27/12/2019 – Turkish authorities are preparing to send troops and naval forces to defend Libya’s internationally recognised government against eastern commander Khalifa Haftar, amid reports Ankara-backed Syrian rebels would be among the soldiers deployed to Tripoli.
Speaking to The Independent, Libyan officials confirmed that the UN-backed Government of National Accord had requested ground, air and sea support from Ankara.
They said that pending approval from the Turkish parliament, naval forces will be sent to protect Tripoli while Turkish troops will help train the GNA’s forces.
The embattled GNA has struggled to fight off a fierce months-long campaign by troops loyal to General Haftar, a powerful Gaddafi-era general who is backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia and controls swathes of territory in the east and south of the country.
Haftar once declared loyalty to the GNA in Tripoli but now mostly backs a rival government in the east of the country.
The imminent deployment of Turkish and possibly Syrian rebel forces to Libya will only further deepen a complex proxy war.
“We do not have confirmation as President Erdogan needs to secure the approval of the Turkish parliament for example but we understand that Ankara is preparing to send troops and naval forces, pending approvals,” a Libyan government spokesperson told The Independent.
“The GNA and Turkey are strengthening their cooperation on many levels,” the spokesman added, citing a recent maritime and military cooperation deal, which extended the two countries’ maritime borders from Turkey’s southwest coast to the east coast of Libya, sparking backlash from Cyprus, Israel and Egypt.
The spokesperson added that the GNA needed assistance in the battle against Khalifa Haftar but had no information about the deployment of Syrian rebels.
However, a Libyan official told Bloomberg that ethnic Turkmen Syrian rebel groups that have fought alongside Turkey in northern Syria are expected to reinforce the government in Tripoli imminently.
Mzahem Alsaloum, a researcher working with defence contractors, who spoke to Turkish officials, also confirmed the deployment of Syrian rebel forces.
He told The Independent that senior intelligence officials that managed Turkey’s Syria file were being redeployed to handle Libya, which would become Turkey’s new focus. Among the key figures are leaders in the Turkish-backed Syrian Sham Legion, a moderate Islamist rebel group with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is not known how many Syria rebels will be sent.
“They said Libya is the new priority for Erdogan and the Turkish authorities,” he said.
“GNA forces are in a disastrous situation after the latest large attack by Haftar’s militias – Turkey does not want to lose Libya,” he added.
On Thursday Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed Turkey would send troops to Libya at the GNA’s request.
« Since there is an invitation (from Libya) right now, we will accept it, » Erdogan told members of his AK Party in a speech. « We will put the bill on sending troops to Libya on the agenda as soon as parliament opens. »
The legislation would pass in the second week of January, he said, opening the door to deployment.
Haftar first ordered his troops to march on Tripoli in April of this year to unseat the GNA which was created in 2016 following UN talks and is headed by civilian engineer Faiez Seraj.
Haftar’s fighters have failed to reach the centre of the capital but have made gains in the southern suburbs with the help of Russian and Sudanese fighters, as well as drones shipped by the UAE, diplomats say.
The United Nations said in a November report that the Chinese-made drones have given Haftar « local air superiority » as they can carry over eight times the weight of explosives than the drones given to the GNA by Turkey and can also cover the whole of Libya.
The same report said that Turkey has already sent military supplies to the GNA despite a UN arms embargo.
The GNA and Ankara signed two key accords last month: one on security and military cooperation and another on maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean.
The controversial maritime deal redefines Turkey and Libya’s sea borders ending Turkey’s isolation in the East Mediterranean as it ramps up offshore energy exploration that has alarmed Greece and some other neighbours.
The military deal would preserve its lone ally in the region, Tripoli.
Moscow, which has supported Haftar, has voiced concerns over any Turkish deployment in support of the GNA.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Thursday about the complex conflict, the Kremlin said.
Erdogan, however, has lashed back at mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner group supporting Haftar.
« Russia is there with 2,000 Wagner (fighters), » Erdogan said on Thursday, also referring to some 5,000 fighters from Sudan in Libya. « Is the official government inviting them? No. »
« They are all helping a war baron (Haftar), whereas we are accepting an invitation from the legitimate government of the country. That is our difference, » he said.
Sahel-Elite (Bamako-Mali)| Image: Fighters of a military battalion loyal to Libyan General Khalifa Haftar march during the morning assembly in the eastern city of Benghazi on December 18, 2019 ( ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP via Getty Images )