the malign influence of groups, many of which have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Those with influence include Abdelhakim Belhaj, leader of the conservative Al Watan Party and former head of Tripoli Military Council. He was head of the defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a group that previously campaigned for Qaddafi's overthrow and has been linked to the Manchester Arena terrorist attack in May 2017 that killed 23 people during a concert given by the American singer Ariana Grande.

Belhaj was named on the list of terrorists drawn up by Saudi Arabia at the start of the diplomatic dispute with Qatar in 2017.

Its association with known militants is one of the main factors for the GNA's failure to win international backing. To date the only countries actively supporting the GNA are Qatar, Turkey and Italy which, alone among the European nations, believes the body is the best means of protecting its extensive oil and gas interests in the North African state.

Mr Erdogan's proposal to send troops in support of the GNA will, therefore, be seen as a desperate throw of the dice designed to save the Tripoli-based organisation from suffering certain defeat at the hands of Field Marshal Haftar.

Mr Erdogan’s move also needs to be seen in the context of Ankara’s wider policy of seeking to expand its influence in the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa after the recent discovery of large undersea gasfields.

Turkey is concerned that it might end up being isolated if the four main beneficiaries of the gas discovery – Egypt, Israel, Cyprus and Greece – are able to establish a co-operation mechanism to protect their energy assets in the region.

To this end, Ankara struck a deal with the GNA in November to create a strategic corridor that runs from Dalaman on Turkey’s south-west coast and Derna on Libya’s north-east coast.

The fact that the GNA does not even control the stretch of coast referred to in the deal, and that Field Marshal Haftar has refused to acknowledge the agreement, has not stopped Mr Erdogan from hailing the deal as a significant achievement in Ankara’s attempts to protect its interests in the Mediterranean.

The deal has already provoked strong protests from Greece and Cyprus, which have a long history of territorial disputes with Turkey and claim the accord is void and violates the international law of the sea, while Egypt has called it “illegal and not binding". During a December 12 summit, leaders of the EU issued a statement “unequivocally” siding with member states Greece and Cyprus.

Hence, Mr Erdogan’s plans to increase Ankara’s ties with the GNA by sending forces to defend its interests not only risk causing a major escalation in the Libyan conflict, but could exacerbate tensions between Turkey and a range of other countries with competing interests in the region.

Turkey’s deepening involvement in Libya’s civil war could also have profound implications for the future stability of North Africa, as well as Europe. For a start, if Ankara succeeds in its aim to save the GNA and its associates, the most likely outcome for Libya will be the partition of the country between the area controlled by Field Marshal Haftar to the east and the remainder controlled by Tripoli to the west.

Such an outcome, though, would only further exacerbate tribal tensions in the region, potentially leading to a dramatic surge in the number of migrants seeking to make their way to Europe, thereby creating a migrant crisis not seen since the height of the Syrian crisis in the previous decade.

Con Coughlin is the Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor