By Dorian Jones
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is doubling down on support for the U.N.-backed government in Libya ahead of a Berlin conference aimed at ending the Libyan civil war.
Erdogan, who is set to attend the Sunday meeting, lashed out at Libyan rebel leader General Khalifa Haftar on Friday while announcing the deployment of Turkish forces to Libya.
“Haftar is a man I do not trust. … He continued bombing Tripoli yesterday,” Erdogan said in a statement. Haftar is waging war against the Turkey-backed Government of National Accord.
A day earlier, Erdogan announced additional military forces would be deployed in support of the GNA. Earlier this month, Ankara sent a few dozen military personnel and equipment to Tripoli as part of a military agreement with the GNA.
Haftar infuriated Erdogan by refusing to sign a cease-fire agreement Wednesday brokered by Turkey and the Russian government. Russian mercenaries linked to the Kremlin are backing Haftar, although Russian President Vladimir Putin denies arming the militia.
“With these new developments, Turkey is getting more and more in a losing position,” said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. “Probably Tayyip Erdogan will face much bigger problems in Berlin than he assumed before. He [Erdogan] thought he would be in a stronger position, but with no cease-fire, he is in a much more difficult position.”
Haftar and GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj are expected to attend the Berlin conference. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also confirmed his attendance.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas met with Haftar on Thursday, claiming a breakthrough. Maas tweeted Haftar “has agreed to abide by the ongoing cease-fire” and that the Berlin meeting offered “the best chance in a long time” for peace.
But Turkey is voicing skepticism about the prospects for peace and has criticized the conference for excluding Turkish allies Qatar and Tunisia.
“He [Erdogan] will be taking a very hard position in Berlin,” said Bagci. “I expect more, harsher words in Berlin — he is not going there to be soft, [he] is going there to be very hard.”
Turkish oil interests
Ankara says the survival of the GNA is a strategic priority. Along with a security deal, Erdogan also signed an agreement with Sarraj that gives Turkey control of a large swath of the eastern Mediterranean. The area is believed to have vast potential reserves of hydrocarbons.
“We will start search and drilling activities as soon as possible in 2020 after issuing licenses for the areas,” Erdogan said Friday, adding that a seismic exploration vessel would soon be deployed to this field.
Turkey’s deal with the GNA is strongly condemned by Greece, which claims the contested region as part of its territorial waters.
The two countries are engaged in an increasingly bitter competition for resources in the eastern Mediterranean.
Analysts note Turkey is aware that if Haftar were to prevail in the Libyan civil war, all deals it made with the GNA likely would become null and void.
On Thursday, Haftar flew by private plane to Athens and was taken to a luxury hotel for two days of talks with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias.
In a move that could further complicate the Berlin talks, Mitsotakis underlined his determination to annul Turkey’s Mediterranean deal with the GNA.
“Greece at the level of an [EU] summit meeting will never accept any political solution on Libya that does not include as a precondition the annulment of this agreement. To put it simply, we will use our veto,” Mitsotakis said Thursday in a television interview.
EU officials are also set to attend the Berlin conference, and the EU is strongly opposed to Turkey’s agreement with the GNA on the Mediterranean, saying it violates international law.
Turkey insists it’s ready to negotiate. “The GNA deal aims to protect Turkish vital national interests and Turkey is not to remain isolated,” said former Turkish Ambassador Mithat Rende. “Turkey has made it clear it’s ready to talk.”
In Cairo Thursday, the seven-member East Mediterranean Gas Forum pledged to strengthen cooperation, deepening Ankara’s isolation. Turkey views the move by Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Egypt as an attempt to deny what Ankara sees as its fair share of Mediterranean energy resources.
Erdogan dismissed the Cairo agreement, saying, “They tried to implement a scenario to imprison our country in the Mediterranean Sea. We ended this game with the agreements we made with Turkish Cyprus and then with Libya.”
Some analysts say Ankara’s stance ultimately may prove counterproductive.
“Turkey wants to be in Syria, Libya and the eastern Mediterranean; it wants to be a player,” Bagci said. “Turkey wants to get more and more involved in this region. But the problem is Turkey is not wanted because it creates an atmosphere of hegemony. So this is what Turkey faces, and this is why Erdogan’s rhetoric is getting harsher.”