If it didn’t know it already, Turkey was reminded last week of the dangers posed by meddling in a war-torn country such as Libya. First, Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, the eastern-based militia that opposes the internationally recognized Government of National Accord, threatened to fire on any Turkish ships approaching Libya’s territorial waters. Then, the LNA arrested (and later released) six Turkish sailors. Finally, the LNA said it destroyed a Turkish drone that was parked at the Tripoli airport. As you may have guessed, Turkey and the LNA are on opposite sides of the conflict. All this raises an obvious question: What is Turkey doing in Libya in the first place?
Its interests there are partly financial. Turkish companies are no strangers to investment in Libya. When the civil war started, for example, Turkish construction firms had an estimated $15 billion worth of deals in the country. These projects likely won’t be restarted in territory held by Haftar.
Its interests there also relate to energy. Turkey is increasingly pressing Cyprus, Greece, Israel and Egypt for access to natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, and it believes having Libya united under a Turkey-backed government could increase its leverage in these negotiations.
But Turkey’s long-term interest in Libya concerns the long-standing regional competition between Turkey and Arab states in the Middle East. When Moammar Gadhafi’s government collapsed, several militias, including al-Qaida and later the Islamic State, vied to fill the ensuing power vacuum. Many of the Islamist militias, however, were affiliated with or supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, which also backs the GNA. Turkey (along with Qatar, the subject of a two-year blockade by several Gulf states) supports the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, Turkey hoped to form a strategic partnership with the group had it taken over after Gadhafi died. Though the group hasn’t performed particularly well in Libyan elections, Ankara still hopes it can help tilt the country’s policies in Turkey’s favor.
But Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt see the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. It is, after all, antithetical to monarchies and military dictatorships. Unsurprisingly, these countries have supported Haftar’s forces in Libya. Egypt, in particular, has a strong interest in ensuring that, even if Haftar’s LNA doesn’t win, the GNA doesn’t win either. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who removed the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Mohammed Morsi from power in a 2013 coup, views the Brotherhood as one of the biggest threats to his rule. The LNA, therefore, provides a buffer between Egypt and the Brotherhood-backed militias in western Libya.
In addition, if Haftar were to win the war, which appears to be moving toward a stalemate more than anything else right now, it would mean another country in North Africa would be ruled by a military-dominated government. A strong military leader able to bring order to Libya could, at least in the short term, make Egypt’s own military-led government appear more promising. Egypt, in other words, sees Turkey as a competitor not just for natural resources in the eastern Mediterranean but also for ideological supremacy in the Middle East. (The rivalry between the two hasn’t stopped them from maintaining strong economic ties, however; bilateral trade Egypt and Turkey reached an all-time high of $3.05 billion in 2018.)
Of course, Turkey’s involvement in the Libyan civil war isn’t new. Reports of Turkish arms shipments to the GNA surfaced as early as 2013, and in 2014, Haftar even reportedly ordered his forces to shell a ship carrying Turkish weapons. But the recent events show that the competition over North Africa and the Middle East between Turkey and Qatar, on one side, and Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE on the other is still active in Libya. It’s also active in Sudan, where Turkey likely lost some of its political influence following the coup that ousted Omar al-Bashir. Before the coup, Saudi Arabia had refused to give any aid to Sudan unless al-Bashir scrapped a deal to allow Turkey to rebuild a naval port at Suakin. Since the coup, however, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have jointly offered $3 billion in aid, including $250 million from Riyadh that was deposited directly into Sudan’s central bank.
While many are focused on the Iran issue – which is perhaps easier to understand because, as a Shiite country, its competitors are mainly Sunni – the competition within the Sunni world itself is intensifying. It has been there for generations – it was, after all, the Ottoman Empire that al-Saud overthrew when he established the first Saudi state. But at its core, there is one pivotal question: Which mode of government will prevail in the Sunni world? A monarchical one based on the Saudi example, or a democratic one based on the Turkish example? Only time will tell.