Growing Turkish involvement in Libya will destabilise North Africa, threaten to lengthen the Libyan conflict and harm Egypt’s national security, the Arab Weekly's Hassan Abdel Zaher said in an analysis, citing Egyptian officials and experts.
Turkey on May 18 sent a large shipment of military equipment to Islamist militias controlling Tripoli and fighting the Libyan National Army (LNA), triggering concern in Egypt. The militias said they received weapons and armoured vehicles from Turkey.
“Turkey is stepping up its military support to militias controlling Tripoli,” said Ahmed al-Quwesni, a former assistant to the Egyptian foreign minister. “This will have a heavy toll on Egypt’s security and stability in North Africa as a whole.”
This was not the first time Ankara offered support to Islamist militias, which are accused by the LNA and some international powers, including Egypt, of links with terrorist groups.
The Islamist militias in Tripoli are suspected of involvement in facilitating the movement of foreign jihadists from Syria and Iraq into Libya to transform the North African country into a base for militant attacks in Africa and the southern Mediterranean.
Last December, a Turkish ship arrived in Khoms, Libya, carrying fire arms and an estimated 4.8 million rounds of ammunition manufactured by the Turkish companies Zoraki and Retay, Libyan media reported.
Eleven months earlier, the Greek Coast Guard seized a Tanzanian-flagged ship heading for Libya and carrying chemicals that could be used to make explosives. The ship was loaded in the Turkish ports of Mersin and Iskenderun, a shipping bill indicated.
In September 2015, Greek authorities seized a freighter carrying an undeclared shipment of weapons en route from Turkey to Libya.
Such Turkish arms supplies are apparent violations of the United Nations arms embargo on Libya and confirm international concerns over Ankara’s support for Libya’s Islamist forces.
The May 18 arms shipment came shortly after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to back the government of Tripoli. In a phone conversation with the head of the Tripoli-based government, Fayez al-Sarraj, Erdogan said Turkey would do everything in its power to aid Sarraj and his government.
The Turkish involvement in Libya comes within a context of a regional and international battle for influence.
Unlike other Middle Eastern states, Turkey and Qatar have positioned themselves as champions of political Islam, backing Islamist militias for ideological as well as strategic reasons.
The concern in Cairo is that Turkey’s moves are designed to besiege Egypt and undermine its security through the support of the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement.
“Turkey wants to control and set Egypt’s immediate vicinity on fire,” said Rami Ashour, a lecturer at Nasser Military Academy, the academic arm of the Egyptian military.
Apart from Libya, Turkey tried to forge closer ties with Sudan before the downfall of the Omar al-Bashir regime. Ankara especially tried to have control over the southern entrance of the Red Sea by signing a deal with al-Bashir regarding the Sudanese Red Sea island of Suakin. The deal was considered a direct threat to Egypt, which hopes to secure navigation in the Red Sea heading into the Suez Canal.
Turmoil in Libya has been specifically harmful to Cairo because of the long border between Egypt and Libya. Weaponry that was found with Islamic State militants fighting the Egyptian Army in Sinai were from Libya, Egyptian officials said.
Cairo has deployed an impressive amount of resources to secure its Libyan border, including the construction of military bases in the Western Desert. There is concern that the measures will mean little if the situation in Libya does not improve.
Egypt has not directly commented on Turkish involvement in Libya but Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry repeatedly denounced foreign interference in Libyan affairs.
On March 5, he said the international community is fully aware of the financing offered militias in Libya. He added that those offering the financing were known to everybody.
“How can we honestly fight terrorism when the international community turns a blind eye to support offered by some countries to illegitimate parties?” Shoukry asked at a press briefing in Cairo with his Algerian and Tunisian counterparts.
Egypt, which backs the LNA and its Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, is concerned that continued Turkish support to Islamist militias would protract the conflict in Libya, threatening various interests, especially those of Libya’s neighbouring countries, analysts said.
“Turkey wants to lengthen the conflict in Libya by providing the militias with arms,” said Hassan Salama, a professor of political science at Beni Suef University. “Apart from harming the security of Libya’s neighbouring states, protracted conflict in the country will open the door for terrorists from every part of the world to come in.”
Earlier this month, Libyan Islamist militias displayed armoured vehicles received from Turkey, prompting fears across the country that Ankara might be repeating in Libya the role it played in Syria’s war by funnelling weapons to jihadists, the Arab Weekly's Lamine Ghamni said in a separate analysis published on Sunday.
Islamist militias aligned with the UN-backed government in Tripoli posted on social media pictures of military vehicles as well as photos of a foreign-flagged ship that unloaded the military equipment at Tripoli as part of a shipment from Turkey that was divided between several militias and other armed gangs, statements and video by militia leaders indicated.
One of the Islamist militias’ leaders dubbed an armoured vehicle “the Beast” as his gunmen cheered standing by it and chanted “Allahu Akbar.”
Islamist militias are locked in a battle over the control of Tripoli with anti-Islamist Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). The LNA has been fighting since April 4 to seize control of the Libyan capital from militias.
Militia commander Salah Badi touted the lethal power of the Turkish armoured vehicles. “The Beast is here. The battle of Tripoli will be reversed in our favour in two weeks,” he said in the video.
The Badi-led Samoud Brigade and a militia called Brigade 33, commanded by Bachir Khalfallah, were among Islamist groups that announced sharing of military equipment.
They said the shipment from Turkey included anti-tank missiles, anti-air missiles, assault rifles and ammunition.
Last November, the US Treasury sanctioned Badi, accusing him of undermining Libyan security by attacking groups aligned with the UN-backed government in Tripoli.
In a statement, the US Treasury said the Samoud Brigade militia used Grad rockets in densely populated areas during clashes in Tripoli in September 2018.
Badi, a former Libyan Army officer, led an Islamist militia during the revolt in 2011 when NATO-backed Islamist rebels toppled Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi.
Libyan media said Badi returned from a long stay in Turkey to join the fight of Islamist militias against the LNA.
Military experts said the vehicles depicted in the video resemble Turkey-made Kirpi armoured vehicles.
Spokesmen for Turkey’s military and Foreign Ministry did not respond to media requests for comment about the shipment.
Fathi Bashagha, interior minister for the Tripoli-based government, visited Turkey in April to activate “security and defence agreements” between the two governments. Bashagha, a former air force fighter pilot, was a prominent figure in the Misrata militia in 2011.
Despite the open display of the shipment of arms from Turkey, Libyan government officials tried to distance themselves from the deliveries, insisting that “such action does not represent the approach of the Turkish state.”
Leaders across the Libyan divide complained about Turkey’s role in fanning the conflict by providing weapons and funding to armed militias.
Last December, the Tripoli-based government and Turkey agreed to open an investigation into a consignment of arms that arrived from Turkey and was seized at a port near Tripoli, the UN-backed Libyan leadership said.
The government released the statement following talks in Tripoli between Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. The statement quoted Cavusoglu as saying Ankara rejected such actions and that they do not represent the policy of the Turkish state.
The weapons were seized by customs in Khoms, 100km east of Tripoli.
The consignment sent from Turkey contained 3,000 Turkey-made pistols, as well as hunting rifles and ammunition.
Last June, the United Nations renewed an arms embargo on Libya for another year.
Analysts in the Maghreb said publicity about the shipments was meant to highlight the role of Erdogan-led Turkey as the main backer of the Islamists in North Africa.
They argue that was part of Turkish efforts to offset the loss of influence in Cairo after the reversal of the gain by Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 when anti-Islamist President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ascended to power.
The LNA Navy said it put its forces on alert to prevent further military shipments to the Islamist militias, warning Turkey against docking ships at any port in western Libya.
“The comprehensive embargo imposed on all Libyan ports in the west of the country was implementing an order from the LNA’s general commander to deny supply to the militias in western Libya,” the navy said in a statement, adding that Turkey shipped 40 armoured vehicles in the transfer that was praised by Islamist militias’ leaders.