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Libyan rebels fire missiles
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/EPA/M. Messara

What is Turkey doing in Libya?

Hülya Schenk
July 7, 2019

Several international players, including Turkey, are involved in the ongoing civil war in Libya. Ankara supports the internationally recognized Libyan unity government. What are the interests at play here?

With the civil war still raging in Libya, the fight for the capital, Tripoli, is escalating. A number of other countries are involved in the conflict, among them Turkey, which appears increasingly self-assured in its support for the internationally recognized government in Tripoli.

This government is engaged in a civil war with the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA), led by the renegade general, Khalifa Haftar. Ankara's involvement has infuriated the general, and over the past few weeks his attitude toward Turkey has hardened. The LNA has banned commercial flights between the two countries, prohibited Turkish ships from docking on the Libyan coast and threatened to arrest Turkish citizens. Six Turkish citizens were in fact detained for several hours in late June, and were only freed after stern threats from Ankara.

These escalating tensions follow the heavy defeat Haftar suffered when making an advance on Tripoli. A major offensive was launched at the beginning of April, but it failed; shortly afterward, government troops also recaptured the key city of Gharyan in western Libya. These troops were equipped with armored cars and drones supplied by Turkey.

What is Turkey doing in Libya?

Libya is a country rich in oil and gas reserves that borders important Mediterranean trade routes. The country's destabilization aroused the avarice of various international players, including the Turkish government.

Oytun Organ of the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies believes this avarice was one of the decisive factors that prompted Ankara to interfere in Libya. "A lot of Turkish companies were already active in Libya under [Libyan dictator Moammar] Gadhafi," he said.

Among other things, Turkish companies were also involved in numerous lucrative construction projects in Libya. Precise figures aren't available, but the volume of investment is believed to have totaled several billion US dollars. "But after the civil war [the 2011 war that eventually led to the fall of Gadhafi — Editor's note], Libya became less economically important," explained Organ. "Interest in investment declined markedly."

Read more: France rejects Libya's 'unfounded' claim it supports militia leader Khalifa Haftar

However, the Turkish government remained in close contact with the unity government in Tripoli, and Turkish firms continued to receive contracts — like the one to extend the coastal road in Tripoli. When the conflict with Haftar broke out many of these construction projects were put on ice, and Turkish companies working in Libya lost a great deal of money as a result. The more areas Haftar seizes from the unity government, the smaller the chances the companies will see their money again.

There is also an ideological aspect to Turkish interference in the Libyan conflict. Much of Haftar's support comes from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. All three countries are united in their bitter opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, which they consider a threat. Turkey, however, also supported Libyan groups close to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in the civil war that led to the fall of Gadhafi.

Libya's impending drinking water crisis

Due to its copious oil resources, Libya was one of North Africa's richest countries. A civil war then plunged Libya into chaos. As a result, large parts of the country could now even run out of drinking water.

Image: Reuters/H. Ahmed

Lack of basic necessities

A health system crisis is looming in Libya. Particularly the western parts of the country are running out of drinkable water. 101 of 149 conduits of the water supply system have already been destroyed in the wake of the chaotic situation in the country.

Image: Reuters/E.O. Al-Fetori

Modern water pipeline system in deterioration

Libya is mainly made up of arid desert. Under dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the 1980s saw the construction of a vast pipeline system known as the "Great Man-Made River." Those pipelines supply more than 70 percent of Libya's population with fresh water. However, since the fall of Gaddafi, the system has been damaged time and again.

Image: Reuters/E.O. Al-Fetori

Civil war and chaos

Since Gaddafi was toppled in 2011, the country has descended into chaos. The internationally recognized government in Tripoli is weak and not in control of large parts of Libya. On the other hand, renegade General Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libya National Army (LNA) control large areas predominantly in the east of the country.

Image: AFP/M. Turkia

Target Tripoli

The LNA, in particular, uses the water pipeline system in order to push through its demands, thereby endangering Libya's population. In May, armed forces loyal to Haftar forced water supply employees to cut off the main water pipeline to the besieged capital, Tripoli, for two days, in a bid to press authorities to release a prisoner.

Image: Reuters/H. Ahmed

Water as a weapon of war

It's not only the rebel groups who exploit the water supply system to push through their interests. There are also people who dismantle wellheads, in order to sell the copper those heads are made of. The United Nations have warned all sides in Libya not to use water as a weapon of war.

Image: Reuters/E.O. Al-Fetori

Health hazards

Mostafa Omar, a UNICEF spokesman for Libya, estimates that, in future, some four million people might be deprived of access to safe drinking water if no solution to the conflict is found. This could result in an outbreak of hepatitis A, cholera, and other diarrhea illnesses.

Image: Reuters/E.O. Al-Fetori

Drinking water not fit to drink

Water is not only scarce, but it's also contaminated in many areas. Bacteria or a high content of salt make it unfit for consumption. 'Often, in fact, it's no longer drinkable water,' says Badr al-Din al-Najjar, the head of Libya's National Center for Disease Control.

Image: Reuters/E.O. Al-Fetori
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Nonetheless, Organ maintains this is not the crucial issue, as Turkey's support is not confined solely to the Muslim Brotherhood. "Turkey primarily supports the rightful government in Tripoli," he said. "Ankara supplies it with weapons, which it is legitimate according to international law." Along with the Libyan unity government, Turkey and Qatar are able to form a counterweight to the power bloc centered on Saudi Arabia — a constellation also found in other parts of the Middle East.

Turkey and the Tripoli government held talks as early as April with the aim of stopping Haftar's advance. These were said to have been concerned with closer cooperation on military and security issues. Militias fighting on behalf of the unity government are believed to have already received direct arms shipments.

'On the brink of a proxy war'

Organ assumes Turkey is on the brink of a proxy war, and that this conflict could well escalate further. "A balance of power has evolved. That's important and desirable from Turkey's point of view. But it also means that Libya effectively remains divided," he said.

At the same time, said Organ, this equilibrium between the two camps will entrench the conflict. "They won't reach any agreement, because neither side has an advantage over the other that it can build on," he said.

Emrah Kekilli from the SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research also believes Libya is in deadlock. In his view, Haftar is a militia leader who is not abiding by the law. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also recently railed against Haftar, calling him "just a pirate."

According to Kekilli, Haftar is the reason why resolving the conflict in Libya currently seems hopeless. "The drastic response to Ankara stems from the fact that the general hasn't scored any victories in months," said Kekilli. "He's trying to set up a foreign scapegoat."

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