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Libyan government activates cooperation accord with Turkey

The UN-recognised Libyan government has agreed to activate a military cooperation agreement with Turkey, bringing closer the possible dispatch of Turkish advisory troops to help defend the capital, Tripoli, from an attack by forces supported by the United Arab Emirates and Russia.

The announcement by the Government of National Accord (GNA) followed high-level military meetings designed to assess the imminent threat to Tripoli posed by forces from eastern Libya under the command of the warlord Khalifa Haftar.

Turkey and Libya signed a military memorandum of understanding on 27 November that has already been presented to the Turkish parliament. It provides for Turkish troops to be sent to Libya at the request of the GNA.

The short GNA statement activating the memorandum is seen as equivalent to a request, but it seems unlikely Turkey would send troops in the near future since the size of any force would have to be agreed with the Turkish parliament. The GNA prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, met Turkish foreign and defence officials in Doha, Qatar, at the weekend to discuss the Libyan crisis.

Emrullah İşler, Turkey’s envoy to Libya, said no ground troops were foreseen at the moment and an initial decision would be taken by parliament on Saturday.

“If the legitimate government of Libya asks for help for military training or the formation of military institutions following the approval of the memorandum of understanding on Saturday, then they would be deployed like in Somalia or Qatar,” İşler said. “The waving of a Turkish flag there would give the necessary message to the other side.”

There is also domestic political opposition to Turkish involvement in Libya at a time when Ankara already has forces engaged in northern Syria.

In response to Haftar’s vow to mount a decisive advance on Tripoli, several cities in western and central Libya, including Misrata, al-Zawiya and Zliten, announced full mobilisation of forces to repel his advance.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is likely to tread carefully since Turkey is still trying to explore a possible agreement over Libya’s future with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Moscow already has an unofficial presence in Libya in the form of mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group.

Erdoğan has already spoken to Putin by phone this week, and the two men are now due to meet early in the new year – opening up the prospect that they will try to reproduce in Libya something similar to the uneasy alliance they have formed in Syria.

Coordination between the two countries has diplomatically marginalised the European Union in Syria and the same may now happen in Libya.

As well as the memorandum on “military and security cooperation” the two countries signed an agreement establishing new maritime borders in the Mediterranean. This second initiative has sparked an outcry from Greece, which considers that it violates international maritime law and threatens its drilling interests around Cyprus and Crete.

The growing Turkish involvement has also set alarm bells ringing in Italy, which regards Libya as its natural domain.

After a lightning visit to Libya, Italy’s foreign minister, Luigi di Maio, announced he was appointing a special diplomatic envoy for the war-torn country. Di Maio admitted Italy had been slow to respond to the attack on Tripoli launched in April by Haftar, and to the growing threat of military confrontation at the heart of the capital.

He said: “In Libya we have lost a role. We disappeared from Tripoli for eight months. They will have taken it badly. We must recover. I do not hide it, and we must do so with a concrete and more realistic approach to the situation on the ground.”

The GNA has cast itself as the democrats but feels largely abandoned by Europe – especially Italy – as Haftar mounts his increasingly effective attack on the capital.

The EU makes frequent even-handed calls for a ceasefire, but the GNA feels such appeals do not take into account the fact that Haftar was the undoubted aggressor in April.

The GNA also believes that despite its denials, France is working to help Haftar, who Paris perceives as most likely to bring security to the country.

Italy, and specifically the Italian oil giant ENI, have substantial interests in Libya, but the Italian coalition government is desperate to prevent further foreign military interventions that would make diplomatic solutions more difficult.