The war in Libya may appear on the surface as a civil war pitting rival factions fighting for the country’s resources after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi. But the five-year conflict of the Tobruk government’s Libyan National Army, led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar, versus the Tripoli-based General National Congress led by Fayez al-Sarraj, is stoked by many outside parties.
Following Turkey’s accusation that forces loyal to eastern Libya commander General Khalifa Haftar had seized six of its citizens on June 30, 2019, Ankara threatened to take military action against Haftar’s forces unless they were freed immediately.1 On July 1, 2019, the six were released.2
These developments come at a time Haftar’s Libyan National Army forces have accused Turkey of being involved not only with the supply of weapons to the Tripoli government but also of being behind the coordination of military operations against its forces. The loss of the town of Gharyan (100 km south of Tripoli) in late January to the forces loyal to the Tripoli government has been attributed to Turkey’s leading role in waging war against the LNA in the Tripoli area. According to Libyan sources, Turkey is operating a command and control center in Tripoli to direct forces in their fight against Haftar’s troops. According to these sources, Turkish officers are present in Tripoli flying drones and assisting the troops fighting Haftar’s forces.
On the other hand, Tripoli has pointed to the fact that French and Emirati forces were involved in the battles and siding with Haftar forces, while U.S. (Javelin anti-tank missiles ) and Chinese weapons delivered to Haftar’s troops from the Emirates were uncovered by the Tripoli Government.3
In response, Haftar’s LNA forces published pictures of Turkish troops driving Turkish personnel carriers in the Tripoli area for the government army and accused Turkey of providing attack drones and other military equipment. Moreover, Turkey and the Tripoli government were accused of deploying Jihadist militias affiliated with ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the battle against LNA troops.
In an unprecedented move, Haftar forces declared on June 29, 2019, a ban on all commercial flights between Libya to Turkey and prohibited Turkish ships from docking in Libyan ports. According to Haftar’s spokesman, any aircraft trying to land in Tripoli would be considered as hostile and treated as such. The same will apply to Turkish ships trying to dock in Libyan ports. Haftar ordered attacks on Turkish strategic sites in Tripoli as well as Turkish companies and projects active in Libya. The LNA announced it would arrest any Turkish citizen in its area; the six Turkish nationals were arrested, igniting the crisis with Ankara – until they were released.4
This development is not surprising. Indeed, Turkey’s role, through the activities of the Turkish National Intelligence office (NIO) and the powerful Turkish Military Intelligence (MIT), has been exposed since the beginning of the so-called “Arab spring” in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Libya. (See, Jacques Neriah, Turkey’s Expansionist Policy Exposed, https://jcpa.org/turkeys-expansionist-policy-exposed/, January 30, 2019.)
A History of Turkish Smuggling and Subversion
This is not the first time Turkey’s subversive role in Libya has been exposed. In January 2013, Turkey’s leading newspaper Hurriyet reported that the Greek authorities apprehended a ship heading to Libya loaded with weapons after it stopped in Greece due to bad weather. In December 2013, Egyptian media reported that the Egyptians Customs Authority had “monitored” four containers loaded with weapons coming from Turkey and believed to be destined to Libyan militias. In August 2014, Khalifa Haftar ordered the LNA to shell a ship loaded with weapons coming from Turkey and heading towards the port of Derna in Libya’s Cyrenaica eastern region, and again in January 2015 both Turkey and Qatar were accused by a Libyan army official of supplying weapons through the Sudanese border to the militant group, “the Dawn of Libya,” in violation of the UN arms embargo imposed on Libya.5
Libyan customs caught two shipments of weapons in the port of Misrata on December 17, 2018, and one day later in the port of Al-Khoms – 100 kilometers east of Tripoli, both originating in Turkey and made by the Turkish defense industry. In a statement released by the Libyan army on December 19, the army expressed its concern saying, “The ammunition in those shipments included more than 4.2 million bullets – enough to kill nearly 80 percent of the Libyan people – as well as pistols, assault rifles, and hunting rifles with their accessories, including silencers used for assassinations.”
Libyan National Army chief, Khalifa Haftar called on the UN Security Council to condemn Turkey for the violation of the embargo imposed by the UN since February 2011. Haftar also accused Turkey of conducting subversive activities in Libya by supporting illegal armed groups and terrorists. The General Command of the Libyan National Army called on the UNSC to initiate an immediate investigation into the Turkish involvement in supplying weapons to militant groups in Libya.6 Libya’s appeal to the UN was joined by Algerian officials who denounced the Turkish shipments, stating that their purpose was to destabilize Libya and send an arsenal to unstable regions. The Algerians termed the Turkish action as tantamount to “a real declaration of war against us.”7
In January 2019, the Libyan authorities announced the discovery of a new shipment of weapons originating from Turkey on a ship which had docked at the Misrata port. According to the Libyan customs, the shipment included 20,000 Turkish-made pistols hidden in a container full of toys and housewares.8
The shipment also included 8 million Tramadol pills9 (an opioid pain medication) and Artane (an anticholinergic drug). Both drugs are used as stimulants and are often administered to Jihadists before their suicide missions. To camouflage its Turkish port of origin, the ship sailed first from Turkey to India and then was bound for Tripoli.10 A similar shipment of drugs was caught by the Greek Authorities on a Syrian ship in December 2018 en route from the Syrian port of Latakia to Benghazi. The drugs, worth $113 million, included Captagon pills, an amphetamine used as a stimulant by militants.11
Parallel to its assistance to the rebels in Libya, Turkey has played an important role in harboring Libyan Islamists and militants within its own borders. According to the Al-Arabiyya website, documents seized by the Americans in Abbottabad, Pakistan during the raid against Osama Bin Laden indicated that the Libyan militant groups had chosen Turkey to be their center – already in the 1990s. Among those militants was the notorious Libyan terrorist Abd el-Hakim Belhaj (alias Abi Abdallah al-Sadeq) who had advocated at the time to initiate contacts with Iran to act against the then-ruler of Libya Muammar Qaddafi.12
In January 2017, the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia radical Islamist group announced that its leader Mohammed al-Zahawi had died in a Turkish hospital, where he had been treated for “an injury sustained in the battles of Benghazi.” His body was sent back to the northwestern Libyan city of Misrata for burial.13
Turkey has become a pivotal “propaganda platform” for the Libyan opposition through satellite-assisted media stations active on Turkish soil, all dedicated to Islamists groups. Since 2011, satellite media stations funded by Qatar and Turkey and affiliated with the Muslim Brothers have been acting under the auspices of the Turkish regime: the most active stations are Al-Ra-ed al-I’lamiyya, Libya Al-Ahrar, Al-Tanassoh, Libya Panorama.14
Such activity has drawn the ire of Haftar who accused Turkey, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood in January 2019 of trying to intervene in the coming Libyan presidential elections.15
The recent escalation carries with it a bigger hazard of becoming the Middle East’s latest proxy contest to control a country divided between two-headed administrations: Haftar is supported by Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, France (and ultimately the United States16) and is facing a Turkish-Qatari-Jihadist coalition assisting the Tripoli government. The Turkish military options are very limited bearing in mind the 1,000 mile-long Libyan coast line, the huge spaces of Libya and the interests of the West to play down a conflict that could disrupt the world oil supply.
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16 In April 2019, President Donald Trump spoke by phone with Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar. A White House statement said the two discussed “ongoing counterterrorism efforts.” https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security-trump/white-house-says-trump-spoke-to-libyan-commander-haftar-on-monday-idUSKCN1RV0WW