What drives Turkish policy in Libya?
This week, Italy hosted a conference aimed at helping war-torn Libya to establish peace and stability. Turkey, which is set to play a greater role in Middle East politics, was invited to the conference, its delegation comprising senior officials and headed by Vice President Fuat Oktay.
But the event ended disappointingly for the Turkish side, which withdrew after finding out that there was a mini-meeting on the sidelines that the delegation was excluded from. The mini-meeting was hosted by the prime minister of Italy, the former colonial ruler in oil-rich Libya, and involved key African, European and regional players.
“The informal meeting held… with a number of players, and having them presented as the prominent protagonists of the Mediterranean, is a very misleading and damaging approach which we vehemently oppose,” Oktay said. “Libya cannot be stabilized as long as some countries continue to crush the process in line with their own interests. Libya needs less foreign intervention, not more.”
Ankara said unlike other countries, it is open to dialogue with all Libyan and regional actors, and any meeting that excludes Turkey cannot contribute to the peace process. “It is impossible for those who are responsible for the current difficult situation in Libya to make any positive contribution to the country’s recovery,” said Oktay.
Ankara is concerned about other countries exploiting Libya’s instability for economic gain.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte reportedly met with Oktay twice in order to dissuade the Turkish side from withdrawing. “I feel sorry that… Oktay left the conference,” Conte told reporters. “We must admit that there may be special sensitivities in such decisions.”
Turkey wants to be part of the peace process since it has interests in Libya, as do many other countries. Libya has tested Turkish foreign policy. When the Arab Spring reached Libya in early 2011 and turned into a bloody conflict, Ankara initially objected to NATO’s intervention.
But after it became clear that things were getting worse, and that NATO was going to intervene with or without Turkey, Ankara had a quick change of heart and took part in the operation, which led to regime-change. Turkey’s initial stance was motivated by economic concerns. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, in Libya there were substantial Turkish investments, and Turkey had invested billions of dollars in the construction sector there.
Economic concerns are still paramount in current Turkish policy, as Ankara is concerned about other countries exploiting Libya’s instability for economic gain. For instance, during his visit to Libya this week, Turkey’s defense minister reportedly presented maps to the government in a bid to show that Greece is exploiting the country’s instability and trying to encroach on Libya’s continental shelf. Turkey is already in dispute with Greece over Mediterranean energy resources, and Libya appears to be crucial to Mediterranean energy politics.
Another reason for Ankara’s hesitancy over NATO’s intervention was the adverse impact on Turkey of the US invasion of Iraq. Ankara has urged the international community and the Europeans to approach the Libyan issue from a humanitarian perspective, not on the basis of oil interests.
When it comes to Libya, European powers’ motivations are shaped by concerns over migration, human trafficking through Libya and economic interests in the Mediterranean. But they are also aware that there is an urgent need for leadership to unify the war-torn country in order to preserve their interests.
European and regional actors’ best option appears to be more cooperation with other regional powers, primarily Turkey, to find a political resolution to the conflict. Excluding a Mediterranean country would only cripple the peace process. Past experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that allies need a strong and shared strategy involving local actors to promote peace and protect energy resources.
There are also presumptions that current Turkish-Russian cooperation in war-torn Syria may have ramifications for Libya. Moscow, which aims to play a greater role in bringing Libya’s warring parties to the negotiating table, may seek Ankara’s participation as it has some leverage in Libya.
A pragmatic approach including all parties in Libya and all regional actors, regardless of their foreign policies, is essential for the country’s future. This week’s conference should be taken as a lesson that should not be repeated.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.