Libyan Officials Say Turkey Blackmailed Them Into Accepting Jihadi Troops

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 23: Fayez Al-sarraj, Prime Minister, Government Of National Accord Of Libya, speaks onstage during the 2019 Concordia Annual Summit - Day 1 at Grand Hyatt New York on September 23, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)
Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit

Several Libyan officials told the Associated Press (AP) on Thursday that Turkey pressured Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) into accepting military assistance from Syrian extremist militias and repaying Turkey with lucrative offshore energy deals.

Turkey’s intervention in Libya is widely credited with helping the Tripoli-based GNA break a siege laid by the rival Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar. The GNA is the Libyan government recognized by the United Nations, while the LNA has political leadership based in Tobruk and enjoys outside support from Russia, a few key Middle Eastern states, and some Europeans.

One of the most important criticism lobbed at the GNA by supporters of the LNA is that the Tripoli government is too friendly with Islamist extremists, an accusation the story told to the AP would appear to support. 

The AP’s sources said they were uncomfortable with how the deal for Turkish assistance was negotiated:

Several officials say their side entered the deals with Turkey reluctantly, late last year, believing they had no choice. They desperately needed an ally as their opponent in the war, Libyan commander Khalifa Hafter, bore down on Tripoli with his forces, strengthened by Russian, Emirati, and Egyptian backing.

“It was like a give-and-take game,” said one official in Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj’s office. “They took advantage of our weakness at the time.” He and other officials spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their safety in a country largely ruled by an array of militias.

In the end, Turkey sent troops and thousands of Syrian mercenaries and other military support that helped pro-Sarraj forces repel Hafter’s assault this spring, preventing the collapse of the Tripoli-based administration and shifting the tide of the war.

The Jerusalem Post bluntly accused Turkey of “blackmailing” the desperate GNA into accepting a lopsided deal for military assistance, which sent almost 4,000 jihadi fighters recruited from the brutal Syrian civil war to help push Haftar’s forces back from Tripoli. Turkey also provided the GNA with weapons and training, including much-needed anti-aircraft systems.

At the same time, Turkey was reportedly blackmailing Europe to keep quiet by threatening to flood some of the countries that supported Haftar with a tidal wave of Syrian refugees.

Turkey billed the GNA about $1.7 billion for its assistance and finally muscled Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj into accepting an offshore drilling deal Turkey had been pushing for the past year. Sarraj resisted in part because he was uncertain he had the authority to sign those maritime rights over to Turkey, and he knew doing so would enrage Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Europe’s Mediterranean nations.

Sarraj’s concerns were well-founded, as Greece and the European Union are strongly disputing the legitimacy of the offshore deal he made with Turkey. The EU called the deal a “threat to stability” for the entire region. The United States has expressed support for Greece’s position on the Mediterranean deal.

“It was relentless pressure. Turkey was the only country that promised support, and we agreed only after all other doors were closed,” a GNA official said of the negotiating process.

There have also been disputed reports that Turkey pressured the GNA into letting it build permanent military bases near Libya’s “oil crescent,” the oil-rich area bordering on Egypt. Egypt has threatened to invade Libya to keep Turkish forces and jihadi militia out of the border region and appears to be developing a military position in Syria from which it could bring forces to bear against the Turks if war breaks out in Libya.

The declared flashpoint for such a conflict is the Libyan city of Sirte, birthplace of late dictator Moammar Qaddafi and a strategic gateway to the oil crescent. Sirte is currently under the control of the LNA, but Turkish, militia and GNA forces have been moving into position for an attack. Egypt has described Sirte as its “red line” and said its fall would trigger military intervention.

The Jerusalem Post speculated Turkey might back down from Sirte since Turkey’s adventure in Libya has united so many Arab powers against it, while tensions with Greece are nearing the breaking point. Greek officials will travel to Ankara next week to defuse those tensions. The JPost speculated that a reported offer from Turkey to sell drones to Greece could be intended as a peace offering. 

Some U.S. lawmakers are working on a bill that would apply sanctions against Russia and Turkey for intervening in Libya on opposite sides. The bill’s sponsors are generally more concerned about Russia, which appears to be moving its “mercenaries” into position to seize control of Libya’s oil industry. 

There was some support in Washington for Haftar — a dual Libyan-American citizen who was an intelligence asset for the CIA during the Reagan years and owns property in Virginia — earlier in the conflict, but it soured as the warlord was accused of human rights violations, moved more decisively into Russia’s orbit, and became “ridiculous and uncompromising,” as one U.S. official put it. The current view is that Haftar and his Russian backers are the parties most likely to escalate the Libyan conflict and jeopardize the country’s valuable oil resources.

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