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President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani and President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan hold a joint press conference following their meeting, at Presidential Complex, in Ankara, Turkey on 16 April, 2016. AFP/Rasit Aydoga

Turkey and Iran: Bitter Friends, Bosom Rivals

New frictions in Iraq and Syria threaten Ankara and Tehran’s usually peaceful management of their Middle East rivalries. To rebuild trust and avert open conflict, they should coordinate de-escalation, exchange intelligence and designate representatives to open a new channel between their leaders.

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I. Overview

For nearly two centuries and despite their fierce geopolitical competition from the Levant to Iraq and the Caucasus, Turkey and Iran have kept the peace between themselves, compartmentalised growing energy and commercial relations and even cooperated regionally when their interests converged. Yet today, while their economies are increasingly intertwined, a profound disagreement over core interests in Iraq and Syria is putting these two former empires on a collision course. It is not too late for a critically needed reset, but only if both recognise their fundamental interest in reversing course and taking steps that allow them to manage their differences peacefully, as they have done for almost 200 years.

Overlapping ethnicities and cultures can at times make the two countries seem like two sides of the same coin, but Iran is a leading regional proponent of both Shiite Islam and theocratic governance, while Turkey’s secular constitution is built on a bedrock of Sunni Islamic practice. As their officials and diplomats attest, Turkey and Iran generally concur on the strength of the relationship they have carefully nurtured during a long history of cohabitation. Since the upheavals that have swept across the Middle East and North Africa from 2011, however, frictions have increased over what each sees as the other’s hostile manoeuvring in two countries of critical importance to both: Iraq and Syria. Their inability to accommodate each other has the potential to undermine or even undo their strong ties.

Both have empowered local partners and proxies on the battlefields of Mosul, Tel Afar, Aleppo and Raqqa that are forcefully positioning themselves to control whatever emerges from the debris of today’s wars. Though both have attempted to build on shared interests – defeating or at least marginalising Islamic State (IS) and curbing the rise of autonomy-minded Syrian Kurds – deep suspicions about the other’s ambitions to benefit from the chaos have stopped them from reaching an arrangement that could lower the flames. The dynamics instead point toward deepening sectarian tensions, greater bloodshed, growing instability across the region and greater risks of direct – even if inadvertent – military confrontation between them where their spheres of influence collide. The possibility that an Iranian-made drone killed four Turkish soldiers in northern Syria on 24 November 2016, as Ankara alleges, points toward perilous escalation.

To reverse course and avoid worse, they need to overcome mutual mistrust. To this end, and as a pressing priority, they should establish a channel for continuous high-level negotiations over their regional postures. The pace of such meetings as have been held has been problematic: periodic senior encounters lasting one or two days, followed by relatively long periods of diplomatic vacuum that tend to be filled with escalation of proxy wars and one-upmanship. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei of Iran should designate personal representatives with the authority to manage the diplomatic channel.

If they do this, and to demonstrate seriousness and goodwill, the governments should also take confidence-building steps, from more intelligence cooperation to coordinated de-escalation where conflict is most acute. In northern Iraq, Iran might thus offer as a first step to rein in Shiite militias deployed in Ninewa governorate, even as units nominally accountable to the Iraqi prime minister in his capacity as commander-in-chief, in return for Turkey agreeing to withdraw its tanks and other heavy weapons from the area. Confidence-building measures, if well executed, could pave the way for agreed principles of good neighbourliness, mutual recognition of each other’s core interests and legitimate security concerns in the region and an articulation of clear red lines with respect to actions each deems hostile.

The U.S. and Russia, which have strong military ties with Turkey and Iran respectively, as well as in each case disagreements and conflicting interests, should support such steps. For now, Turkey and Iran remain caught in the web of Russia-U.S. relations, manoeuvring to create space for autonomous decisions; they will be able to succeed only to the extent they find a way to work together.

Only by finding common ground can Turkey and Iran contribute to a more stable and secure region.

De-escalation and increased Ankara-Tehran cooperation are necessary but insufficient to resolve the metastasising, intersecting crises involving many actors and heightened sectarian passions. Even getting to that point would be hard. Electoral calendars in both countries and the imperatives of domestic politics and balancing ties with regional partners wary of a rapprochement could hinder progress. But the effort would be important and should be pursued; it could at least help reduce the sectarian tensions fanned by unhelpful rhetoric from both leaderships.

Only by finding common ground can Turkey and Iran contribute to a more stable and secure region. The alternative – crystallised in the zero-sum dynamic that marks Iran’s relations with the region’s other major Sunni power, Saudi Arabia – is even greater disorder and suffering.

II. The Region’s Siamese Twins

Turkey and Iran have long competed for hegemony in their shared neighbourhood, particularly the Levant and Iraq (this briefing’s focus), but since the last full-scale Ottoman-Persian war (1821-1823), they have maintained largely peaceful relations.[fn]The Persian Sassanid (224-651) and Roman Byzantine (330-1453) empires and their eventual inheritors, the Safavids (1501-1736) and Ottomans (1299-1923), fought repeatedly for control of Mesopotamia, which today is mainly Iraq and Syria. See Walter Emil Kaegi, Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium (Cambridge, 2003); Stephen Dale, The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals (Cambridge, 2009).The 532-km border between Iran and Turkey emerged from a 1932 treaty that reflected, with minor adjustments, the frontier delineated in 1869.Hide Footnote  The competition outlived their transformation from empires to nation-states, escalating at times of tectonic geostrategic shifts, such as the Soviet Union’s collapse, which opened new space for rivalry in the Caucasus and Central Asia, the break-up of Yugoslavia and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Most recently, the 2011 Arab uprisings gave both countries, posing as champions of the popular movements, an opportunity to remake the region according to their own interests.[fn]Bayram Sinkaya, “Rationalization of Turkey-Iran Relations: Prospects and Limits”, Insight Turkey, vol. 14, no. 2 (2012), pp. 137-156. “Khamenei hails ‘Islamic’ uprisings”, Al-Jazeera, 4 February 2011; “Erdoğan pitches Turkey’s democratic model on ‘Arab Spring’ tour”, Christian Science Monitor, 16 September 2011.Hide Footnote

As two of the region’s strongest non-Arab states, with similar geographic and demographic sizes and tradition of statehood, Turkey and Iran have not perceived one another as an existential threat. Yet, their myriad social, political, religious and ethnic differences have often pitted them against each other, as has geostrategic orientation, particularly Turkey’s ties with the U.S. and Israel and Iran’s hostility toward both.[fn]Turkey has spent most of the past century writing European laws into its statute books in support of explicitly republican, secular constitutions, while Iran has experienced first absolute monarchy and then theocratic rule. Nearly a quarter of Iran’s population are ethnic Azeris, who speak a Turkic mother tongue. “Iran: NATO radar in Turkey serves to protect Israel”, Associated Press, 5 October 2011; “Leader’s advisor: Iran should reconsider relations with Turkey”, Mehr News, 28 April 2016.Hide Footnote  However, they also share deep historic, cultural and economic ties. Over the past two decades, their economies have become increasingly intertwined. Iran supplies nearly a fifth of Turkey’s oil and natural gas; Turkey is its neighbour’s gateway to Europe, with more than a fifth of Iran’s land trade transiting its territory. This link became a lifeline for Iran during its most vulnerable recent periods, the 1980-1988 war with Iraq and the peak of nuclear sanctions in 2011-2013.[fn]According to Turkey’s Petroleum Pipeline Corporation (BOTAŞ), Iran is Turkey’s main gas provider after Russia, some ten billion cubic metres annually, while after Iraq, Iran is Turkey’s largest oil supplier. “Sector Report”, 2015. Between March 2014 and March 2015, more than 110,000 trucks carried goods through the Bazargan border post, compared to nearly 45,000 crossing Iran’s border with Afghanistan during that period. “2014-2015 Annual Report”, Iran Road Maintenance and Transportation Organisation. A senior Turkish diplomat said, “the phrase we hear the most when visiting Tehran in the aftermath of the nuclear deal is, ‘we never forget the friends who stood by us during tough times’”. Crisis Group interview, Ankara, 5 April 2016.

With Iran’s economy unburdened from nuclear-related sanctions due to the 2015 nuclear accord, both countries appear committed to boosting their nearly $10 billion bilateral trade, while fencing off their geostrategic differences.[fn]Data from Turkish Statistical Institute. “Iran and Turkey aim to triple trade to $30 billion”, Agence France-Presse, 5 March 2016. “Turkey’s Unit International says agrees $4.2 billion deal to build Iran power plants”, Reuters, 4 June 2016; “Turkey says it wants to buy more gas from Iran”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 12 August 2016; “Turkey to establish exclusive industrial park in Iran”, Tehran Times, 26 October 2016. Bilateral trade peaked at $21.9 billion in 2012, mostly from a twelve-fold increase in Turkish gold exports. Onur Ant, “Iran, secret gold and the mystery trade boosting Turkish exports”, Bloomberg, 13 April 2015. Crisis Group interviews, Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian, Iran’s ambassador to Turkey; Mesut Özcan, director, Diplomatic Academy, Turkish foreign ministry, both Ankara, 4 April 2016.Hide Footnote  But ability to do so is likely a function of two other factors: common concerns over Kurdish separatism and conflicting interests in shaping the political order in Iraq and Syria. The former might draw them closer, the latter could drive them further apart – while uncertainty over the fate of the nuclear deal under the incoming U.S. administration, which appears keen on curbing Tehran’s regional influence, underlines their economic link’s vital importance and casts a shadow over their overall relationship.

A. Shared Fears

Turkey and Iran – home to, respectively, the region’s largest and second-largest Kurdish populations – fear Kurdish separatist sentiments.[fn]An estimated eighteen and ten million Kurds reside in Turkey and Iran respectively.Hide Footnote  The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has fought an insurgency in Turkey since 1984 that has cost nearly 40,000 lives. The conflict’s latest stretch, since the collapse of peace talks in July 2015, has been particularly bloody, devastating large parts of south-eastern Turkey.[fn]Crisis Group Europe Briefing N°80, The Human Cost of the PKK Conflict in Turkey: The Case of Sur, 17 March 2016. According to Crisis Group’s open-source database on the Turkey-PKK conflict, www.crisisgroup.be/interactives/turkey, between 20 July 2015 and 2 December 2016 some 816 state security force members, 986 PKK militants and 372 civilians were killed, predominantly in Turkey’s south-eastern provinces.Hide Footnote  Iran, too, has long faced off with Kurdish insurgent movements, but their rebellions have been scattered and transient.[fn]The only independent Kurdish state to date was established in Iran in 1946, the “Mahabad Republic”, with the Soviet Union’s support. It collapsed in less than a year. William Eagleton, Jr, The Kurdish Republic of 1946 (London, 1963).Hide Footnote  The Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) mounted an armed uprising in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution that was suppressed in 1982. The KDPI and another group, Komalah, continued low-level insurgency until 1996, when they put down their arms. In 2004, a new group, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), that followed the PKK’s leadership and ideology emerged, but in 2011 it, too, opted for a ceasefire which, despite occasional clashes, still holds.

In mid-2016, Iran experienced an apparent, perhaps short-lived, revival of the largely dormant insurgency in its Kurdish region.[fn]Declaring a new armed uprising after nearly two decades, the KDPI clashed on at least nine occasions with Iranian Revolutionary Guards in 2016. PJAK and another leftist Iranian Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), each clashed six times. Iran often responded by shelling border areas within Iraq’s Kurdistan region. “Iran shelling Kurdistan Region’s northeastern border”, Rudaw, 17 September 2016.Hide Footnote  It is possible that some of the attacks were instigated by regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia as retaliation against perceived Iranian meddling in their backyards.[fn]Iranian national security officials and PKK leaders say they believe Saudi Arabia has resuscitated the KDPI as part of its intensifying proxy war with Iran. Crisis Group interviews, Tehran, May 2016; Qandil, June 2016.Hide Footnote  It is also unclear whether the groups involved have enough support in Iran or among their hosts in northern Iraq, where they have been based, to sustain the fight.[fn]Data on the participation rate in Iran’s 2016 parliamentary elections can be used as a barometer of separatist movements’ lack of support. The rate in Kermanshah and Kurdistan, Kurdish-majority provinces, was 60 and 53 per cent respectively, both higher than Tehran’s. Occasionally, local grievances spark protests in Iran’s Kurdish regions, but these tend to peter out quickly. “Violent protest hits Kurdish city in northwest Iran”, Al Jazeera, 8 May 2015. Jhilwan Qazzaz, a Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) spokesman said, “we do not want KRG territories to be used by any group to threaten the security of our neighbouring countries. This is a very clear stance of KRG, and all, with KDPI included, are informed of this”. “Kurds step up attacks as cold war with Iran threatens to spark”, Middle East Eye, 16 September 2016.Hide Footnote  Meanwhile, the government has taken corrective measures in response to the Kurdish region’s longstanding demands for investment, economic development and mother-tongue education.[fn]The Rouhani administration inaugurated one of Iran’s largest petrochemical complexes in Mahabad and authorised mother-tongue education in the region’s schools and universities. “Rouhani unveils ‘largest industrial complex’ in western Iran”, Mehr News, 31 May 2016; “آموزش زبان‌های محلی کردی و ترکی در مدارس” [“Education in Kurdish and Turkish at local schools”], Iran, 1 June 2016.Hide Footnote

In dealing with pan-Kurdish nationalist sentiment, Iran and Turkey have often cooperated, but they have been at loggerheads for the past five years.[fn]Between 1991 and 2003, the two, along with Syria, consulted closely to prevent emergence of an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq. For more background, see Elliot Hentov, Asymmetry of Interest: Turkish-Iranian Relations since 1979 (Saarbrucken, 2012). In 1998, Iran mediated between Turkey and Syria, which were on the verge of military confrontation over the latter’s sheltering of PKK leader Abdallah Öcalan and his fighters. Mahmut Bali Aykan, “The Turkish-Syrian Crisis of October 1998: A Turkish View”, Middle East Policy, vol. 6, no. 4 (June 1999), p. 178.Hide Footnote  In Iraq, Ankara has supported Masoud Barzani, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) president and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), despite his push for a statehood referendum. Tehran backs Barzani’s rival, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Movement for Change (Gorran) and the PKK, which has expanded its presence in northern Iraq, including Sinjar and south of Kirkuk.

In northern Syria, too, they have backed different Kurdish groups. Though an empowered PKK and its affiliates theoretically pose a threat to both, the extensive territorial gains made by the PKK-affiliated Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), that run directly counter to Turkish interest have occurred with Iran’s implicit consent in support of the Syrian regime.[fn]Beše Hozat, co-chair of the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (Koma Civakên Kurdistan, KCK), an umbrella organisation with PKK affiliates in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, said, “when ten to twenty million Kurds in Turkey and Iran see that four million in Syria rule themselves with dignity, they would want the same privilege”. Crisis Group interview, Qandil, 26 June 2016.Hide Footnote  Officials in Ankara say these gains embolden the PKK by giving it logistical and operational support for attacks in Turkey, cutting off Turkey from the Arab world and paving the way for creation of an autonomous statelet in northern Syria, which the PKK and its local affiliates call “Rojava” (Western Kurdistan).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish diplomats and security officials, Ankara, April-August 2016.Hide Footnote

Turkey has backed the Kurdistan National Council (KNC), a coalition of twelve small Syrian Kurdish parties with close ties to Iraqi Kurdish parties, as a counterweight to the PYD; encouraged the KDP to control the border between Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan, the PYD’s lifeline to the outside world; and intervened militarily in northern Syria in August 2016: Operation Euphrates Shield aimed to prevent the YPG from connecting its two eastern cantons, Jazeera and Kobani, with Afrin, its third, non-contiguous canton north west of Aleppo, drive IS from the border and create a zone sufficiently safe to absorb part of Syria’s displaced population.[fn]Selcan Hacaoglu, “Erdoğan plans Syrian ‘safe zone’ as military campaign widens”, Bloomberg, 19 September 2016.Hide Footnote

In support of the Syrian government’s position prioritising the fight against anti-regime rebels and seeking to deter Turkey from supporting them, Iran over the past five years has engaged the PYD’s leadership and even encouraged the group’s territorial expansion to deny those areas to the armed opposition.[fn]Salih Muslim, the PYD’s co-chair, has visited Iran several times in the past few years. Crisis Group interviews, Iranian officials, Tehran, March-May 2016. A former Revolutionary Guard member with recent Syria experience said, “we don’t need to provide material support to the PYD-YPG, but we facilitate dialogue and cooperation between Damascus and Syrian Kurds in the fight against common foes [IS and the Turkish-backed armed opposition]”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, September 2016. In July 2012, the PYD-YPG quickly took over Kurdish areas in northern Syria without a regime effort to recapture them. Since then, it has largely engaged Damascus in a conciliatory, non-confrontational manner, while steadily expanding its territorial control at the expense of rebel and jihadist groups. For more on PYD-Syrian regime dynamics, see Crisis Group Middle East Report N°151, Flight of Icarus? The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria, 8 May 2014.Hide Footnote  But the PYD’s ties with the U.S. and Russia and its declaration of a federal system in the territory under its control in March 2016 appear to have transformed Tehran’s perception of the group from a tactical ally to a potential strategic threat.[fn]“Kurds declare ‘federal region’ in Syria, says official”, Wall Street Journal, 24 March 2016.Hide Footnote  An Iranian national security official commented: “Self-rule is contagious. An autonomous Kurdish region [in Syria] will trigger the fragmentation of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, replacing major regional states with an archipelago of weak statelets”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tehran, April 2016. Many in Tehran see a U.S. conspiracy, though the U.S. has tried to keep Iraq a unitary state and prevented the PYD from connecting the Syrian territories it controls. A senior Iranian diplomat described the prevalent perception in the leadership: “The pattern in Syria has an air of déjà vu. Following the Iraqi Kurdistan model, the U.S. is first supporting [Syrian] Kurds’ territorial gains, then ensuring their access to energy resources that would fuel their arms purchases from the U.S., followed by fostering close military and intelligence links between them and the Israelis, and eventually supporting their bid for independence”. This, he said, “must be nipped in the bud”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, May 2016.Hide Footnote  Another Iranian official added a crucial nuance:

Iran is concerned about the possibility of a Kurdish state, but it isn’t threatened by the Kurdish issue, given the deeper integration of Iranian Kurds in our society. As such, Iran agrees with Turkey in opposing a Kurdish state, but fundamentally disagrees with Turkey’s approach towards its Kurds.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Berlin, November 2016.Hide Footnote

Turkey is alarmed by what it perceives as collusion between Iran and the PKK, of which Tehran’s tolerance of PYD-YPG activities is only a part.[fn]For more than two decades, Turkey has accused Iran of using the PKK to pressure it. Officials trace the new phase of Iran’s entente with the PKK to 2011, when they allege the latter agreed to restrain PJAK in return for more manoeuvring space in northern Iraq and Syria. Crisis Group interviews, Turkish security official, Ankara, April 2016; senior Turkish diplomat, Ankara, June 2016. “İran, Kandil’e bayrak dikti” [“Iran planted a flag in Qandil”], Milliyet, 25 August 2015. PJAK’s 2011 ceasefire exacerbated Turkish-Iranian mistrust. After Turkey shared intelligence on the location of PKK leader Murat Karayılan’s sanctuary, his escape and withdrawal of PJAK fighters from Iran’s border along the Qandil mountain range deepened Turkish suspicions of Iran’s ties with the PKK. “Karayılan’ı İran Kurtardı” [“Iran saved Karayılan”], Sabah, 20 August 2011.  Both Iranian and PKK officials deny direct cooperation. “It is impossible for the PKK to cooperate with a country that does not respect Kurdish rights”, Cemil Bayık, a senior PKK leader, said. “But neither Iran nor the PKK wants to open a new front now”, he added, “as this would divert attention from more important priorities in Iraq and Syria and entail serious domestic implications: reactivation of PJAK in Iran and KRG pressure on the PKK presence in Iraq”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Qandil, 26 June 2016. Bayık’s official title is co-chair of the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (Koma Civakên Kurdistan, KCK). Echoing the same view, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard strategist said, “we consider the PKK a terrorist organisation and a threat, but both Iran and the PKK have bigger fish to fry at the moment”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, May 2016.Hide Footnote

Even if Iran and the PKK share a short-term tactical interest in defeating IS while consolidating ties with partners and affiliates in Iraq and Syria, their long-term interests do not align. The former seeks to preserve the existing order; the latter strives to overturn it to carve out a Kurdish state. Territorial gains, U.S. and Russian support and the weakness of their traditional Syrian and Iraqi antagonists have given the PKK and its affiliates confidence that any Turco-Iranian collusion against them could be neutralised.[fn]Referring to August 2016 clashes between Syrian government forces and the YPG in northern Syria, Ilham Ahmed, a PYD official, noted emergence of a “new concept” agreed by Turkey, Iran and Syria, though “it isn’t fully clear whether this is strategic or tactical”. Quoted by ANF News, 23 August 2016. Cemil Bayık said, “the days of the [1975] Algiers’ accord [that settled an Iran-Iraq border dispute and resulted in Tehran ending support for Iraqi Kurds, allowing their suppression by the Saddam regime] are over. The West needs the Kurds … against IS and understands that both Iran and Turkey have played an unconstructive role”. Crisis Group interview, Qandil, 26 June 2016. Zohra Ramishti, a female fighter in Iraq with the Iranian-Kurdish leftist Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), said, “when we finish here [in Iraq], we will continue our fight for Rojhelat [the Kurdish term for eastern Kurdistan]”. Quoted in Kim Deen, “First IS, then Iran: Kurdish-Iranian leader has eyes on ultimate goal”, Middle East Eye, 1 October 2016; Ali Hashem, “Iranian Kurds fighting IS in Iraq put Tehran on alert”, Al-Monitor, 28 November 2016.Hide Footnote  That confidence may well be inflated, and their pursuit of further territorial objectives could put them on a collision course with Turkey and Iran if and when IS is dislodged from the places it currently holds.

B. Mutual Mistrust

Despite their long relationship, Turkey and Iran harbour deep mutual mistrust. Suspicions are evident even in the bilateral economic realm.[fn]In the mid-2000s, Iranian authorities annulled major contracts with Turkey’s TAV Airports Holding and TurkCell communications that threatened vested interests of powerful stakeholders in Iran. The two also bitterly disputed the price of Iran’s natural gas exports. “Turkey wins gas price row against Iran in court”, Hürriyet, 2 February 2016. A preferential trade deal, ten years in negotiation, was widely criticised in Iran as undermining domestic industries in 2015. “بررسي توافقنامه تجارت ترجيحي ميان ايران و تركيه” [“Assessing Preferential Trade Agreement between Turkey and Iran”], Iranian Parliament’s Research Centre, March 2015. A senior Turkish official said, “when Iranians complain Turkey is not as eager as Europeans to reengage after the nuclear deal, I tell them: ‘We’ve been there, done that, and good luck!’” Crisis Group interview, Ankara, April 2016.Hide Footnote  They are particularly acute, however, regarding regional manoeuvring: each views the other as seeking hegemony, if not to recapture lost glory, through violent proxies. Iran decries Turkey’s active support of the opposition in its attempt to bring down the Syrian regime, thus endangering Iran’s strategic link with Hizbollah in Lebanon, and accuses it of supporting Sunni jihadist groups in Syria and allowing IS recruits to transit its territory on their way to Syria and Iraq. Turkey is alarmed by what it sees as Iranian support for the PKK and its affiliates in carving out an autonomous zone on its border with Syria, and by the actions of these same groups and Iraqi Shiite militias in northern Iraq, once the Ottoman province of Mosul (Mosul Vilayet) and still viewed by Ankara as its “turf”. It deems these developments a direct threat to the stability of its borders with Syria and Iraq and the area’s Sunni inhabitants.

Tehran interprets Turkey’s Syria policy as primarily a product of a neo-Ottoman ambition to regain clout and empower pro-Turkey Sunnis in territories ruled by its progenitor. “What changed in Syria [after 2011] was neither the government’s nature nor Iran’s ties with it”, an Iranian national security official said, “but Turkish ambitions”. Moreover, Iran blames Ankara for not stemming the flow of Salafi jihadists through Turkish territory into Syria and for giving them logistical and financial support.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iranian officials, Tehran, Istanbul, March-August 2016. A senior Iranian diplomat said, “Erdoğan thought that instability in the region was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to mould the region in Turkey’s image, empower the Muslim Brotherhood and rebuild the Ottoman Empire – without realising that empire building is not as easy as building hotels and shopping malls across the region”. An Iranian diplomat said, “Just take Ahrar al-Sham, Turkey’s favourite jihadist group. They work with al-Nusra Front, which is al-Qaeda, and want to establish a Taliban-like system in Syria; but Turkey still maintains they are mainstream and reasonable alternatives for Syria’s future”. “Turkey, Jordan aid Syria-bound ‘terrorists’: Iran”, Agence France-Presse, 13 July 2012. “رضایی:ایران اسناد فروش نفت داعش به ترکیه را در اختیار دارد” [“Rezaei: Iran possesses documents on IS oil sales to Turkey], IRNA.ir, 4 December 2015.Hide Footnote

In the same vein, officials in Ankara contend that Iran seeks to resuscitate the Persian Empire – this time with a Shiite streak – and to do so in formerly Ottoman territories. In March 2015, President Erdoğan accused Iran of fighting IS in Iraq “only to take its place”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish officials, Ankara and Istanbul, March-August 2016. “Turkey’s Erdoğan says can’t tolerate Iran bid to dominate Middle East”, Reuters, 26 March 2015.Hide Footnote  Turkey also says that Iran’s mobilisation of Shiite militias from across the region to protect the rule of a minority sect, the Alawites, over a majority-Sunni population in Syria has deepened sectarian tensions, providing Sunni jihadists with a potent recruitment tool.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish diplomats and security officials, Ankara, April, June 2016. Crisis Group has written: “Contrary to conventional wisdom, Syria’s is not an Alawite (an offshoot of Shiism) regime, and that community hardly lives in opulence. But it is a regime thanks to which the Alawites overcame their second-class status and escaped a history of harassment and massacres”. Middle East Report N°128, Syria’s Mutating Conflict, 1 August 2012.Hide Footnote

In trading accusations, each decries the other’s refusal to acknowledge its view of reality, while neglecting that each has acted in ways for which it faults the other: use of hard power and support for non-state actors. Attempts to build on common ground have failed because of suspicions, misperceptions and miscalculations. In September 2013, the new government of President Hassan Rouhani floated an initiative to resolve the Syrian crisis. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif presented what he said was a plan developed with the commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, to his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoğlu.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, Vienna, 19 November 2014; Revolutionary Guard Corps strategist, Tehran, May 2016. The plan outlined four steps: 1) ceasefire; 2) national unity government; 3) constitutional reform aimed particularly at constraining presidential powers; and 4) presidential and legislative elections under UN supervision. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, “Iran’s four-part plan for a political solution in Syria”, Al-Monitor, 5 March 2014.Hide Footnote  Several months of shuttle diplomacy yielded no results, Zarif said:

We agreed on every detail, except a clause in the final phase of the plan which called for UN-monitored elections. Turkish leaders wanted Assad barred …. I noted that this should not be a concern in an internationally monitored election, particularly if, as Turkey holds, Assad has a dreadful record and a minority constituency. But Davutoğlu refused …, and our efforts came to naught.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Vienna, 19 November 2014.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group on the Ground Crisis Group Senior Analysts Nigar Göksel and Ali Vaez meet with former Turkish President Abdullah Gül, May 2016. CRISIS GROUP

Turkish officials could not fathom Assad agreeing to lead a transition that would result in his ouster.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former and current Turkish officials, Istanbul and Ankara, March-August 2016. Yusuf Burak Rende, foreign ministry deputy director for the Middle East, said moreover, “Turkey is not budging on Assad, because even if we did, the opposition will never accept Assad remaining in power”. Crisis Group interview, Ankara, 7 April 2016.Hide Footnote  More importantly, they calculated that military dynamics and time were in their favour. Abdullah Gül, the then president, later said, “our government did not pursue an agreement with Iran because it thought Assad would be toppled in a few months”. From Ankara’s perspective, Assad’s battlefield losses would remove the need to compromise or at least improve a deal’s terms.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former President Gül, 10 May 2016; former Turkish official, Istanbul, March 2016; senior Turkish official, Ankara, April 2016.Hide Footnote

After nearly three years of mutual escalation in Syria, a second chance for Turco-Iranian dialogue appeared following the July 2016 failed coup in Turkey. Iran’s swift support for Erdoğan led to a warming of ties and resumption of talks on Syria.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iranian official, Ankara, August 2016; senior Iranian diplomat, New York, September 2016. An Iranian diplomat said it took the Iranian Supreme National Security Council’s crisis cell less than a half hour to conclude that “any alternatives to the status quo in Turkey would be worse for us”. Crisis Group interview, Ankara, August 2016. Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, said: “During the coup night, I did not sleep until morning; nor did my friend Javad Zarif. He was the foreign minister I talked to most, calling me five times during the night”. Quoted in “Iran’s foreign minister boosts ties during Ankara visit”, Voice of America, 12 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Turkish-Russian reconciliation, fuelled in part by YPG advances in northern Syria, probably also contributed to Ankara’s rethinking of its Syria policy.

This time, the parties put aside the most divisive, seemingly irreconcilable issue: Assad’s fate.[fn]Describing the motivation behind Turkey’s deployment of forces in Syria, Erdoğan said, “we do not have an eye on Syrian soil. The issue is to provide lands to their real owners. That is to say we are there for the establishment of justice. We entered there to end the rule of the tyrant al-Assad who terrorises with state terror”. Quoted in “Turkey entered Syria to end al-Assad’s rule: President Erdoğan”, Hürriyet, 29 November 2016.Hide Footnote  Tehran continued to insist that a swift transition away from Assad before stabilising the country would lead to state collapse and chaos that could only benefit Sunni jihadists. For Turkey, his departure remained, Ibrahim Kalın, chief adviser to Erdoğan, said, “the key symbolic and practical component of any acceptable transitional process”. They agreed to focus, however, on what political system (presidential or parliamentary) and power-sharing mechanism could work in a post-conflict Syria.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iranian national security officials and diplomats, Tehran, April-August 2016; Ankara, 16 June 2016; senior Iranian diplomat, New York, September 2016.Hide Footnote  But after two high-level rounds, Turkey’s military intervention in northern Syria, Operation Euphrates Shield, disrupted the talks and exacerbated mistrust. Iranian officials expressed surprise Turkey had not notified them of the operation despite the presence of a senior Iranian official in Ankara the day before.[fn]An Iranian official said: “Iran’s deputy foreign minister was in Ankara one day before Euphrates Shield to discuss the situation in Syria. But his Turkish counterparts did not mention a word about the imminent offensive”. Crisis Group interview, New York, September 2016. “Iran foreign ministry calls on Turkey to quickly end Syria intervention”, IRNA.ir, 30 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Turkey may have feared that Iran would tip off the YPG.

III. Between Competition and Cooperation

With each failure to find an accommodation, the context of Turkey’s and Iran’s rivalry has become more complex and disagreements more intractable. What they have in common in Syria is that neither can tolerate a divided country or complete disorder. What is critically important for Iran, however, is that whatever order there is preserves Syria’s geostrategic orientation as part of the “axis of resistance”: to project power into the Levant, generally, and to keep its strategic depth vis-à-vis Israel via its link with Hizbollah, in particular. While Turkey would like to see Assad gone and a more inclusive Sunni-led order emerge in Damascus that would be friendlier, its absolute priority is to have a stable border and a curb on PKK-led Kurdish aspirations. Both seek to preserve Iraq’s territorial integrity as well, but ensuring Shiite-majority rule is as critical for Iran as a more inclusive role for Sunnis in governance is for Turkey.

These objectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and interests in Syria at least are probably more closely aligned today than for five years. Both have increasingly focused on fighting IS and pushing back against the PYD’s announcement of a federal system in the north that they fear could intensify centrifugal forces rending the country. They need dialogue, however, to accommodate differences in their priorities: containing the PYD-YPG for Turkey, saving Assad for Iran.[fn]Ibrahim Kalın, Erdoğan’s chief adviser, said, “the national security threat … from Kurdish separatism is more acute for Turkey than for Iran”. Crisis Group interview, Ankara, 16 June 2016. A senior U.S. official said, “two years ago, Erdoğan had three priorities, in this order: Assad, Kurds, IS. Today it is Kurds, IS, Assad”. Crisis Group interview, Washington, 29 June 2016.Hide Footnote

For now, there are more reasons to believe the two will persist on their current path than change course.

For now, there are more reasons to believe the two will persist on their current path than change course. That Turkey sees Iran as increasingly encroaching on its historic sphere of influence, especially in and around the Aleppo and Mosul battlefields, exacerbates tensions. Having pushed IS out of the towns of Jarablous, al-Rai and Dabiq near the Turkish border between August and October, Syrian rebels backed by the Turkish army began to advance southwards to fulfil Erdoğan’s pledge to clear a 5,000-sq. km zone in northern Syria. If they reach strategically important al-Bab east of Aleppo, held by IS but coveted by the YPG as a land bridge between its Kobani and Afrin cantons, they would come dangerously close to the Syrian army and Iranian-allied forces, as well, on the other side, to U.S.-backed, YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) north of Aleppo.[fn]“Turkey ‘obliged’ to press on to Syria’s al-Bab, Erdogan says”, Reuters, 22 October 2016. Controlling al-Bab is critically important for Turkey as a means of blocking the YPG from connecting its cantons; its value to the Syrian regime is due to its proximity to the Aleppo theatre. A reported Syrian strike on Turkish forces near al-Bab on 24 November 2016 was presumably a warning shot, preceded by verbal warnings in Syrian government media. “Turkey blames Syrian government for deadly attack on Turkish soldiers”, Middle East Eye, 24 November 2016.Hide Footnote  Turkey claiming that an Iranian-made drone killed four of its soldiers near al-Bab on 24 November is an ominous sign.[fn]Rudaw, 7 December 2016. “Iran might have hit Turkish soldiers, Pentagon says”, Hürriyet, 9 December 2016. An Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps strategist said, “Turkey’s understanding with Russia is that Turkish intervention in Syria will not extend beyond a depth of 12 km. Al-Bab is 30 km from the Turkish border. The deeper they go, the costlier it will become for them”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, December 2016.Hide Footnote

Similar dynamics exist in Iraq. Turkey’s insistence on a role for the proxy militia it has trained on its Bashiqa military base east of Mosul, the Sunni Arab al-Hashd al-Watani (also known as “Mosul Knights”), beside the Peshmerga of Barzani’s pro-Turkish KDP in the operation to retake Mosul from IS triggered an Ankara-Baghdad war of words. Turkish officials contend that Baghdad’s opposition to a Turkish role and presence in the north derives from its alliance with Tehran.[fn]Tim Arango and Michael Gordon, “Turkey’s push to join battle for Mosul inflames tension with Iraq”, New York Times, 23 October 2016. Crisis Group interview, senior Turkish diplomat, Ankara, April 2016. The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) deputy chairman, Yasin Aktay, said, “it is Iran that does not want Turkish participation in the Mosul battle. But it does not say it openly. Instead it pushes the Iraqi government to say it”. Asharq al-Awsat, 2 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, Iran-backed Shiite militias (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) have indicated intent to push toward Tel Afar, an old Ottoman garrison town west of Mosul with a majority Turkmen population, ostensibly to prevent IS fighters from escaping toward the Syrian border. The prospect of Shiite militias entering Tel Afar alarmed Ankara, which deployed tanks and artillery in Silopi close to its border with Iraq to warn of intervention in case of reprisals against the city’s Sunnis.[fn]“Tal Afar will be the cemetery of Turkish soldiers should Turkey attempt to take part in the battle”, Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Badr Organisation and a Hashd al-Shaabi leader said. Quoted in Mustafa Saadoun, “Iran, Turkey fight over Tal Afar”, Al-Monitor, 18 November 2016. Erdoğan warned: “Tal Afar is a totally Turkmen city, with half Shia and half Sunni Muslims … if Hashd al-Shaabi terrorizes the region, our response would be different”. Quoted in “Erdoğan warns of Shia militia entering Iraq’s Tal Afar”, Anadolu Agency, 29 October 2016. Historically, Tel Afar has had a Turkoman population, divided fairly evenly between Sunnis and Shiites. It has not been free of Iraq’s post-2003 sectarian violence, which saw Shiite Islamist parties come to power and Sunnis resort to insurgency. IS conquered it in 2014, driving out its Shiite population. Several IS commanders are, or were (until killed by U.S. strikes), Sunni Turkmen from Tel Afar.Hide Footnote  That provoked a harsh response from the Iraqi prime minister, who warned: “We do not want war with Turkey … but if a confrontation happens, we are ready for it … and will deal with [Turkey] as an enemy”.[fn]“Iraq-Turkey tension rises amid battle for Mosul”, Al-Jazeera, 2 November 2016. An Iranian official tried to put distance between his and Iraq’s leadership, saying that “though the Iraqi government asked Iran to side with Baghdad against Ankara …, we decided not to interfere”. Crisis Group interview, Berlin, November 2016.Hide Footnote  Ankara also sees Tehran’s hand in the presence of PKK and YPG fighters in Sinjar, west of Mosul close to the Syrian border.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish diplomat, Ankara, June 2016; Turkish analyst, Washington, October 2016.Hide Footnote  The view in Tehran is the opposite: Turkey is seen as seeking to create a Sunni-dominated federal region in northern Iraq with greater autonomy, as suggested by some Iraqi Sunni politicians close to Ankara, ostensibly to protect minority communities, in reality to counterbalance Iran’s influence elsewhere in Iraq.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, member, Iranian parliament foreign affairs committee; ex-member, Quds Force, both Tehran, October 2016. Two brothers close to Turkey, Osama al-Nujayfi, ex-Iraqi parliament speaker, and Atheel, ex-Ninewa governor, favour more Ninewa autonomy once IS is defeated. “Sunnis demand autonomous region for Nineveh post-IS”, Rudaw, 29 July 2016.Hide Footnote

That each side perceives the other in a zero-sum light provides further impetus for proceeding on the current course. Each appears determined to spoil the other’s prospects. Ankara, a Turkish security official said, “fears Iran’s triumph in Syria or Iraq will embolden it to step further into our turf”. An Iranian national security official expressed concern over Turkish muscle-flexing, saying, without apparent irony considering Iran’s role in Iraq and Syria: “Once you change regimes or the demographic compositions of other countries by sending your tanks across the border, you empty the notion of state sovereignty of any meaning”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Istanbul, June 2016, Tehran, October 2016.Hide Footnote

The looming U.S. transition is another incentive for Turkey and Iran to create as many facts on the ground as possible before a new administration sets its Iraq and Syria policies. This may explain the Russian-Iranian-Syrian push to subdue east Aleppo and Turkey’s attempt to establish a de facto safe zone in northern Syria. Equally important may be the domestic appeal of bold nationalistic rhetoric in the run-up to the constitutional referendum on whether to grant Erdoğan more executive powers, anticipated in mid-2017, and Iran’s May presidential election.

There is an alternative. Ankara and Tehran could de-escalate and re-energise cooperation.

Even if dynamics deliver short-term gains to either, they entail serious risk. More escalation could turn proxy conflicts into direct, even if inadvertent, military confrontation in northern Syria or Iraq. Even without that, cross-regional alliances involving ever more aggressive actors are exacerbating mistrust and deepening sectarian rifts that prolong the standoff. There is an alternative. Ankara and Tehran could de-escalate and re-energise cooperation. Officials express interest but scepticism the other would show goodwill and, more importantly, flexibility.[fn]A Turkish security official said, “Turkey and Iran could be France and Germany … working to stabilise the region but that requires partnership based on equality and trust”. Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, June 2016. An Iranian diplomat said, “we have reached out to Turkey on regional issues more than to any other government … but have almost nothing to show … to sceptics who believe compromise with Erdoğan is impossible”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, September 2016.Hide Footnote  Iranian officials deem Turkey’s approach to differences erratic or, as an Iranian diplomat put it, “a function of Erdoğan’s mood and megalomania”. Turks say the Iranians neither recognise Turkey’s legitimate interests nor demonstrate any flexibility on key issues, such as post-Assad transition or equitable power sharing in Iraq and Syria.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tehran, July 2016. For an example of Turkish turnabouts, see “Syrian rebels stunned as Turkey signals normalisation of Damascus relations”, Guardian, 13 July 2016; “Turkey: Assad can be part of transition in Syria”, Associated Press, 20 August 2016. Crisis Group interviews, Turkish diplomat, Ankara, June 2016; Turkish foreign policy experts, Ankara, August 2016. A senior Turkish diplomat complained: “The Iranians use the same tired arguments and maximalist goals they did five years ago. They invite us to focus on fighting terrorism as a way of utilising Turkish influence to restore the status quo ante, with Assad in full control of Syria. I understand what they want, but where is their give?” Crisis Group interview, Ankara, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Yet, both have exhibited an ability to moderate escalating tensions.[fn]A Turkish academic called Turkey’s handling of the April 2016 Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summit in Istanbul a case in point: “Turkey sided with Saudi Arabia in condemning Iran’s meddling … but then went out of its way in welcoming President Rouhani in Ankara the next day”. Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, 11 May 2016. Scott Peterson, “Despite deep divides over Syria, Turkey rolls out the welcome mat for Iran”, Christian Science Monitor, 14 April 2016. Each has offered to mediate the other’s regional conflicts. “Turkey says ready to help calm Saudi Arabia-Iran tensions”, Agence France-Presse, 5 January 2016; “Leader’s top aide: Iran ready to mediate between Turkey, Iraq”, Fars News, 30 October 2016.Hide Footnote

Rivalry has exposed the limits of Turkey’s and Iran’s power projection instead of expanding their clout. In northern Syria, Turkey has seen the most serious threat to its national security in decades emerge: growing PYD-YPG strength, cross-border infiltration by jihadists who conduct attacks inside Turkey and arrival of nearly three million Syrian refugees.[fn]Crisis Group Europe Report N°241, Turkey’s Refugee Crisis: The Politics of Permanence, 30 November 2016.Hide Footnote  Iran has shouldered the burden of military protection and financial support of a pivotal ally at risk, at the price of incurring the Sunni world’s enmity. Inability to work together has diminished their ability to influence extra-regional partners (Russia for Iran, the U.S. for Turkey) that instead of taking their interests into account have tried to contain their aspirations.

Ultimately Turkey and Iran, as neighbours, will have to live with the outcome of the conflicts now burning around them. Any sustainable solution will require a regional power balance tolerable for both. This can only be achieved if they cooperate, rein in their proxies and recognise one another’s core strategic and security interests in Syria and Iraq.

IV. Conclusion

Today’s geostrategic competition between Turkey and Iran is the latest iteration of an old power game, but with an increasingly ominous twist as they warily eye each other’s moves in Iraq and Syria, prime their proxies and, in Turkey’s case, prepare to escalate direct military involvement. How the two choose to deploy their power, with whom they align and whether they can manage or overcome their differences is vitally important not only to them, but also to their neighbours and other states with a stake in the Middle East. Among the actors involved in the region’s wars, however, no two are more suited to identify ways toward renewed mutual accommodation than Turkey and Iran. They have extensive communication channels and long experience in striking geostrategic deals, engage in intensive trade and importantly share a core interest in preserving their neighbours’ territorial integrity.

As the region’s conflicts worsen, the future becomes more unpredictable, with no actor insulated from potential harm. Today’s seductive opportunities may become tomorrow’s smothering traps. It should be an interest of those that have the ability, maturity and long history of peaceful relations not to allow themselves to be sucked further into an uncertain future but to agree to a critical course correction that, while not settling all conflicts, could at least help lessen overall tensions.

As the region’s conflicts worsen, the future becomes more unpredictable, with no actor insulated from potential harm.

To do so, as a pressing priority, they should establish a channel for continuous high-level negotiations over their regional postures. The pace of such meetings as have been held has been problematic: periodic senior encounters lasting one or two days, followed by relatively long periods of diplomatic vacuum that tend to be filled with escalation of proxy wars and one-upmanship. President Erdoğan and Supreme Leader Khamenei should designate personal representatives with the authority to manage the diplomatic channel.[fn]Diplomats on both sides expressed scepticism about whether their counterparts have the authority to negotiate on behalf of their governments. They seem to believe that only officials in the two leaders’ inner circles can deliver. Crisis Group interviews, Iranian and Turkish officials, Ankara, April-June 2016.Hide Footnote  This could allow Ankara and Tehran to go beyond merely managing differences – with the risks of accidents, miscalculations and miscommunications this entails – and frankly acknowledge one another’s interests and security concerns in their shared neighbourhood. Without such a strategic understanding, piecemeal transactional arrangements will not yield the desired results, as progress on one issue could be neutralised by setbacks elsewhere.[fn]For instance, in 2015, Turkey facilitated talks between Iran and the Turkish-backed rebel group Ahrar al-Sham in Syria, which led to a rare population swap agreement between the rebel-controlled village of Zabadani, besieged by the government, and Fuaa and Kefraya, pro-regime villages surrounded by rebels. The exchange did little to help de-escalate the wider conflict. Nour Samaha, “Besieged Syria rebels evacuated in rare deal”, Al Jazeera, 28 December 2015.Hide Footnote

The U.S. and Russia should adopt a coherent, supportive approach toward the two regional powers and their conflicting aspirations for primacy, pressing their respective allies to take steps that can help avoid an escalation that would be in neither Russian nor U.S. interests.

In sum, Turkey and Iran need to set in motion a virtuous dynamic that, by enabling negotiation of a sustainable modus vivendi, could stabilise their relationship and start reducing the flames burning in the region. This requires difficult reciprocal concessions and confidence-building steps but would protect their interests far better than continuation of a highly unstable and unpredictable status quo or, worse still, escalation and direct military confrontation.

Istanbul/Tehran/Brussels, 13 December 2016

Appendix A: Map of Iran and Turkey in the Region

Map of Iran and Turkey in the region CRISIS GROUP
An old man holds flags of Turkey and Libya during a demonstration against eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar, who is based in the east of the country, and in support of the UN-recognised government of national accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Hazem Turkia / Anadolu Agency via AFP
Report 257 / Europe & Central Asia

Turkey Wades into Libya’s Troubled Waters

Turkish intervention in Libya’s war stopped the besieged Tripoli government from collapsing. But fighting with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s forces has since escalated, threatening a protracted conflict. Both Ankara and Haftar’s regional backers should urge their allies toward a return to negotiations and a ceasefire.

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What’s new? In January, Turkey stepped up military support to Libya’s UN-backed government of Prime Minister Faiez Serraj, stalling an offensive by forces allied with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Its foray, underpinned by its own strategic, political and economic interests, has further complicated the already multi-layered Libyan crisis.

Why does it matter? Turkey’s intervention has neither de-escalated the conflict nor yielded productive negotiations between rival political and military factions. It has instead exposed a different risk: the more outside actors provide military hardware and fighters to their respective Libyan allies, the longer the conflict may last and the deadlier it may become.

What should be done? As Turkey’s intervention appears not to be producing a ceasefire or a return to negotiations, and since no outside actor is likely to back out unilaterally, Ankara should engage with other external players involved in the conflict to explore potential compromises regarding their respective interests in Libya and beyond.

Executive Summary

By intervening militarily in the Libyan conflict in January, Turkey helped forces aligned with the UN-backed Tripoli government of Prime Minister Faiez Serraj stand their ground against an offensive by a coalition headed by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. From Ankara’s perspective, supporting the Tripoli government is necessary to confront an arc of inimical forces bent on containing Turkey’s strategic and economic influence in the Mediterranean and broader Middle East. Haftar’s foreign backers likewise see Libya as a key geopolitical battleground and have shown no hesitation to escalate. While Ankara deems its intervention worthwhile as long as it prevents Tripoli’s takeover, the costs may rise if as a result the conflict becomes more prolonged and deadly. It therefore should be in Turkey’s and Haftar’s external supporters’ interest to explore areas of mutual accommodation, work toward a ceasefire, and find ways to bring their respective Libyan allies around the table to pursue a compromise that would also meet some of their own core needs.

After six months of stalemated war in the Tripoli outskirts, Haftar-aligned forces started to slowly advance toward the city centre in November 2019 in a push to remove the Serraj government and disarm forces allied with it. Alarmed by this development, officials in Ankara calculated that, by balancing Haftar’s military power on the ground, they could create conditions for a ceasefire and negotiated political solution to the Libyan crisis. Starting in January, Turkey reportedly sent around 100 officers and at least 2,000 allied Syrian opposition fighters to Libya, as well as aerial defence and other weapon systems.

Ankara’s actions in Libya are also motivated by larger goals.

Ankara’s actions in Libya are also motivated by larger goals. From Turkey’s perspective, Libya intersects with two hostile axes that Ankara must confront. The first is a perceived campaign by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt (and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia) to contain Turkish influence across the Middle East and North Africa. The second is what Turkey sees as an effort by Greece and Cyprus (and, by extension, the EU), as well as Israel, to box it into a small corner of the Mediterranean Sea and thus exclude it from hydrocarbon projects that could also be geopolitically significant. From Ankara’s perspective, its Libya policy is closely intertwined with its desire to break through such imposed barriers.

Turkey is not alone, of course, in viewing Libya through the prism of strategic interests. In doing so, it joins a host of other countries – including the UAE, Egypt, and Russia, which are backing Haftar, and Qatar, which backs the Tripoli government.

Publicly, Western countries have criticised Turkish actions, including its violation of the UN arms embargo on Libya. But the same Western governments (with the exception of France) have also expressed tacit sympathy. They, too, want to prevent the Serraj government’s collapse. And they, too, hope that Turkey’s direct involvement to bolster the government will first stop Haftar’s offensive and then compel him to negotiate. Diplomatic initiatives in January, in Moscow and then in Berlin, provided a glimmer of hope that negotiations would indeed begin, but these initiatives faltered, and the resignation of UN Special Representative to Libya Ghassan Salamé further undermined chances of reviving them.

Turkish intervention slowed the advance of Haftar’s forces, allowing the Tripoli government’s forces to regain some of the territory they lost when the war broke out in April 2019. But it did not halt the war. Haftar’s coalition condemned Ankara’s actions and recast its own efforts as a war against what it terms “the Turkish occupation”. It intensified artillery attacks on Tripoli’s port and airport, on the grounds that Turkish officers have been using these sites. At least two Turkish army officers and several dozen pro-Turkey Syrian fighters have been killed, although exact numbers are not available. Meanwhile, pro-government forces lost Sirte, the site of a military base in central Libya that has become an important staging ground for Haftar’s forces. Finally, and crucially, Haftar-allied tribal groups shut down the country’s oil production and all hydrocarbon exports in January, saying they did not want to see Libya’s oil revenues used to pay for Turkish and Turkey-backed forces. This shutdown has cut off the funds that were keeping the Tripoli government afloat.

By intervening, Turkey has further enmeshed itself in an escalating conflict with a complex mix of players and stakeholders.

By intervening, Turkey has further enmeshed itself in an escalating conflict with a complex mix of players and stakeholders. As Ankara’s allies in Tripoli attempt counterattacks against pro-Haftar strongholds in other parts of the country, Turkey risks being dragged into a war well beyond what it originally signed up for. Further escalation is a distinct risk and could both backfire for Turkey and come at the expense of Libyans at large.

Neither Turkey nor any of Haftar’s foreign backers is likely to make one-sided concessions. The choice is between further escalation and a search for mutual accommodation that paves the way for peace among their Libyan allies while meeting as much as possible their own interests. They should pick the latter.

Ankara/Tripoli/Brussels, 30 April 2020

Turkey's Gamble in Libya

By intervening in Libya, Turkey hopes to reset the balance on the ground. But now that Ankara has come out in the open in terms of support, it raises a number of questions. Claudia Gazzini addresses them in this interview. CRISISGROUP

I. Introduction

Turkey’s 2 January 2020 decision to intervene openly in Libya to support the UN-recognised, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) of Prime Minister Faiez Serraj did not come out of the blue. Turkey had covertly been providing armoured personnel carriers and drones to the government since April 2019, when Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar launched his offensive on the Libyan capital.[fn]During the war’s first six months, Turkish covert military support for pro-government forces consisted mainly of BMC Kirpi armed personnel carriers and Bayraktar TB2 combat drones, both pieces of equipment manufactured in Turkey. For details, see “Letter dated 29 November 2019 from the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011) addressed to the President of the Security Council”, S2019/914 (henceforth UN Panel of Experts report 2019), 9 December 2019, annex 27. Provision of war materiel to Libya, be it by Turkey or other states, is a violation of the UN arms embargo on Libya imposed in 2011 through UN Security Council Resolution 1970. For an analysis of the start of the April 2019 offensive, see Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Briefing N°69, Stopping the War for Tripoli, 23 May 2019.Hide Footnote  In November 2019, it signed two security and maritime memoranda of understanding with Tripoli. By moving to open military support, Turkey raised the level of its involvement in the Libyan crisis significantly in an effort to slow the advance of Haftar’s military coalition, the Arab-Libyan Armed Forces. Authorities in Tripoli welcomed Turkey’s military support as a “life jacket” that has saved them from drowning.[fn]Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq quoted in “Lack of U.S. support left desperate Libya to accept aid from Syrian extremists, official says”, Washington Times, 15 February 2020.Hide Footnote

Since January, Ankara has deployed at least one hundred Turkish military officers to help the Serraj government coordinate its war efforts, and transferred shiploads of weapons, military equipment and aerial defences to Tripoli and nearby Misrata. It has used its warships stationed off the Libyan coast as launching pads for missile strikes against Haftar’s forces and sent its jets flying through Libyan skies. And it has deployed a contingent of at least 2,000 fighters of the Syrian National Army, a Turkish-backed Syrian rebel group, to support militias loyal to the Tripoli government.[fn]A few hundred Syrian fighters alighted in Tripoli in late December 2019, but the majority arrived only after Turkey’s January decision to intervene militarily. On estimates of their numbers, see fn 93.Hide Footnote

If the conflict escalates further, Turkey risks overstretch.

If the conflict escalates further, Turkey risks overstretch. It is simultaneously militarily involved in northern Syria against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – which is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – as well as against Russian-backed Syrian government forces.[fn]See Crisis Group Conflict Alert, “The Eleventh Hour for Idlib, Syria’s Last Rebel Bastion”, 7 February 2020. Turkey considers the YPG an extension of the PKK, which has carried out a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state; Turkey, the U.S. and EU designate the PKK as a terrorist organisation.Hide Footnote

Turkey is not the first foreign power to intervene in the Libyan conflict, which has already killed over 2,000 people since April 2019, but it is the first to do so openly.[fn]Turkey’s intervention represents its first direct military action in North Africa since Ottoman troops left the former Tarablus al-Gharb province (Western Tripoli) at the end of World War I. Mehmed Mazlum Çelik, “Türk ordusu 108 yıl sonra Enver Paşa’nın izinde Trablus-ı Garp yolunda” [Following in Enver Paşa’s footsteps, the Turkish army is in Tripoli again after 108 years], Independent Turkish, 21 December 2019.Hide Footnote  Turkey’s sometime partner Russia has covertly supported Haftar, as have the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt, Turkey’s foes.[fn]To supplement their own aviation, Haftar’s forces relied on UAE-supplied Chinese Wing Loong II combat drones throughout the Tripoli siege; these are based at the Jufra air base in central Libya and, at least until late 2019, were allegedly operated by Emirati pilots stationed there. Crisis Group interviews, government military officers, Tripoli, May-September 2019; and Western diplomat, Abu Dhabi, September 2019. See also UN Panel of Experts Report (2019), annex 28. According to the UN, Haftar’s forces have carried out “some 850 precision air strikes by drone and another 170 by fighter-bomber, among them some 60 precision air strikes by foreign fighter aircraft” since the outbreak of hostilities. Report of the UN Secretary-General (S/2020/41), 15 January 2020. The UAE’s exact role in Libya is difficult to ascertain. An Emirati official summarised his country’s position as follows: “The UAE’s main goal in Libya is stability. We are also focused on foreign fighters and fighting terrorist organisations. We do not want to see a capital like Tripoli controlled by militias. To achieve these goals, the UAE fully supports UN efforts to bring the warring sides together to secure a ceasefire and a political process. The UAE fully supports the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the outcomes of the Berlin summit. We do not have any troops on the ground in Libya. As for Haftar, we can communicate with him, but we do not control his behaviour”. Crisis Group interview, UAE official, April 2020. Egyptian officials express similar views with regard to their aspired end state in Libya and echo the claim that they do not control Haftar’s moves. Egypt reportedly initially opposed Haftar’s plan to launch an attack on Tripoli. But once the offensive began, officials in Cairo admit, they lent him their support (mainly by allowing transit of military equipment across Egypt’s border with Libya). They categorically deny having boots on the ground, however. Crisis Group interviews, Egyptian officials, Cairo, October and December 2019.Hide Footnote  These countries are backing Haftar mainly to achieve long-term strategic objectives that transcend Libya. For Haftar’s backers in the Gulf, these aims include curbing the role of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups that they classify as terrorist. They also include support for like-minded governments that take a firm hand in suppressing Islamist opposition movements. For Russia, they mean establishing itself as a powerful regional player, pushing back against the tumult caused by the 2011 Arab uprisings and getting economic rewards for its trouble. Conversely, for other backers of the anti-Haftar camp, such as Qatar, these goals entail preventing the fall of the Tripoli government and the consequent emergence of a new power structure allied with Doha’s regional foes.

Turkey’s military intervention and deployment of Syrian fighters to Libya has had the short-term result of bolstering government forces in the capital, but that there is no end in sight for the military escalation.

This report lays out Turkey’s motivations for militarily backing the Libyan government against the Haftar-led offensive and analyses that support’s effects on both the battlefield and the diplomatic front, assessing prospects for de-escalation. It argues that Turkey’s military intervention and deployment of Syrian fighters to Libya has had the short-term result of bolstering government forces in the capital, but that there is no end in sight for the military escalation. The report is based on dozens of interviews with Turkish and Libyan officials and experts, as well as representatives of Western and Arab governments.

II. The View from Ankara: Why Turkey Intervened in Libya

When Turkey decided to intervene in the Libyan conflict, its leadership claimed that the main purpose was to rebalance the situation on the ground and force Haftar to the negotiating table. Yet Ankara’s objectives in protecting the Serraj government are also part and parcel of its broader aspirations to safeguard its geopolitical interests in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and preserve a sphere of influence in North Africa. Turkey also has vested economic interests in maintaining an ally in Tripoli. 

A. Protecting the Tripoli Government

Ankara’s decision to intervene in Libya came after slowly advancing Haftar forces, backed by UAE weaponry and Russian private military contractors, started to seriously threaten the Tripoli government’s survival by November 2019. Ankara’s covert support of the government since the outbreak of hostilities in April 2019 was not enough to turn the tide.[fn]The number of Russian private security contractors on the ground in Libya is a source of debate, as is their role in the fighting. Some Western diplomats and Tripoli government officials contend that more than 1,000 Russians are embedded with Haftar’s forces and participating in front-line combat. A U.S. diplomat speaking in March 2020 alleged that some 3,000 Russians were on the ground in Libya. Crisis Group telephone interviews, Western diplomats, government officials and government-aligned military officers, Tunis, Tripoli, Misrata, December 2019; U.S. diplomat, Washington, March 2020. Haftar supporters claim that the number of Russian contractors never exceeded a few hundred and that their role was mainly airplane maintenance and operating aerial defences. Crisis Group interviews, Haftar supporters, Tripoli, Benghazi, December 2019. Moscow has denied any direct role in the deployment of Russian fighters to Libya. “Putin says he hasn’t sent Russian mercenaries to Libya”, Bloomberg, 11 January 2020.Hide Footnote Officials in Ankara say it was these “realities on the ground” and the Serraj government’s official request for help that led to their decision to intervene.[fn]A Turkish foreign ministry official said: “Haftar was about to gain ground with the help of Russian mercenaries”. Crisis Group interview, Ankara, February 2020.Hide Footnote It appears that Turkey and the Serraj government agreed on the formal request to ensure legal cover for Turkish aid. Once Turkey guaranteed it would intervene, Serraj issued the request for help to not just Turkey but four other states as well.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, Tripoli, Rome, January-February 2020.Hide Footnote

Domestically, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan relied on two complementary narratives to justify Turkey’s intervention in defence of the Tripoli government. One concerns Ottoman imperial history and what are ostensibly hundreds of thousands of Libyans of Ottoman ancestry, by now completely Arabised, whom the president vowed to defend.[fn]In a 14 January speech at a Justice and Development (AK) Party parliamentary group meeting, Erdoğan underscored the Ottoman link to Libya: “In Libya, there are Köroğlu Turks remaining from the Ottomans, whose number exceeds one million; they are descendants of Barbarossa and Dragut, and they are being subjected to ethnic cleansing. Haftar is bent on destroying them, too. As is the case across North Africa, in Libya, too, one of our main duties is to protect the grandchildren of our ancestors”. AA Haber, 14 January 2020. (Crisis Group translation from Turkish.) Barbarossa and Dragut are 16th-century Ottoman admirals who ruled over Tripoli. The Libyans whom Erdoğan refers to as “Köroğlu Turks” are said to be descendants of Ottoman soldiers who settled in Libya starting in the early 16th century. They are also called “Kuloğlu”.Hide Footnote The other is about legitimacy. Erdoğan has described Haftar as “a putschist” and termed his attack on Tripoli “a coup attempt”, backed by various foreign powers hostile to Turkey.[fn]In Libya, neither argument has much resonance. Most Libyans, even those from Misrata who can claim a distant Turkish lineage and are most supportive of Turkey’s intervention, consider themselves Arab. As for Haftar, his opponents label him “a war criminal” (mujrim harb) rather than a putschist.Hide Footnote In enumerating those powers, Erdoğan has pointed the finger primarily at Egypt and the UAE, but also at Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia and France.[fn]In one speech, Erdoğan said Haftar “gets support from undemocratic countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE”. Quoted in Diken, 18 January 2020. In another, he said: “The UAE and Egypt are in the lead. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia is providing significant support. They are in cahoots with Israel. They are descending on Libya like hungry wolves”. “Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan: ABD-İran gerginliğinin azaltılması için çok ciddi gayretler gösteriyoruz” [President Erdogan: We are making serious efforts to reduce U.S.-Iranian tension], Directorate of Communications, 5 January 2020. The Turkish president accused others as well, while showing a photo to journalists: “The man in the front is Haftar”, he said. “The one in the circle is very close to Mr. Putin. He is the head of Wagner [the Russian private security company]. He manages it. And here is the Russian Minister of Defense Shoigu. Right next to him you see Russian Chief of General Staff Gerasimov. These are currently the top brass of the Russian military. They are now directing Wagner there. They still say, ‘we don't have a relationship like that there’. Currently, Russia itself at the highest level is directing the war there”. He also said: “those who are with Haftar are obvious. Egypt, the Abu Dhabi administration and, in the same manner, the Saudis and France support Haftar”. “Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan, Pakistan ziyareti dönüşü gazetecilerle söyleşi gerçekleştirdi”, Directorate of Communications, 15 February 2020.Hide Footnote

Ankara officialdom also argues that the Libyan public, including even the public and officials in Haftar-controlled eastern Libya, supports Turkey’s military action and opposes Haftar. A senior Turkish official said:

Libyans see that Turkey is their only friend. There are MPs in the east who tell us privately: ‘Don’t just save the west [of Libya], save us in the east also from Haftar’s persecution; we are compelled to publicly appear to support him, but we do not’.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Turkish official, Ankara, February 2020.Hide Footnote

Most importantly, Turkish officials emphasise that their actions in Libya are legitimate and in full compliance with international law. Turkey’s special adviser to Libya, Emrullah İşler, explained: “We foresaw there would be criticism [from abroad] of our intervention, so our president told us, ‘we will only go to Libya if we are invited’”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Emrullah İşler, special representative of the Turkish president for Libya, Ankara, February 2020. Western diplomats concur that Tripoli directed its letters requesting military support to the U.S., the UK, Italy, Algeria and Turkey on 20 December, only after Serraj had been assured of Turkey’s intention to openly support the Tripoli government. They added that Serraj knew from the outset that, aside from Turkey, none of the states would intervene militarily to support the Tripoli-based forces. Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, Tripoli, Rome, January-February 2020. Hide Footnote  Prime Minister Serraj made the request on 20 December, calling on the U.S., UK, Italy, Algeria and Turkey, all of which had previously supplied security and anti-terrorism assistance to the Tripoli government, to help fight “foreign mercenaries, armed groups and formations who refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the state, and threaten security and peace in defiance of state sovereignty”.[fn]Assistance request letter signed by Faiez Serraj and directed to a foreign state (not Turkey), undated but shared with Crisis Group on 20 December 2019. The letter also says: “The Libyan state and its people have been subject to brutal aggression and threats by Haftar’s rebel groups since last April. These groups are supported by numerous countries and foreign mercenaries, who provide them with weapons and logistical assistance in an illegal way, violating the sovereignty of the Libyan state and UN Security Council resolutions”. It adds that Haftar’s aggression has allowed “terrorist extremist groups led by ISIS and al-Qaeda” to resume their activities, and concludes: “We ask your support to employ all possible means, according to the requirements that the current circumstances impose, in coordination with the Libyan government and its security and military entities, in order to confront the consequences of this aggression and prevent international security and stability from being put in danger”. (Crisis Group translation from Arabic.) See also “Serraj appeals to ‘friendly’ countries to counter Haftar advance on Tripoli”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 21 December 2019.Hide Footnote  Soon afterward, Turkey formalised its military support to Tripoli: on 21 December, the Turkish parliament approved a security cooperation memorandum of understanding that Erdoğan and Serraj had signed on 27 November.[fn]The vote was 269 in favour and 125 against. Not all MPs attended the vote; of those who did, MPs from the ruling alliance, comprised of the AK Party and Nationalist Action Party (MHP), voted in favour, while the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), IYI (Good) Party and People’s Democratic Party (HDP) voted against. “Libya ile askeri işbirliği anlaşması kabul edildi” [Agreement on military cooperation with Libya has been ratified], Gazete Duvar, 21 December 2019. The text of the proposed law was posted on the parliament’s website on 14 December 2019.Hide Footnote  On 30 December, Erdoğan sent a request to parliament to approve sending Turkish armed forces to Libya for a period of one year, which the legislators passed on 2 January.[fn]Document signed by Erdoğan, Presidency of the Grand National Assembly, 30 December 2019. The 2 January 2020 vote passed with 325 in favour and 184 against. Again, AK Party and MHP MPs voted in favour; CHP, HDP and IYI Party MPs voted against. “Libya tezkeresi Meclis'ten geçti, Genel Kurul'da neler yaşandı?” [The bill authorising military deployment to Libya has been ratified in the parliament. What happened at the General Assembly?], BBC Turkish, 2 January 2020. The vote had initially been scheduled for 9 January but was brought forward after a meeting between Presidents Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin was slated for 8 January. “Erdoğan wanted to go to that meeting with parliamentary approval already in hand”, said a European diplomat. Crisis Group interview, late January 2020. Think-tank analysts in Ankara voiced similar opinions. Crisis Group interviews, Ankara, February 2020.Hide Footnote

Ankara argues that, since Turkey responded to an invitation, its support for Tripoli does not constitute an illegal external intervention, thus sidestepping the fact that its supply of weapons and military equipment to the Tripoli government, covert or overt, violates the UN arms embargo. Ankara officials say Turkey is merely bolstering the defensive power of Libya’s UN-recognised government, which has the right to self-defence but lacks the capacity. In addition, Erdoğan has frequently underlined the legitimacy of Turkey’s intervention, compared to that of others.[fn]“The 5,000 Sudanese [fighters], the 2,000 people who came with the Russian Wagner Group – in what capacity are they in Libya?” Erdoğan press briefing in Tunisia, Turkish Directorate of Communications, 25 December 2019.Hide Footnote

Officials in Ankara also lament what they term the hypocrisy of other international actors, such as Russia, the UAE, Egypt and France, which officially recognise the Serraj government but provide military aid and thereby indirect legitimacy to the Haftar camp. As a foreign ministry official put it, “if they support an armed attack against the GNA [the government in Tripoli], they should at least officially announce that they no longer recognise the GNA’s authority”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ankara, February 2020.Hide Footnote

Turkish officials also decry as two-faced the positions of Brussels and Washington, which claim to promote democracy and rule of law in the world but are ambivalent about an armed attempt to overthrow Libya’s political leadership. They contend that this stance will discredit the West in the eyes of Arab societies.[fn]A senior Turkish official said: “Haftar wants to gain control of Tripoli by force and to rule it with a heavy hand. The Western world is hypocritical about democracy. History will reflect this, and the Arab world will never forgive those who stood against [Libya’s] public will in these times”. Crisis Group interview, Ankara, February 2020. That said, the Serraj government was not elected and governs by decree without being accountable to a parliament, slightly undercutting the argument about defending democracy. Indeed, Serraj was selected as head of the Presidency Council of the GNA in December 2015 following a year-long, UN-backed negotiation that produced a governing document known as the Libyan Political Agreement. UN Security Council Resolution 2259 (23 December 2015) endorsed the agreement and recognised Serraj’s Presidency Council as the Libyan state’s legitimate representative. Serraj, a member of parliament at the time, was supposed to submit for approval a proposed cabinet list to the House of Representatives, elected in 2014, within 30 days; however, the House never approved it. Nevertheless, the UN and member states recognised Serraj as Libya’s prime minister and president, and they considered his government legitimate. Pro-Haftar constituencies contend that the lack of parliamentary support renders the Serraj government illegitimate under Libyan law; they support a rival government in the east that does not enjoy international recognition. On Libya’s political crisis, see Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°170, The Libyan Political Agreement: Time for a Reset, 4 November 2016.Hide Footnote  Others in Ankara are convinced that the UAE has been spreading propaganda, accusing Turkey of supporting political and militant Islamists against secular forces, charges that they fear Europeans accept uncritically.[fn]“The argument that Haftar is secular and Serraj is radical is false propaganda”, said one think-tank analyst. Crisis Group interview, Ankara, February 2020. An AK Party spokesperson said some political party representatives in Turkey were ignorantly adopting the line that Serraj represents groups seeking to establish an Islamic state while Haftar is secular. “AKP sözcüsü Çelik: Sarrac hükümetine bağlı güçlere TSK eğitim verecek” [AKP spokesperson Çelik: TAF will train Serraj government’s forces], T24, 6 January 2020. The leaders of several Arab states, notably the UAE and Egypt, view the Muslim Brotherhood as an Islamist threat, while the AK Party has invested heavily in the group’s empowerment across the region, particularly after the 2011 Arab uprisings.Hide Footnote  Turkish officials also express frustration at Europeans who, they say, without specifying which country, are mistakenly convinced that Haftar can establish strong rule and thus curb migration flows, which they claim is all Europeans care about.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government officials, Ankara, February 2020. Although officials in Ankara say many European states support Haftar because they want power to be held by a strongman capable of curbing migration flows, support for Haftar in some European capitals (and the U.S.) is prompted to a large degree by anti-terrorism considerations. French officials in particular view Haftar-led security forces as a reliable security partner, more serious than the Tripoli-based authorities in combating what they consider terrorist groups in areas under their respective control. Crisis Group interviews, European and U.S. diplomats, Tunis, Paris, 2019; UN officials, Tunis, 2019.Hide Footnote  Turkey viewed the EU’s launch of a naval mission, Operation Irini, to monitor the UN arms embargo as unfair, because the EU will not be monitoring land or air delivery routes, which are used by Haftar’s backers, whereas Turkey delivers weapons mainly by sea.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, former Turkish official, March 2020. In late March, the EU launched Operation EUNAVFOR MED Irini, a naval mission tasked with monitoring arms transfers to Libya. Although it is mainly a naval mission, EU planners contend that radar instruments on the vessels as well as additional air and satellite imagery will also help monitor arms transfers taking place via land and air, at least in the northern half of the country, which abuts the Mediterranean. The details of Operation Irini are still under discussion and the rules of engagement not yet final. A thorny issue is whether or not the EU vessels will be allowed to intercept and inspect Turkish vessels bound for Libya, even those escorted by Turkish warships. If such rules are approved, which EU officials rate as highly unlikely, the operation would end up affecting Ankara disproportionately to the regional actors supporting Haftar. Whereas Ankara sends its aid to the Tripoli government mainly by sea, Haftar’s backers send him military equipment mainly by land or air. The latter cargoes can be monitored but not intercepted. Crisis Group interviews, EU officials, Brussels, March and April 2020.Hide Footnote  Accusations that oil interests are at the core of Western positioning are also rampant in Ankara. As one official put it: “Russia is totally interest-driven. So is the U.S. Trump called Haftar right after 4 April. Why? Because of oil interests. Turkey, on the other hand, is not hypocritical and will end up on the right side of history”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, Ankara, February 2020.Hide Footnote

Ankara believes that Turkey’s military support to Tripoli will convince Haftar that he cannot count on military victory.

Ultimately, Ankara believes that Turkey’s military support to Tripoli, by balancing out the forces on the ground, will convince Haftar that he cannot count on military victory and, as a result, will have to accept a negotiated political settlement. As an Ankara official said: “Haftar has no interest in negotiations and, without Turkey’s presence, he would have stopped the offensive only if the Tripoli government had surrendered and accepted his terms”. He added: “Due to the Turkish involvement, he saw that it would not be possible [for him] to get easy results”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Turkish official, Ankara, February 2020.Hide Footnote

Turkish officials underscore that they intervened to force Haftar to the negotiating table and say they are willing to support the Tripoli-based forces indefinitely. In February, Ankara officials exuded confidence that Turkey would do “whatever is necessary” to prevent Haftar from taking Tripoli: “Either his backers tell Haftar he must engage in negotiations and accept a political settlement, or the war will be prolonged because Turkey will not back down from defending Tripoli”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Turkish official, Ankara, February 2020.Hide Footnote  Some officials have called on the U.S. to exercise its leverage over Egypt and the UAE to stop their military and financial support of Haftar’s operations. If Haftar attempts an all-out attack on Tripoli, they say, Ankara is ready to deploy its own offensive forces.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Turkish official, Ankara, February 2020. In a speech to parliament on 14 January, Erdoğan intimated that Turkey would support an offensive against Haftar should he not desist from attacking the capital: “In the coming days, we will follow the choices made – who sides with the putschist Haftar and who with the country’s legitimate government. And if the attacks on the country’s legitimate administration and our brothers in Libya continue, we will never hesitate to teach the coup plotter Haftar the lesson he deserves. Our presence in this region will continue until Libya achieves freedom and stability”. Communications Directorate of the Presidency of the Republic of Turkey. (Crisis Group translation from Turkish.)Hide Footnote

B. Strategic Ambitions

Ankara’s decision to protect the Tripoli government from military defeat is part and parcel of Turkey’s geostrategic ambitions, which it increasingly advances, including by projecting military power. This stance has its roots in a relatively new conception of national defence, in which the Turkish “homeland” (vatan) no longer solely denotes land but also sea, or the “blue homeland” (mavi vatan), an expression first used by a navy admiral, Ramazan Cem Gürdeniz, in 2006.[fn]Cem Gürdeniz was among the military officers imprisoned after the controversial Sledgehammer trials (2011-2015), accused of leading a coup plot against Erdoğan, who was then still prime minister. In 2014, the government claimed that these trials had been part of a scheme by Gülen-affiliated members of the judiciary. (Fethullah Gülen is a Turkish preacher heading a transnational Islamic movement that the Turkish government accuses of illicitly infiltrating state institutions and holds responsible for the 15 July 2016 coup attempt.) Gürdeniz was freed in 2015 after the Constitutional Court ordered a retrial. He now writes a column entitled “Mavi Vatan” in the neo-nationalist Aydınlık daily. He authored a book, published in 2016, in which he formulated a since-popularised phrase: “The deck of a warship is equivalent to the homeland”. Ulusal Kanal, 9 March 2019.Hide Footnote  It was popularised in March 2019 when the Turkish navy named an exercise in the eastern Mediterranean “Mavi Vatan”. Turkey’s ruling coalition of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) is aligned around this more assertive regional foreign policy, which also reinforces Turkish nationalism and helps the Ankara leadership maintain domestic support.[fn]“The nationalist resurgence in Turkish society and politics in recent years has served to enable a more activist and expansionist foreign policy, compared to the generally prudent policies of the republican era. Imperial nostalgia in both popular culture and political rhetoric has played up and played upon revanchist feelings and portrayed ‘New Turkey’ as a proud and strong country under a tough leader that will not bend to foreign adversaries”. Paul T. Levin, “What’s Driving Turkey’s Foreign Policy?”, Texas National Security Review (October 2019).Hide Footnote

1. The maritime jurisdiction dispute in the eastern Mediterranean

In keeping with the “blue homeland” concept, Erdoğan signed a Memorandum of Understanding “on the delimitation of the maritime jurisdiction areas in the Mediterranean” with Serraj on 27 November 2019; the Turkish parliament ratified it the following week.[fn]On 5 December 2019, the Turkish parliament ratified the Memorandum of Understanding on maritime border delimitation with 293 votes in favour and 13 against. AK Party, MHP, CHP and IYI deputies voted in favour, while the HDP voted against. The memorandum’s text is available in Turkish, Arabic and English on the parliament’s website.Hide Footnote  Turkey had long sought this agreement as a critical tool to begin redrawing maritime borders in the eastern Mediterranean and mitigate what it sees as disproportionate advantages accruing to two of Ankara’s historical foes – Greece and the Republic of Cyprus.[fn]The dispute over the delimitation of maritime borders in the eastern Mediterranean stems from the discovery of hydrocarbon resources by Israel and Cyprus and the lack of an agreed definition among coastal states on their reciprocal Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). There are two main sets of disagreements at the root of this controversy: the Cypriot question, which Turkey, Cyprus and Greece have never settled and is a source of disagreement in relation to the maritime border between Turkey and Cyprus; and the interpretation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a treaty that, according to Athens, gives Greece the right to establish its maritime borders starting from its islands. Turkey challenges this interpretation and considers only a country’s mainland as the starting point of every country’s EEZ. In addition, Turkey and Israel are not signatories of the UN Convention.Hide Footnote

Turkish officials claim there is no connection between Turkey’s Libya intervention and this maritime pact, and that it is “merely a coincidence” that Erdoğan and Serraj signed it on the same day they inked the security cooperation deal.[fn]A senior Turkish official said: “there is no connection between the two MoUs being signed on the same day. They had both been in progress for a long time. We just took advantage of Serraj’s visit to have both signed together”. Crisis Group interview, Ankara, February 2020.Hide Footnote  Many Turkish experts, however, agree that the sequencing of events suggests that the maritime deal was a gateway for increasing Turkish military support.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish politicians and analysts, Ankara, February 2020.Hide Footnote  At the time, public debate focused on the maritime deal, largely neglecting the security agreement, which parliament took longer to ratify.[fn]Following the signing, headlines of leading Turkish media outlets focused on the maritime deal. See, for example, “Greece and Israel can no longer exclude other coastal states”, Daily Sabah, 11 December 2019; “The worst scenario in the East Med has been averted”, CNN Turk, 25 December 2019; and “Libya deal ensures Turkey’s maritime freedom”, Anadolu Agency, 27 December 2019.  Opposition parties that voted in favour of the maritime deal subsequently criticised the government for linking it to its decision to send Turkish troops to Libya, which they opposed.[fn]A CHP MP said: “we signed off on [the maritime] agreement, but right afterward they brought forward the bill calling for sending our armed forces to Libya. They want to send our troops to a place that is tangled up in conflict … into that mess. We are against it”. Quoted in “Birine evet diğerine hayır”, Yeniçağ Gazetesi, 24 December 2019. (Crisis Group translation from Turkish.) An IYI MP said: “they [the AK Party] entangled the maritime delimitation agreement with the bill to send troops to Libya. Yet they are very different. We voted against sending troops”. Quoted in “İYİ Parti'li Dervişoğlu: Haberdar olsak CHP’yi uyarırdık”, Haberler.com, 7 January 2020. (Crisis Group translation from Turkish.)Hide Footnote

The maritime border agreement establishes an 18.6 nautical mile (35km) maritime boundary between Turkey and Libya.[fn]Selcan Hacaoglu and Firat Kozok, “Turkish offshore gas deal with Libya upsets Mediterranean boundaries”, World Oil, 12 June 2019.Hide Footnote  In line with this agreement, both Turkey and Libya claim for themselves cone-shaped Economic Exclusive Zones (EEZs) respectively north and south of the boundary line.[fn]The intellectual driver behind Turkey’s need to sign a maritime delimitation agreement with Libya and developer of the maritime criteria on which it should be based is Admiral Cihat Yaycı. His ideas were the basis for a proposed bilateral delimitation agreement that Turkey presented to Muammar al-Qadhafi on the margins of the 2010 EU-Africa summit shortly before the Libyan leader was toppled. Yaycı authored a 2019 book presenting this idea in depth to wider audiences, entitled Libya Türkiye’nin Denizden Komşusudur: Doğu Akdeniz’de Deniz Alanlarının Sınırlandırılmasında Libya’nın Rolü [Libya is Turkey’s Neighbour from the Sea: Libya’s Role in Maritime Delimitation of the Eastern Mediterranean], published by Avrasya Stratejik Araştırmalar Merkezi, a think-tank.Hide Footnote  Most of the Turkish EEZ and part of the Libyan EEZ overlap with waters Athens considers part of Greece’s continental shelf.

Map of Maritime Delimitation Areas CRISISGROUP

In the eyes of Turkish officials and public opinion, the maritime agreement with Tripoli was a strategic win, and voices across the political spectrum lauded its conclusion.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior figure of main opposition party, Ankara, February 2020. The only party that did not vote for the maritime agreement was the pro-Kurdish HDP.Hide Footnote

For over a decade, Ankara has sought maritime boundary delimitation agreements with Egypt and Libya that would challenge Athens’ assignment of large maritime jurisdiction areas to Greek islands and Cyprus, leaving a narrow strip of water and seabed to Turkey.[fn]Turkey does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus and holds that it cannot enter EEZ agreements or exploit natural resources in the eastern Mediterranean without sharing revenues with the separate northern Turkish Cypriot entity. As mentioned, Turkey is not a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and for decades has been locked in a separate dispute with Greece over the territorial waters and continental shelf delimitation in the Aegean Sea. On this long-running stalemate, see Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Report N°216, Aphrodite’s Gift: Can Cypriot Gas Power a New Dialogue?, 2 April 2012.Hide Footnote  Turkish officials and experts have long contended that the Greece-claimed continental shelf and its EEZ amount to an “imprisonment” of Turkey, “the country with the longest coast” in the Mediterranean.[fn]Turkey’s Mediterranean coastline is 1,577km long, but taking Greek islands into account, Greece’s coastline is longer. Libya’s mainland coastline (1,700km) is also longer than Turkey’s, but most of it is considered part of the Ionian Sea basin.Hide Footnote  In 2011, the Arab uprisings interrupted Turkish plans to sign agreements with Muammar al-Qadhafi’s Libya and Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt that would have staked Ankara’s own claims.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Egyptian diplomat, Cairo, December 2019; Libyan diplomat, Doha, December 2019.Hide Footnote

The Cyprus Republic’s EEZ agreements with Israel (2010), Lebanon (2007) and Egypt (2003) for natural gas exploration and drilling follow Athens’ demarcation lines.[fn]The Cyprus Republic signed agreements on the Delimitation of Exclusive Economic Zones with Egypt (2003), Lebanon (2007) and Israel (2010). UN Office of Legal Affairs. Lebanon signed but did not ratify the agreement.Hide Footnote

In 2019, the stakes rose with the discovery of large natural gas reserves off the shores of Cyprus. The big find led in January 2020 to the signing of the EastMed Pipeline Project agreement by Israel, Greece and Cyprus, bypassing Turkey, to transport natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe via Greece.[fn]The Italian, Greek and Cypriot governments approved the project in 2015, and a consortium (a 50:50 joint venture between Public Gas Corporation of Greece and a private company, Edison International, an Italy-based subsidiary of a French firm, EDF) soon started development. Israel joined in 2017. “Eastern Mediterranean Pipeline Project”, NS Energy.Hide Footnote

Rising regional tensions and unsettled disputes further complicate the picture.

Rising regional tensions and unsettled disputes further complicate the picture. Turkey’s relations with Egypt have significantly worsened since the 2013 coup against President Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member whom it supported, while its ties with Israel have soured since 2010.[fn]For background, see International Crisis Group, Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts, 13 February 2018.Hide Footnote Moreover, Turkey does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus.[fn]For background on the Cyprus dispute, see Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Report N°227, Divided Cyprus: Coming to Terms on an Imperfect Reality, 14 March 2014.Hide Footnote Decades of maritime delimitation negotiations with Greece about the Aegean have proven fruitless. Libya was left as the only coastal country with which Turkey still enjoys good relations, making it a critical potential ally if Ankara were to advance its maritime claims. For its part, Tripoli needed Turkish military support.[fn]Turkey had been requesting the Tripoli government’s approval of the maritime agreement since early 2019, but Prime Minister Serraj repeatedly withheld it on grounds that international agreements of this sort were the competence of parliament, not the government. Turkey’s pressing requests to secure a maritime agreement with Tripoli were not public knowledge in Libya, and only a few foreign and Libyan diplomats were aware of them. According to people familiar with the matter, Serraj changed his position on signing an agreement suddenly in late November 2019. They contend that he was motivated by the need to secure Turkey’s military aid, which Ankara made contingent on him signing the maritime pact. Crisis Group interviews, foreign and Libyan diplomats, UN officials, Tripoli, Rome and Doha, December 2019.Hide Footnote

No country other than Libya accepts the legality of Turkey’s delimitation scheme, and the likelihood of international oil companies agreeing to carry out exploration activities in “disputed waters” is low.[fn]Greece and Cyprus condemned Turkey’s agreement with the Tripoli government, which they claimed violated international law. France and Italy, whose oil companies have a stake in the East Med Gas Forum, also condemned it. After a harsh initial reaction, Egypt toned down its criticism, but nevertheless went on to spearhead a 8 January 2020 diplomatic initiative with Greece, Cyprus and France that denounced both the maritime and security cooperation agreements between Ankara and Tripoli as “a violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and international law”. The joint communiqué underscored that the signatories considered these agreements “null and void”. “Meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, France, Cyprus and Greece – Final Communiqué”, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 8 January 2020.Hide Footnote Turkey is therefore unlikely to derive financial gain from its move in the foreseeable future. Yet the agreement can help Ankara thwart other states’ projects that would in effect exclude Turkey from the eastern Mediterranean and reduce its influence.

From Turkey’s point of view, the new agreement achieves two objectives. In the short term, it can raise the cost of, and delay through lawsuits, the construction of the 1,900km (1,180 mile) eastern Mediterranean natural gas pipeline that Greece, Israel and Cyprus want to develop, rendering it unviable.[fn]A European expert said: “Theoretically, Turkey’s position could raise costs such as insurance because legal uncertainty has increased and a military incident cannot be excluded”. Crisis Group correspondence, 23 March 2020. Reuters reporters explained the possible impact of Turkey’s maritime deal with Libya on the East Med Pipeline Project as follows: “The Turkey-Libya deal adds another obstacle to making it achievable. While there are precedents for pipelines crossing other countries’ exclusive economic zones, Turkey won’t make it easy. What’s more, Ankara will use the deal to step up its claims to explore for energy in waters off Cyprus, where for months it has sent drilling ships, and in recent days flown exploration drones”. Luke Baker, Tuvan Gumrukcu and Michele Kambas, “Turkey-Libya maritime deal rattles East Mediterranean”, Reuters, 25 December 2019. See also Caroline Rose, “Turkey tests the waters in the eastern Mediterranean”, Real Clear World, 8 December 2019.Hide Footnote In the long term, it lays the groundwork for forcing Egypt and Israel to backtrack on their EEZ agreements with Cyprus Republic. Ankara hopes that they would then sign new maritime delimitation agreements with Turkey, which would grant them larger areas of jurisdiction than their existing deals with Greece do, at the expense of Athens’ claims.[fn]A Turkish Libya expert explained that Israel could be enticed because the Aphrodite gas reservoir that is currently part of the Cypriot-claimed EEZ could fall under Israel’s maritime jurisdiction in Turkey’s proposed delimitation agreement. Crisis Group interview, think-tank representative, Ankara, February 2020.Hide Footnote

2. Contrasting hostile regional environment

Turkey’s new assertiveness aims not only to contain long-time adversaries Greece and Cyprus, but also to counter a coalition of Arab countries hostile to Turkey, which includes Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Haftar’s main external backers. These countries staunchly oppose Muslim Brotherhood-related groups that gained political strength in the 2011 Arab uprisings and received support from Turkey’s ruling AK Party. In Libya, Brotherhood elements are part of the Tripoli government, although they do not predominate. But their presence has led Ankara to view Libya as yet another case where its regional rivals are trying to exclude the Brotherhood from governance.[fn]International Crisis Group, Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts, op. cit.Hide Footnote

In a broader sense, Turkey’s activism in Libya is about sending a powerful signal to actors seeking to constrain it. In the words of an Ankara-based analyst:

There is a sense that we are boxed in with no place to move. We need to find new allies, deepen [relationships with] those we have and create space that we can be in. Turkey is following a [regional] trend in its power projection, in order not to lose ground.[fn]Crisis Group interview, think-tank representative, Ankara, February 2020.Hide Footnote

An expert on Turkey’s regional policies with close ties to the government said, referring to Turkey’s military activism: “Turkey acts like this [when it is cornered by a coalition and left with no other choice. In the East Med, this became urgent after the natural gas pipeline project came into play”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, think-tank analyst, Ankara, February 2020.Hide Footnote Ankara has a similar drive to wield hard power on the ground in Syria and the Horn of Africa, in order to prevent exclusion from perceived designs that would curb Turkish influence.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°206, Intra-Gulf Competition in Africa’s Horn: Lessening the Impact, 9 September 2019; and Crisis Group Alert, “The Eleventh Hour for Idlib, Syria’s Last Rebel Bastion”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

3. Economic interests

Economic interests also play a role in the making of Ankara’s Libya policy. Turkey has long sought to expand the market for its consumer goods and secure opportunities for its construction companies, including in Libya. With access to various other Middle Eastern and North African economies curtailed due to diplomatic rifts, Turkey sees potential for its building and other business moguls in Libya.[fn]Turkish contractors want to return to Libya, resume projects once peace restored”, Daily Sabah, 24 December 2019.Hide Footnote

Turkey hopes that reinforced ties between the two countries in the wake of the bilateral security and maritime agreements will create further economic windfalls. Underscoring such expectations, the same day that Ankara unveiled its intention to intervene militarily in support of the Tripoli government, Turkey’s independent Industrialist and Businessmen Association (MÜSİAD) announced that it hoped to boost exports to Libya by over 500 per cent, reaching around $10 billion compared to $1.49 billion in 2018.[fn]Turkey seeks to increase exports to Libya”, Asharq al-Awsat, 2 January 2020.Hide Footnote  Turkey’s defence industry, which is providing most of the weapons shipped to the pro-government forces, will likely account for a sizeable portion of these exports. 

Turkey is also seeking to recoup business losses that its companies have suffered in Libya since 2011. For example, of the estimated 100 construction contracts awarded to Turkish companies during the Qadhafi era, many could not move forward after the start of the 2011 conflict, leaving building projects incomplete at a value of $19 billion.[fn]“İnşaat Sektörü Analizi: Arap Baharı, Borç Krizi ve Isınan Ekonomiler” [Construction Sector Analysis: Arab Spring, Debt Crisis and Overheating Economies], Turkish Contractors Union, July 2011.Hide Footnote  Turkish construction companies contend that they have already spent $2 billion in equipment and other costs toward these projects, and therefore consider this amount a debt that the Libyan state owes them. Likewise, the Turkish Petroleum Corporation sank more than $180 million into Libya before the conflict, and from 2011 onward was unable to make its drilling investment productive.[fn]Türkiye’nin Libya ile ekonomik ilişkileri ne durumda?” [What’s the situation of Turkey’s economic relations with Libya?], Euronews, 2 January 2020.Hide Footnote

Turkey is not the only country with pending incomplete and unpaid contracts awarded during the Qadhafi era, when Libya signed more than $100 billion worth of contracts with foreign companies.[fn]The Libyan government awarded a total of 21,000 contracts, cumulatively worth 157 billion dinars ($115 billion), during the Qadhafi era. Libya’s National Audit Bureau, “The Annual Audit Report”, 2013, pp. 290-293. Many of these contracts were signed, but not carried out, and are thus considered null and void by Libya. The World Bank, which Libya’s post-Qadhafi authorities asked to analyse these pending projects, estimated that projects for which construction had begun and which constituted a contractual obligation for Libya were worth 100 billion dinars ($75 billion). Unpublished World Bank report viewed by Crisis Group, “Libya: Public Investment Management Legacy Project Review”, 12 September 2017. This report does not break down the contracts by country.Hide Footnote  But Turkey is the only country so far to make progress in its efforts to obtain compensation. In April 2019, Ankara and the Serraj government established a working group to agree on compensation for these past contracts and establish financial guarantees for future Turkish investments. Turkey is reportedly seeking to formalise a memorandum of understanding, still in draft form, which envisages $500 million in compensation for lost machinery and equipment, another $1.2 billion for debts and a further $1 billion as a letter of guarantee against future purchases.[fn]Turkey aims to sign deal with Libya over Gaddafi-era compensation”, Reuters, 2 January 2020.Hide Footnote

It is not known how exactly the Libyan government will make such payments and to whom. Some sources in Libya claim that discussions are under way between Libyan and Turkish officials to deposit a total of $4 billion in a Turkish bank.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Libyan close to government officials, Misrata, February 2020.Hide Footnote  It is unclear whether this sum is solely aimed at covering the abovementioned compensation package or if the additional $2 billion deposited would serve as financial guarantee for future acquisitions, such as the purchase of the military equipment Turkey is providing.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Libyan close to government officials, Misrata, February 2020.Hide Footnote  Other Libyans are sceptical that this financial scheme exists, or that other such designs will crop up. Instead, they claim that there is no plan to add further funds to Libyan public deposits in Turkey, which according to them stood at around $1.5 billion in 2019. They claim that the Tripoli government has spent less than half this amount to cover the purchase of Turkish military equipment for its war effort since April 2019.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Libyan with close contacts with Turkish officials, Tripoli, February 2020.Hide Footnote

The question of who pays for Turkish military support to Libya is clouded with mystery.

Aside from these figures, the question of who pays for Turkish military support to Libya is clouded with mystery. Most of it is most certainly paid directly by Tripoli, but Libyan sources close to the establishment in Ankara allege that the GNA is not the only entity footing the bill. According to a Libyan businessman close to Tripoli and to Turkish officials, “Turkey itself shoulders part of the costs, and Doha also contributes”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Libyan with close contacts with Turkish officials, Tripoli, February 2020.Hide Footnote  Qatar has bankrolled various anti-Haftar armed groups and politicians in Tripoli over the years, and it has also funded the supply of defence equipment to Tripoli-based forces allied with the Serraj government, mainly via Turkey, following the breakout of hostilities in 2019.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Libyans with ties to Qatar, Tripoli and Misrata, 2018-2020. A Libyan with ties to Doha complained that at the war’s beginning in 2019, Qatar was sending funds directly to individual Libyan commanders and their respective forces. He said he pleaded with Doha not to support individual groups, “which makes it difficult to establish a command-and-control hierarchy”, and instead channel its support to the government-led war efforts. He also noted the difference between Qatar’s support and Turkey’s: “Turkey only deals with the Tripoli government representatives, while Qatar supports its various allies in Libya”. Crisis Group interview, Libyan with ties to Qatar officials, Misrata, October 2019. The Qatari government officially supports the Tripoli government and opposes Haftar’s siege on Tripoli. It has called for the withdrawal of Haftar’s forces from greater Tripoli and a return to political negotiations. It also says it supports Turkey’s efforts in Libya. Speaking prior to Turkey’s intervention, a Qatari official said Doha would help Ankara do whatever it takes to “save Tripoli”. Crisis Group interview, senior Qatari official, July 2019.Hide Footnote

III. Is Turkey Achieving the Results It Intended?

To a certain extent, and for the time being, Turkey has rebalanced the battlefield: Ankara’s military involvement has managed to slow down the advance of Haftar’s forces, in some areas even forcing them to retreat, and to avert the Serraj government’s fall. As long as Turkey’s allied government in Tripoli remains in power, Ankara considers its immediate geostrategic and economic interests protected or at least not forfeited.            

Turkey’s intervention has not brought an end to the conflict, however, nor has it opened the door to negotiations between Libya’s rival political and military factions. Quite the contrary: the war around the Libyan capital has intensified, peace talks are nowhere on the horizon, and tensions between Ankara and some capitals – including Abu Dhabi, Cairo and Paris – have risen. In the meantime, the Tripoli government’s financial situation has worsened appreciably after pro-Haftar tribes cut oil production and thus Tripoli’s only major revenue stream.

A. Diplomatic Front

At first, it looked as though Turkey was right to expect that its intervention in Libya would compel Haftar to accept a political settlement. On 8 January, Presidents Erdoğan and Putin issued a sudden joint call for a ceasefire in Libya.[fn]The two presidents called for an end of hostilities in Libya in a joint statement issued after a bilateral meeting in Istanbul. “Putin and Erdogan call for ceasefire in war-ravaged Libya”, Financial Times, 8 January 2020.Hide Footnote  The two leaders invited Libyan factions to stop military operations starting on 12 January and return to political negotiations. In subsequent days, both Haftar’s coalition and the Tripoli government publicly expressed support for a ceasefire. Fighting in Tripoli diminished measurably.[fn]“Announcement of the General Command of the Arab-Libyan Armed Forces with Regard to the Ceasefire of the Operations Rooms of the Western Region” (translation from Arabic), dated 11 January 2020, posted on the Facebook page of ALAF Spokesperson Ahmed Mesmari. Serraj also expressed support for the Turkish-Russian initiative and the ceasefire in a joint press conference with Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte in Rome on 11 January, but he stressed that his acceptance of a truce would be contingent on the withdrawal of Haftar’s forces from Tripoli. Press conference, Al-Marsad, 11 January 2020. In the following days, several Tripoli residents said, they heard no explosions or sounds of gunfire for the first time in months. Crisis Group telephone interviews, Tripoli, 12 January 2020.Hide Footnote

Optimism was short-lived, as the ensuing diplomatic initiatives to broker a ceasefire floundered.

Optimism was short-lived, however, as the ensuing diplomatic initiatives to broker a ceasefire floundered. Moscow and Ankara tried to leverage their influence over their respective Libyan allies but failed, primarily because Haftar refused to sign on.[fn]Some Turkish officials suspect that Moscow did not genuinely try; others believe that it did, but that the UAE, Egypt and the U.S. discouraged Haftar from signing, a claim also made by Tripoli government officials. Crisis Group interviews, Ankara, Tripoli, February 2020.Hide Footnote  In a 13 January meeting in Moscow, Haftar rebuffed a seven-point ceasefire agreement drafted by Turkey and Russia. Only Serraj signed.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Tripoli government officials, Tripoli, January 2020. See also Claudia Gazzini, “What Prospects for a Ceasefire in Libya?”, Crisis Group Commentary, 18 January 2020.Hide Footnote

The Russian-Turkish initiative jolted the UN and other foreign powers into convening a diplomatic conference on Libya in Berlin for 19 January, following months of protracted, difficult consultations among foreign stakeholders in the Libyan conflict. European capitals, in particular, feared that Ankara and Moscow intended to carve out respective zones of influence in Libya and propose a settlement that would sideline them. At the Berlin conference, after initially rejecting a ceasefire and allegedly under pressure from Egyptian representatives, Haftar eventually agreed to appoint five military officers to take part in subsequent UN-mediated talks with military officers designated by the Tripoli government.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Libyan close to the Serraj government, Tripoli, February 2020. The Berlin conference on Libya brought together representatives of the U.S., EU, UK, France, Russia, China, Italy, Germany, Turkey, Egypt, the UAE, Algeria and Congo-Brazzaville, as well as the UN, Arab League and African Union. Haftar and Serraj were both in Berlin, but neither officially attended the summit or signed the final declaration.Hide Footnote  The military-to military talks were part of a three-track negotiation package (the other two tracks were political and financial) that the UN proposed at the Berlin conference, UN Security Council Resolution 2510 endorsed, and the event’s international participants, including Turkey and Haftar backers such as the UAE, Egypt and Russia, committed to support.[fn]The foreign participants of the Berlin conference signed a 55-point declaration, which was subsequently endorsed in UN Security Council Resolution 2510 (12 February 2020). The aim of the Berlin conference and final declaration was to reduce foreign intervention in the Libya war and ensure foreign stakeholders’ backing for a three-track UN mediation process. Crisis Group Statement, “Libya: Turning the Berlin Conference’s Words into Action”, 22 January 2020.Hide Footnote

The two sides failed to reach an agreement, however, after two rounds of Geneva-based negotiations in February. The Haftar coalition’s delegation insisted that a ceasefire should be contingent on, among other things, the surrender of the Tripoli government’s military forces, the handover of key military bases in the capital to Haftar’s forces and the withdrawal of Turkish and Syrian troops from Libya, which to Tripoli was a non-starter. For its part, Tripoli demanded the withdrawal of Haftar’s forces from Tripoli and the return of families to their homes in residential areas affected by fighting.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Libyans familiar with the Geneva ceasefire talks, Misrata and Rome, February 2020. The two Libyan delegations in Geneva reached no agreement on ceasefire terms as each delegation clung to its positions. The UN drafted what it considered a middle-ground agreement and submitted it to the two factions for consideration; however, the proposal lacked specifics and, most importantly, did not reflect any agreed-upon compromise. The UN proposal stated that, upon signing, military forces would withdraw “from private properties so as to ease the work of ceasefire observation teams and enable civilians to safely return to their properties”, but it did not specify which forces on either side should withdraw nor to where. The proposal also said the continuation of the ceasefire would be accompanied by a process of collecting “heavy and medium-size weapons from militias and armed groups throughout the country”; halting the flow of foreign fighters and mercenaries into Libya; and expelling within three months those already in the country. “Agreement for a Lasting Ceasefire in Libya”, drafted by the UN Support Mission in Libya in late February 2020, viewed by Crisis Group in April 2020.Hide Footnote  Likewise, the UN-mediated political negotiations, also in Geneva, collapsed in late February before they even started when more than half of the fifty participants from both sides of the military and political divide boycotted them.[fn]Boycotting participants included people from both sides of the Libya conflict. Representatives of the High State Council, a Tripoli-based consultative assembly aligned with the Serraj government, refused to attend. On the Haftar side, a dozen members of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and six so-called independents also withdrew their participation at the last minute. Reportedly, Haftar’s side dispatched a plane to Geneva to pick up the delegates and return them to eastern Libya. Crisis Group interviews, participants of the Geneva talks, House members, Geneva, Cairo, Benghazi, 1 March 2020.Hide Footnote  As for the financial track, negotiations took place but proved inconsequential.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Libyans familiar with the UN-convened financial discussions in mid-February, late February 2020. The financial track is supposed to tackle management of oil revenues that accrue to the Central Bank in Tripoli, an issue that has contributed to escalating hostilities between Haftar supporters and the Tripoli government. On the financial roots of the conflict, see Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°201, Of Tanks and Banks: Stopping a Dangerous Escalation in Libya, 20 May 2019.Hide Footnote

Even if dates were to be set for military and political talks, the odds are high that both sides would either keep boycotting them or stick to their respective, irreconcilable demands.

Overall, the resumption of hostilities since mid-February, the continuous flow of weapons to both sides and increasingly difficult diplomatic conditions suggest that negotiations are unlikely to succeed. Officially, the UN is still pursuing the three-track talks, but no negotiation took place in March and none is scheduled for April. Travel restrictions imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19 add to the difficulties, although they are not the primary reason for the impasse in consultations. Even if dates were to be set for military and political talks, the odds are high that both sides would either keep boycotting them or stick to their respective, irreconcilable demands. Meanwhile, clashes and attacks in the Tripoli area have intensified, while the sudden resignation on 2 March of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Libya, Ghassan Salamé, the talks’ chief architect, deals a further blow to mediation attempts.[fn]“The UN has not appointed a successor to Salame. This creates a vacuum”. Ibrahim Kalın, spokesman and senior adviser to the Turkish president, in response to a Crisis Group question during a European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) Strategic Conversation over Zoom, 6 April 2020.Hide Footnote  In addition, global developments, such as the onset of the coronavirus crisis and a sharp drop in oil prices, have shifted attention away from Libya and reduced the international community’s diplomatic engagement with the conflict.[fn]European diplomats lament that the monthly meetings among foreign representatives that constitute the follow-up committee to the Berlin conference are now held via teleconference and as such have become a purely formal exercise that does not allow for more “useful private bilateral conversations” with the Libyan factions’ foreign backers. Crisis Group telephone interview, European diplomat, early April 2020.Hide Footnote

B. Battlefield Dynamics

Since January, Turkey has reportedly deployed approximately 100 army officers to Libya.[fn]Metin Gürcan, "Will Libya become Turkey’s next Syria?", Al-Monitor, 16 December 2019, at: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/12/turkey-is-libya-becoming-ankaras-second-syria.html . Libyan pro-GNA sources also estimated the number of Turkish officers involved in supporting GNA war efforts to be around 100. Crisis Group interviews, Tripoli-based officials, February-March 2020. Hide Footnote According to Turkish and Libyan sources, their role is primarily to coordinate the Tripoli government’s war efforts and train its allied local forces. The latter include Libyan army officers who have remained loyal to Tripoli and refused to join Haftar-led troops, but the majority belong to militias formed in the wake of the Qadhafi regime’s fall and who are on the Tripoli government’s payroll.

Turkey has also upped its supply of military equipment and weaponry to Tripoli government-allied forces. Until January, Ankara had been providing combat drones, rockets and armoured vehicles, deploying Turkish technicians to operate this equipment and train Libyan fighters in its use. Between January and March, at least four cargo ships transporting military equipment from Turkey docked in Tripoli and Misrata, reportedly escorted by Turkish naval vessels.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, European security analysts, Libyan offiicals, Tripoli, Tunis and Brussels, February 2020. The role of the Turkish naval vessels is controversial. Turkish media reported Turkey had four military vessels off Libyan shores in late January, for the following objectives: contribution to NATO’s Sea Guardian Operation, bilateral/bipartite training and security readiness. “Navy in Libya”, Yeni Şafak, 25 January 2020. NATO headquarters, however, clarified that while some Turkish vessels in the area are “associated support to NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian […] associated support means that Operation Sea Guardian is an additional mission for these ships”, and they “are not directed by NATO”. Crisis Group correspondence, NATO’s Public Information Office, 30 January 2020.Hide Footnote  What exactly they were carrying is not known, but Libyans with close ties to the Tripoli authorities claim that their load represents a sizeable qualitative and quantitative increase in military equipment.[fn]Crisis Group interviews and telephone interviews, members of the Serraj government-aligned military, Tripoli and Misrata, February 2020.Hide Footnote

In February, sources in Tripoli said aerial defence equipment, namely the medium-range surface-to-air missile systems that Turkish forces have installed in the Tripoli and Misrata airports, had made the biggest impact of any upgrade in Turkish assistance to date.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, Tripoli and Rome, February 2020; and Libyans close to the Tripoli government, Misrata, February 2020. Open-source intelligence reports suggest that these are the U.S.-manufactured MiM-23 Improved Hawk defence system and Turkish-produced Korkut system. Can Kasapoğlu, “Turkey’s air defense system deployments to Libya”, Defense Intelligence Sentinel, 17 January 2020. A video of these systems installed in Mitiga airport was posted on Twitter by Babak Taghvaee, journalist, @BabakTaghvaee1, 6:15am, 17 January 2020.Hide Footnote  Turkish officials concur that this type of support has saved lives.[fn]Ibrahim Kalın, spokesman and senior adviser to the Turkish president, in response to a Crisis Group question during a ECFR Strategic Conversation over Zoom, 6 April 2020.Hide Footnote  A Western diplomat, speaking in February, expressed tacit sympathy for Turkey’s provision of this equipment, which has effectively brought air and drone strikes on Tripoli to a halt:

When you land in Tripoli airport now, you can actually see these air defence systems. Thanks to these, Haftar’s aviation and the drones he used to bomb Tripoli can no longer fly over the capital. We have to thank Turkey for that.[fn]Crisis Group interview, foreign diplomat, Tripoli, February 2020.Hide Footnote

By April, Turkey had further increased its military exposure in Libya by tapping into its navy and air force. According to Libyan sources, Ankara has deployed two warships off the western Libyan coast to provide cover for the Tripoli government forces’ ground operations.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Libyan politician with ties to Turkey, 19 April 2020.Hide Footnote  In early April, one of these vessels fired surface-to-air missiles at military assets of Haftar-led forces.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Western diplomat, Tripoli, 2 April 2020. The event was widely reported in Libyan social media; residents also posted photos of shards of a U.S.-manufactured RIM-66E-5 missile purportedly launched from the Turkish vessel. See “Libya: Turkey warship fires missiles on sites controlled by Haftar militias”, Middle East Monitor, 1 April 2020.Hide Footnote  The Turkish air force has also become active in Libya’s skies, so far mainly for intelligence and deterrence purposes.[fn]According to a Libyan politician, Turkey has dispatched a surveillance plane to Libya, and on 18 April Turkish F16 fighter jets carried out their first-ever military exercise over Misrata. The politician said: “Such a display of military equipment on Turkey’s side has had the effect of deterring Haftar forces and their foreign backers from using their own Pantsir air defence systems”. Crisis Group telephone interview, Libyan politician with ties to Turkey, 19 April 2020. The Turkish Defence Ministry acknowledged that Turkish jets carried out exercises in the eastern Mediterranean, without specifying that they took place over Libya. “Hava ve Deniz Kuvvetlerimiz Müşterek Açık Deniz Eğitimi İcra Etti” [Our Air and Naval Forces Carried Out Joint Open Seas Training], Turkish Ministry of Defence, 17 April 2020.Hide Footnote

But weapons deliveries to Haftar’s forces have also continued. According to aviation analysts, more than a hundred cargo flights from Jordan, Egypt, the UAE and UAE-controlled bases in Eritrea landed in Benghazi between late January and the end of February.[fn]Flight tracking on Twitter by a Dutch analyst called Gerjon. See his entry at @Gerjon, 6:41am, 23 February 2020.Hide Footnote  Analysts speculate that these were carrying “hundreds of tons worth of equipment” to support Haftar’s assault on Tripoli.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Libyan analyst, Tripoli, February 2020.Hide Footnote

While Turkey’s intervention arguably prevented the Tripoli government’s imminent fall, Haftar forces, far from stepping back, have intensified their offensive.

While Turkey’s intervention arguably prevented the Tripoli government’s imminent fall, Haftar forces, far from stepping back, have intensified their offensive. In January, they reconquered the coastal city of Sirte in central Libya. It was the pro-Haftar coalition’s most significant territorial gain since the outbreak of hostilities in April 2019.

By mid-February, heavy fighting had resumed in Tripoli as well. Haftar’s forces pounded the city with missiles, as Turkish air defence systems forced the field marshal’s planes and drones to halt operations. Haftar-aligned sources claimed that his forces were targeting Turkish positions in the capital, but several rockets clearly hit residential neighbourhoods, killing civilians.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Tripoli residents, 5-20 February 2020. On 6 February, a rocket hit Tripoli University; another on 12 February hit the residential neighbourhood of Nawfaliyin, killing a woman.Hide Footnote  On 18 February, a missile launched by Haftar forces from positions near the airport road, allegedly aimed at a Turkish ship, struck Tripoli’s only functioning port. Subsequent on-site verifications confirmed that the missile had not hit any vessel but had damaged a warehouse. Nevertheless, military sources in Tripoli confirmed that a Turkish ship had departed only minutes before the missile struck, killing two Turkish officers in the port.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Libyan officials, residents, Tripoli, late February 2020. A person with close ties to the Tripoli military establishment confirmed that two Turks and a third person (presumed to be a Syrian fighter deployed by Turkey) were killed in the port strike. Crisis Group telephone interview, Istanbul, late February 2020.Hide Footnote  In late February, Haftar forces fired over a hundred rockets on Tripoli’s Mitiga airport over a three-day span, claiming to be targeting an operations centre set up by the Turkish military.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Tripoli, March 2020.Hide Footnote  Shelling and further missile strikes hammered the capital, including densely populated residential areas and hospitals, in late March and early April, killing at least five civilians including women and children.[fn]“UNSMIL expresses grave concerns over the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Tripoli and its surroundings, and in Tarhouna”, UN Support Mission in Libya, press release, 20 April 2020.Hide Footnote

While fighting in the capital proceeded, in April Turkish-backed government forces scored successes in other parts of western Libya. They targeted supply routes from eastern Libya to Haftar’s strongholds south of Tripoli, interrupting the flow of fuel, food and weapons to the field marshal’s loyalists. On 14 April, they marched into the coastal towns of Sabratha and Sorman, which had been under the nominal control of pro-Haftar security forces for over a year. On 18 April, they advanced toward Tarhuna, Haftar’s most important base in western Libya and the site of the operations rooms for the assault on Tripoli. (Allegedly, the foreign private security contractors backing Haftar forces are also based there.) Tripoli government forces bombarded and surrounded Tarhuna, but they stopped short of entering the town.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Libyans with ties to Tripoli government forces, 20 April 2020. See also “Besieged airbase shows Turkey turning the tide in Libya’s war”, Bloomberg, 17 April 2020.Hide Footnote

In spite of these military gains, financial constraints may challenge the sustainability of Tripoli’s defence down the line. Haftar-allied tribesmen have forced the closure of Libya’s oilfields and export terminals to increase pressure on the Tripoli government, saying they did not want to see Libyan oil revenues, which accrue to the Tripoli-based Central Bank, used to fund Turkey’s military intervention and Syrian fighters.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, officials based in eastern Libya, late January and February 2020.Hide Footnote  Their action cut Libya off from all its oil money, leaving the Tripoli government without resources to cover public expenditures. As of mid-April, the shortfall amounted to over $4 billion. Although Tripoli-based authorities say they have sufficient reserves to pay public-sector salaries for up to a year, foreign diplomats expressed scepticism that they will be able to sustain payments for more than several months.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Tripoli-based officials, March 2020; UN official and Western diplomat, late March 2020. Prior to the oil blockade, Libya’s foreign currency reserves were estimated at $50-70 billion. Oil sales accounted for almost the totality of revenues and covered 70 per cent of government spending. With the January blockade, oil revenues have dwindled to a trickle, accounting for barely 15 per cent of projected revenues in the approved 2020 budget. Other sources of revenue accruing to Tripoli-based authorities are taxes, customs fees, revenues of state-owned companies and a special fee imposed on foreign currency purchases, which cumulatively account for less than 15 per cent of projected revenues. According to the published 2020 budget, this year the government is expected to incur a 70 per cent deficit, which the Central Bank in Tripoli has promised to cover from its own reserves. “Central Bank of Libya Statement concerning Revenues and Expenditures for the period 1 January to 31 December 2019, along with the foreign currency sales for commercial banks (in USD) for the same period”, Central Bank of Libya, 14 January 2020. See also Government of National Accord, 2020 budget, approved in March 2020.Hide Footnote

Beyond this date, the Serraj government may suffer difficulties in paying personnel across the country, including in Haftar-controlled eastern Libya, where most public-sector employees remain on Tripoli’s payroll. The pro-Haftar coalition benefits financially from Russian-printed cash, which it uses to cover part of the expenditures of the east-based government with which it is allied. But it does not have access to oil revenues, which according to UN resolutions can accrue only to Tripoli. The Haftar coalition’s calculation may be that the Tripoli government will be forced to capitulate if it runs out of funds; or, alternatively, that Tripoli’s financial distress will either open the door to independent oil sales by its rivals or force new UN-backed arrangements to share Libya’s oil revenues between Tripoli and the east-based authorities. None of these outcomes would align with Turkey’s stated interests.

C. The Syrian Factor and Public Opinion

The deployment of thousands of Syrian fighters is particularly controversial in Libya, stirring vocal opposition within pro-Haftar tribal groups and other constituencies, who refer to them as “terrorists”.[fn]High-ranking Libyan officials speaking in January estimated the number of Turkish-allied Syrian fighters to be around 2,000; a U.S. diplomat speaking in March estimated that they exceeded 4,500 by then, a figure that even a UN official stated was a realistic estimate. Crisis Group interviews, Libyan military officials, Misrata and Tripoli, January 2019; and Crisis Group telephone interview, U.S. diplomat, 23 March 2020; UN official, April 2020. Anti-Turkish Libyan sources close to Haftar, as well as Haftar’s military coalition’s spokesperson, claim that even more Syrians are present – over 6,000. A source within the Syrian National Army in Turkish-held northern Aleppo claimed that Syrian fighters deployed to Libya received a six-month contract with a monthly salary of $2,000 per fighter, and that the al-Hamza, Sultan Murad, Sultan Suleyman Shah and al-Mu‘tasim factions are the most active in recruiting Syrians to fight in Libya. Mohammed Abdulsattar Ibrahim and Ammar Hamou, “Corpses sent home as Syrians fight Turkey’s war in Libya”, Syria Direct, 15 January 2020. While pro-Haftar constituencies condemn Tripoli’s use of Syrian mercenaries, officials in Tripoli claim that Haftar’s forces have also enlisted Syrian fighters in their ranks. They say Russian-backed pro-regime militias, which have been in conflict with Turkey-backed rebels in north-eastern and north-western Syria, are present in Libya alongside Haftar-led forces. Crisis Group telephone interviews, Tripoli-based officials, March 2020. An analyst writing in mid-April claimed that, in addition, some 300 Syrian former rebels from the towns of Jaba, Mamtina and Mashara who had surrendered to the Syrian army and joined its forces were en route to Libya, allegedly to fight alongside Haftar’s forces. See tweet by Elizabeth Tsurkov, analyst, @elizrael, 5:35pm, 12 April 2020.Hide Footnote  Haftar’s foreign backers echo these views. According to a UAE official, the direct Turkish military intervention was not only a hit to the Berlin process and a violation of UN Security Council resolutions but “led to a big escalation in violence, especially by repositioning foreign terrorist fighters from Syria to Libya and affording weapons and drones to militias in Tripoli”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, April 2020. The UAE has a broad definition of terrorism that includes a range of Islamist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, that it considers a gateway to organisations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. Interviews with Syrian fighters travelling to Libya indicate they are motivated by financial incentives rather than ideological commitment. Crisis Group telephone interviews, Syrian fighters, Syrian rebel commanders, April 2020.Hide Footnote  UAE officials are also concerned that the provision of weapons and financial support to these fighters will make Libya a base for groups that they consider terrorist and could, they say, threaten neighbouring and European countries.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UAE official, April 2020.Hide Footnote  Meanwhile, Turkey’s allies in western Libya have largely welcomed Ankara’s assistance with open arms, without questioning its form or the nationality of the fighters who have been sent. In the words of a businessman in Misrata:

We were ready to accept whoever was willing to help us, as long as they allowed us to push back Haftar and his men. Turkey offered help and Syrian fighters joined the fight. So be it. Better this than nothing.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Misratan businessman, February 2020.Hide Footnote

Nevertheless, not everyone in western Libya is uncritical of the deployment of Syrian combatants. Tripoli government officials say they were caught by surprise when the Syrians began to arrive in late December, having expected only Turkish army officers.[fn]A foreigner familiar with the matter said: “it was a mess. Those few in the government apparatus who got to know this put up a fuss. They did not want to let Syrians join the government forces’ ranks. But eventually they had to give in”. Crisis Group interview, Tunis, late December 2019.Hide Footnote  Some fighters on the ground in Tripoli expressed reservations, or “unease”, about the deployment as well. One of them said: “while we wouldn’t have had any problem with Turkish soldiers, we see these Syrian fighters but don’t really know what their ideological inclination is or their objective”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, government-allied fighter, Tripoli, February 2020.Hide Footnote

Speaking in early February, Ankara officials denied any knowledge of these deployments. Questioned on the issue, a Turkish official said, referring to the Tripoli authorities, “maybe the Accord government invited them”. Another said, tongue in cheek, “just like Russia is not aware [of its nationals in Libya], Turkey is not aware of the Syrians”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Ankara, February 2020.Hide Footnote  The reference is to officials in Moscow denying their role in the dispatch of the Russian private military company Wagner Group, whose personnel are operating in Libya on Haftar’s side. By late February, however, President Erdoğan had turned vocal about Syrian rebels supporting the Turkish military in Libya, although he also referred to a private Russian company in parallel.[fn]At a press briefing at the Ankara airport, Erdoğan said: “There are people from the Syrian National Army working under our training cadres [in Libya]. … We have common ground in Libya. They are with us in Syria, and they are honoured to be with us in Libya”. “President Erdoğan’s violent response to the question of the Fox reporter on Libya”, Milliyet, 25 February 2020. He also acknowledged Syrians working with Turkish trainers in Libya. “Last exit before the operation”, Karar, 21 February 2020.Hide Footnote

From Ankara’s perspective, there is a silver lining in international criticism of the deployment of Syrians.

From Ankara’s perspective, there is a silver lining in international criticism of the deployment of Syrians. “Before Syrian combatants went to Libya, the international community wasn’t talking about the foreign fighters there. Now attention is drawn to this issue”, a Turkish official said, referring to Russian and Sudanese fighters whom “the international community has been overlooking”.[fn]According to the UN Panel of Experts, over 2,000 Sudanese fighters recruited both from Sudanese rebel groups (Sudan Liberation Army-Abdul Wahid, Sudan Liberation Army-Minni Minnawi, Gathering of the Sudan Liberation Forces) and Sudanese government forces (Rapid Support Forces) operated in Libya on Haftar’s side throughout 2019. Some 700 fighters of the Chadian Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad were also employed to guard Haftar forces’ military bases. The UN report states that the Tripoli government also recruited Sudanese and Chadian fighters. UN Panel of Experts Report (2019), pp. 9-11. The report makes no mention of Russian fighters in Libya, but these are believed to have been in the hundreds in late 2019. See fn 7.Hide Footnote

The matter has stirred some debate in Turkey. Leading opposition parties have been critical of the deployment of Syrian combatants.[fn]IYI Party MP Aydin Sezgin submitted a parliamentary inquiry on 20 January concerning the allegations of the transfer Syrian fighters to Libya: “…what kind of calculations were made by the government  concerning the cost our country will incur in terms of image and international law? What is your assessment of the possible risks that our country will face in the context of its international interests?” Available at: https://www2.tbmm.gov.tr/d27/7/7-24599s.pdf. On 16 December 2020 CHP  deputies of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee added the following annotation to the military cooperation agreement with Libya:  “The arrangement may allow the transfer of paramilitary forces from Turkey and even foreign fighters from Syria's Idlib to Libya, under the pretext of providing consultancy and coordinating intelligence and operational activity, which poses a great threat to the security of the region.” Available at: https://www.tbmm.gov.tr/sirasayi/donem27/yil01/ss155.pdf  A Libyan analyst pointed out that the Syrians have been serving a practical purpose: they translate from Arabic into Turkish for Turkish officers.[fn]Turkish officials and analysts note that Turkish advisers used these Syrians initially (from May 2019 onward) as translators and security technicians, but in combat operations since December. In the words of a Libyan analyst: “Most are Syrian Turkmen [who speak both Turkish and Arabic], but not all are combatants. Some are deployed for logistical purposes, and others for language support in the field, so that Turkish officers can communicate with Libyans. The process of sending Syrian mercenaries started in conjunction with the signing of the memoranda in 2019. They started being deployed in front-line positions in August. An omitted fact is that virtually no Libyans could understand the Turks [what they were saying]. It was important to establish good communications, including in the operation of certain weapons systems. As such, only a few Syrian mercenaries were deployed as front-line fighters at the beginning, with many supporting the training the Turks provided to the Libyans”. Seminar organised by Istanbul Political Research Institute and Heinrich Böll Turkey Representation, Istanbul, 12 February 2020.Hide Footnote  Turkish analysts have claimed that deploying Syrian fighters can help keep the Turkish death toll lower.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish media and academia representatives, January and March 2020.  Erdoğan has further deflected criticism by inviting the opposition to question the presence of Sudanese, Russians and other non-Libyan fighters supporting Haftar’s side.[fn]Erdoğan said: “[We have told them] ‘Wagner, on the other hand, has 2,500 security forces there. Why are not you discussing that?’ When we say this, they have no answer to give us. And it is not just Wagner. There are around 5,000 soldiers from Sudan, for instance. There are also soldiers from Chad and Niger. There are military troops like this in Egypt as well. Apart from these, however, there is another issue that should be discussed. Regarding the defence systems, air forces and all, particularly Russians and the Abu Dhabi administration have provided support. We told them that we expect them to act with sensitivity on these matters”. “President Erdoğan: Turkey is Key to Peace”, Directorate of Communications, 20 January 2020. Note that the numbers presented in this quote are likely inflated, per fn 101 above.Hide Footnote

Irrespective of the debate about the Syrian fighters, Turkey’s intervention in Libya has little buy-in among ordinary Turkish citizens. While the intervention fell off the agenda due to the Idlib escalation in January-February, and the COVID-19 pandemic thereafter, many observers worry that Turkey could get bogged down in an unwinnable war.[fn]On the parliamentary bill to authorise the use of military force in Libya, Yavuz Ağıralioğlu, the spokesperson for the IYI opposition party, said: “Here we are trying to manage the possibility of sending Turkish soldiers to an open-ended conflict. We see it as if the government is being lured into a trap, being pulled into a swamp [in Libya]”. T24, 2 January 2020.Hide Footnote

Libyans who prior to Turkey’s intervention were sitting on the fence and did not claim allegiance to either side in the war also have criticised Turkey’s intervention. In the words of one such individual, the main problem is how Turkey has essentially taken charge of Tripoli’s war:

There is a big difference between the way Haftar uses his foreign military support and what the Tripoli government is doing with Turkey. The Haftar camp taps into his foreign backers and gets them to give him what he needs. In the eyes of the Libyan public, Haftar retains the role of the commander. But the Government of National Accord is doing quite the opposite. Serraj is officially telling Turkish officers ‘you are welcome to Libya’ and ‘go ahead please, lead this war for us’. The Turks have the driver’s seat in the war. The Turkish officers are perceived as directing the GNA’s war. This is completely unacceptable to us Libyans.[fn]Crisis Group interview, influential Libyan from the east, Cairo, January 2020.Hide Footnote

Among Libyans, even “those who wanted Turkey involved, did not want Turkey this much involved”, another said.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, Libyan international NGO representative, 10 March 2020.Hide Footnote  Libyans who are critical of Serraj and Turkey have said they are baffled by how much Erdoğan publicly slams Haftar, “as if it is his or Turkey’s own war, and not one between Libyans”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Benghazi resident, early February 2020. He added, “I counted the times Erdoğan said Haftar’s name in his speeches over the last few days: it is 74! Can you believe it? That is way more than Serraj ever said Haftar’s name in months”.Hide Footnote  They are likewise concerned that Ankara, by constantly demonising the field marshal, ends up underestimating the considerable popular and tribal backing he enjoys.

IV. A Way Forward

Four months since the official announcement of its intervention in Libya, Turkey has succeeded in preventing Tripoli’s takeover by Haftar’s forces. Yet odds remain poor that the Libyan war will end in the coming months, especially since global concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic have disrupted diplomatic initiatives aimed at pressing Libyan parties to accept peace talks.

Looking ahead, Turkey will have to make some difficult choices. For one, it will have to gauge how much military support to Libya it can afford, financially and politically. If fighting continues or escalates further, Ankara may have to scale up both military supplies and personnel just to maintain the balance it helped create. Recruiting foot soldiers may become harder for both sides, due to the COVID-19 outbreak. An official in Tripoli said: “Some Turks have asked to leave Libya, and some Syrians are demanding the same”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, businessman with GNA ties, Tripoli, early April 2020. Hide Footnote  (Foreign fighters on Haftar’s side will face the same challenge.) If Turkish fatalities in Libya rise, the deaths will surely feed the intervention’s unpopularity within Turkish society. As Turkey’s economic conditions deteriorate, it is likely that opposition parties will also further question the financial costs of the deployment in Libya.

Although Ankara is betting on winning the hearts and minds of Arabs antagonistic to monarchies and coups, it may have neither the capacity nor the influence to rally popular support in the region.

Ankara will also have to re-evaluate the extent to which it will be able to use its strategic involvement in Libya and alliance with the Tripoli-based government to rebalance regional relations. Although Ankara is betting on winning the hearts and minds of Arabs antagonistic to monarchies and coups, it may have neither the capacity nor the influence to rally popular support in the region. All that being said, and for the time being at least, Ankara seems to be convinced that Turkey’s core geostrategic and economic interests would be undermined if it were to pull back military support from the Tripoli government.

Turkey is, of course, only one of many foreign parties that have intervened in Libya’s war. As Crisis Group has emphasised in the past, any such foreign military intervention inevitably damages prospects for a political solution.[fn]Crisis Group Conflict Alert, “Averting a Full-blown War in Libya, 10 April 2019.Hide Footnote  In particular, by supporting their respective local allies and feeding the warring sides’ conviction that they can be victorious, Turkey and other foreign powers competing in Libya have discouraged compromise.

A wiser course would be for all foreign backers to stop pouring fuel on the fire. Instead, they ought to try to bring the two warring sides together, press them to accept a ceasefire and embark on negotiations. At the current juncture, a ceasefire would require concessions from Turkey and the Tripoli-based authorities, such as agreeing to halt any further offensives while Haftar’s forces and their foreign supporters would need to desist from strikes on Tripoli. These preliminary steps could lay the groundwork for more comprehensive arrangements, including removal of military forces and heavy artillery from residential areas, departure of foreign fighters, and possibly agreement on a ceasefire monitoring mechanism.

Any comprehensive political agreement will need to accommodate the two warring parties’ primary goals.

Beyond that, any comprehensive political agreement will need to accommodate the two warring parties’ primary goals: for Haftar backers, these are disempowering militias, ensuring transparent management and distribution of Libya’s oil revenues and securing appointment of a new unity government with buy-in from the east-based authorities. For those standing behind Tripoli, the goals are ensuring civilian oversight over security forces and warding off a power grab by Haftar or any other military leader.

The foreign powers that have become involved in Libya have been vague about their red lines, and their interest in compromise may well change with time and events, both in Libya and beyond. But some broad conclusions appear possible. Ankara in particular likely will insist on a solution that maintains a key role for its allies currently part of the Tripoli government in a viable power-sharing agreement that also helps cement Turkish influence, provides Ankara with assurances that its maritime deal will remain intact until and unless a democratically elected Libyan government declares otherwise, and pursues compensation for Turkish companies that operated in Libya prior to 2011.

Any prospective resolution will need to accommodate the equally critical interests of Haftar’s supporters.

Likewise, any prospective resolution will need to accommodate the equally critical interests of Haftar’s supporters, to ensure that they are on board. In particular, they likely will want a reset of the international governing arrangements for Libya, including a new UN-backed government that is not dominated by pro-Muslim Brotherhood and/or pro-Turkish representatives as well as security arrangements that make room for Haftar’s forces.

To reconcile these reciprocal interests, both sides will need to make concessions. Ankara will have to accept that a future unity government might not be explicitly pro-Turkey and that interim security arrangements should include Haftar-led forces. On the other hand, Haftar’s backers will have to accept that politicians and military officials who have been on the opposite side will be part of the transitional governing and security arrangements. All should agree to stop using foreign fighters in Libya and refrain from actions that fuel the war.

V. Conclusion

By intervening militarily in the Libyan conflict, Ankara hoped to help the UN-backed Tripoli government stand its ground against Haftar’s offensive and to speed up the political process. This decision was driven by Ankara’s concerns that a Haftar victory would result in strategic losses for Turkey in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. To some extent, the gambit paid off: the Turkish intervention contained Haftar’s forces’ advance into Tripoli. But it also incurred undeniable costs. It spurred a strong counter-mobilisation and triggered an escalatory cycle that, far from promoting a political settlement, prolongs and exacerbates an already deadly war. To break it, external supporters of local warring parties should seek mutual accommodation and encourage their allies to agree to a ceasefire. If all involved foreign parties seek ways to bring their respective Libyan allies around the table to pursue compromise, they may find ways forward that better meet their own interests as well.

Ankara/Tripoli/Brussels, 30 April 2020