This week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan started a media campaign preparing the public opinion in Turkey to ditch the old constitution and write a new one that is based on “civilian principles.” This surprise move by Erdoğan is widely believed to increase his presidential powers, further weaken the role of the military in politics, and guarantee Erdoğan’s victory in the next elections. According to opinion polls published in the past few months, the popularity of Erdoğan and his AKP is eroding, due to successive economic failures, which Erdoğan tried to cover, in November, by offering his son-in-law and former Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, as a scapegoat. Some political opposition leaders called for early elections, but Erdoğan confirmed in a video statement, in January, that this is not likely and that the elections shall take place on its due date in 2023.
While Erdoğan got pre-occupied with the rising political heat inside Turkey, the Turkish Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, has been relentlessly harnessing one success after the other in his endeavors to expand Turkey’s military and diplomatic influence outside its borders, especially in Eurasia and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regions. Turkey’s foreign policy formula of using military power to exert diplomatic leverage has always been one of Turkey’s biggest flaws, until Hulusi Akar became the Minister of Defense in July 2018. His political skills and diplomatic proficiency, coupled with his long military and academic expertise, helped boost his country’s status as a competitor to international powers, like Russia and the United States, in Eurasia and MENA. No wonder, a Turkish journalist recently reported that the old wolf Devlet Bahçeli of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which shares the most powerful duet political coalition with Erdogan’s AKP, is pushing hard to position Hulusi Akar as the vice president of the state.
For Hulusi Akar, Libya has been central to his recent success story. Turkey’s military intervention in Libya gave Turkey diplomatic leverage in the eastern Mediterranean crisis and improved its economic opportunities in Africa. Turkey’s involvement in Libya started, in late 2019, as a diplomatic response to a rescue call from the Government of National Accord (GNA), in Tripoli. Soon after, Turkey’s involvement in Libya turned into a military intervention, where Hulusi Akar has become the de facto commander of GNA, on both military and political levels. Hulusi Akar’s increasing power and influence over GNA has always been justified by the agreements that Turkey signed with GNA, which is the only government recognized by the United Nations in Libya.
In December 2019, Turkey signed two agreements with the interim Government of National Accord (GNA). The first was a maritime demarcation agreement defining an Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) extending in the Mediterranean from southwest borders of Turkey to northeast borders of Libya. Even though this maritime agreement does not conform with related UN conventions or international law, Turkey used it to turn around its decades-long conflict with Greece over seabed rights in the Mediterranean. Upon this agreement, Turkey deployed a seismic research ship that operated in the waters for months, causing tension with Greece and European allies. This turned the mostly quiet basin of the Mediterranean into a piece of hell, last summer, as warships, submarines, military helicopters, and fighter jets from all over the world, came to participate in the ongoing tragedy, under the guise of conducting joint navy exercises.
The second agreement, which Turkey signed with Libya’s GNA around the same date, is a military training, support, and consultancy agreement. Upon this military agreement, Turkey deployed military troops and equipment to Libya and is currently training GNA militia at Turkish military colleges. In December, Hulusi Akar stated that “three thousand Libyans received training as part of the training, support, and consultancy agreement between Turkey and GNA.” The military agreement between Turkey and GNA is reminiscent of the military agreement that Turkey signed with Azerbaijan in the 1990s, which enabled Turkey to build, almost from scratch, a capable Azerbaijani military that is loyal to Turkish leadership. The recent victory of Azerbaijan in the war with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region enhanced Turkey’s power over the Caucasus and improved its economic opportunities throughout Eurasia.
Nevertheless, the recent developments on the Libyan political stage, as a result of the sincere efforts by Stephanie Williams, the deputy head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), are risking to dissipate Hulusi Akar’s efforts on building a permanent Turkish presence in Libya.
On January 26th, the Libyan Al-Bayda Administrative Court ruled that the two maritime and military agreements between Libya and Turkey are illegal and are infringing the sovereignty of the Libyan state. This court decision reaffirmed the arguments that the Libyan parliament presented, earlier, to justify parliament's decline to approve the two agreements. That is particularly true as the GNA, despite being recognized by the UN, is an interim government that is not entitled to sign agreements or make long-term commitments with other countries on behalf of the Libyan people. Thereupon, all decisions made by GNA's Presidential Council based on these agreements are nulled. This means that Turkish military presence in Libya has become officially illegal, which strongly shakes the throne that Hulusi Akar is trying to cement for himself in Tripoli.
In the same week, which also was the first week of the new U.S. Administration of Joseph Biden, who does not hide his dislike of Erdoğan’s regime; Richard Mills, the head of the US mission to the UN, called upon Russia, Turkey, and the UAE to “respect Libyan sovereignty and immediately cease all military intervention in Libya.” According to the UN-backed ceasefire agreement, signed in October by conflicting parties in Libya, all foreign troops and their fellow mercenaries were supposed to leave Libya, before the deadline of January 23rd. However, none of the aforementioned foreign powers, including Turkey, chose to leave Libya on the given deadline. On the contrary, Turkey decided to extend its military presence in Libya for another year and a half.
In December 2020, the Turkish parliament approved the extension of military presence in Libya for the next 18 months. Over the past year, the number of Turkish military personnel deployed to Libya to command GNA militia and the thousands of Syrian mercenaries recruited by Turkey exceeded three thousand officers and military experts. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Turkey recruited more than eighteen thousand mercenaries, mostly from Syria, and has been actively flying them to Libya, since December 2019. That is a huge number of Turkey-recruited mercenaries if compared to, for example, Russia’s mercenaries of about 2000 fighters in the Wagner Group. Also, Turkey’s military presence in Libya is not limited to personnel. In July, Turkey seized Libya’s Al-Watiya airbase, in western Libya, and started using it as a hub for Turkish planes transferring arms and ammunition to buttress GNA’s military power.
Turkey’s announcement to extend its military presence in Libya aroused anger on the side of the Libyan National Army (LNA), which dominates the eastern territories of Libya and is supported by Egypt, UAE, France, and Russia. On December 24th, LNA released a video for its commander General Khalifa Hafter vowing to take revenge on Turkey’s troops operating in Libya. “Military confrontation with Turkey has become inevitable to liberate Libya from occupation and mercenaries,” Hafter said.
One day later, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and top Turkish military generals paid a surprise visit to GNA, in Tripoli, accompanied by artists and media professionals. They held a singing party for Turkish officers in Tripoli, and Hulusi Akar spoke at the party, responding to Haftar, whom he called a putschist murderer. “If the murderer Haftar attempts to attack Turkish elements, LNA and its supporting militia, everywhere, will be seen as legitimate targets for the Turkish military;” Hulusi Akar threatened.
In a video interview with an online media platform affiliated with Burkan Al-Ghadab Operation Forces, a militia commanded by GNA, Hulusi Akar extended his threats to include the foreign powers supporting LNA. “We know that Haftar is not alone and those behind him are trying to do work that exceeds their size and ability,” Hulusi Akar firmly stated. “Haftar will get the appropriate response when the time is right. We’ll continue to support GNA.” The last time, Hulusi Akar made similar statements on Al-Jazeera TV, in August, he ignited the anger of UAE, Egypt, and France, which indirectly led to more tension in the eastern Mediterranean.
Through this surprise visit and fiery speech, Hulusi Akar was attempting to show his soldiers, and international competitors, that Turkey is having a firm grip over Libya. But, in reality, his exaggeration in showing so, backfired on his public image. Responding to Haftar’s threats did not require top generals of the mighty Turkish military, which is ranked as the most powerful military in the Middle East, to travel from Ankara to Tripoli, hold a party for soldiers, and make angry threats. By doing so, Hulusi Akar put himself in the same size and frame as Haftar and showed the world how fearful, shaky, and lonely Turkey is inside Libya.
On the next immediate day of Hulusi Akar’s surprise visit to Libya, an Egyptian delegation of intelligence officials traveled to Tripoli, to meet with GNA leaders, for the first time. Since the beginning of the conflict in Libya, Egypt has been taking the side of LNA. At the beginning of Turkey’s intervention in Libya, Egypt set a redline for Turkey to protect eastern territories commanded by Haftar, which is referred to, by the Egyptian military, as the western strategic depth of Egypt’s national security. Fortunately, Turkey respected this redline to avoid unnecessary confrontation with Egypt. However, Turkey’s continued illegal military presence in Libya has always been considered a serious threat to Egypt, especially under the widening political rift between Cairo and Ankara. Therefore, it seems that Egypt finally decided to balance its alliances in Libya, by reaching out to GNA, to de-escalate the situation, after the exchange of threats between Haftar and Akar. The Egyptian delegation succeeded in its mission to mitigate Hulusi Akar’s influence over decision-making inside the GNA.
Meanwhile, UNSMIL’s Stephanie Williams announced holding general elections in Libya to form a new government of national unity that brings all Libyans, eastern and western, together under one state. In early February, the candidates for top governmental positions were announced and the elections were successfully resumed, despite external pressures and acts of riot by militia, against the GNA presidency, and each other. On January 24th, for example, Sirte-Jufra Operation Room, a militia affiliated with GNA, made a video statement protesting the delay of their salaries and threatened to visit the Presidential Council’s headquarters, in Tripoli, if their dues were not paid, within a few days. The conflict between the militia is not only harmful to GNA but is also threatening to the safety of the Turkish military personnel and mercenaries.
One can hardly deny that Turkey’s early response to GNA’s rescue appeals, in 2019, prevented an inevitable humanitarian crisis by raising the cost of the then-prospected civil war between GNA and LNA. However, Turkey’s insistence on continuing its illegal military presence in Libya is becoming a serious threat to the endeavors by UNSMIL to bring the war-torn country to a state of security and stability based on a political solution. On several occasions, Hulusi Akar noted that Turkey, too, supports the political solution in Libya. But, on the ground, he is still heavily relying on using military power in managing his country’s relationship with Libya, leaning completely on one side of the conflict, which is the Government of National Accord.
Now, as the interim GNA is in the process of being replaced by an elected new unity government, Hulusi Akar needs to adapt his policy in Libya, accordingly, if he is still interested in keeping a foot for Turkey there. Although Hulusi Akar’s clever use of militarized diplomacy benefited Turkey a lot at the beginning of its intervention in Libya, continuing to use this policy is putting Hulusi Akar’s previous efforts and future ambitions in Libya on the edge of a cliff.