CAIRO (AP) — When Turkey’s president signed a security deal last year to back one of the sides in Libya’s civil war, another agreement was waiting to be signed by his new proteges the same day: a memorandum redrawing the two countries' maritime borders.
In Recep Tayyip Erdogan's memo, Turkey and Libya lay claim to large areas of the Mediterranean Sea and the potential natural gas deposits under it. The deal achieved a longtime goal of Turkey — finding a partner to back its claims.
Officials in Libya’s U.N.-supported government in the capital, Tripoli, have disclosed for the first time to The Associated Press the deliberations that resulted in Turkey becoming a major broker in the war, opposite Russia. They describe the relationship as necessary, and say Turkey’s foray into the conflict goes hand-in-hand with its economic designs.
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 Hifter, 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 Hifter’s assault this spring, preventing the collapse of the Tripoli-based administration and shifting the tide of the war.
But Ankara’s role is just one side of how outside powers are exploiting and fueling the civil war in the oil-rich North African nation.
Russia has sent weapons, air defense systems and mercenaries to Libya’s front lines to back Hifter’s offensive, launched last year and aimed at capturing Tripoli. That help has continued even after Hifter's withdrawal, though Russia has denied any role in the Libyan conflict.
The interventions are deepening a civil war born after a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Hifter controls eastern and southern Libya. Sarraj's government controls Tripoli and its surroundings, in the west.
Erdogan has only acknowledged sending high-level advisers to help pro-Sarraj forces. In reality, Ankara deployed a few hundred troops and an estimated 3,500-3,800 Syrian mercenaries over the first quarter of the year, a Pentagon report last week said. Turkey also sent weapons, military equipment and air defense systems.
Sarraj’s office didn't answer several calls seeking comment on the relationship with Turkey.
One Libyan official acknowledged to the AP the Tripoli government’s “full reliance” on Turkey. However, “we would not have reached this point” if not for Hifter’s offensive, he said.
The officials said Turkey pushed the government for over a year to approve the maritime deal, but Sarraj resisted. In part, he felt he did not have the authority to strike international agreements, being head of a transitional government. He may have also been wary of making Mediterranean claims certain to be rejected by the Europeans.
“It was a relentless pressure,” one official said, adding that Islamists inside Sarraj’s administration also wielded influence in support of Ankara. “Turkey was the only country that promised support, and we agreed only after all other doors were closed.”
The security and maritime deals were signed in late November. Under the accord, Libya and Turkey claim adjoining parts of the Mediterranean and exploration rights there. Greece disputes the deal, considering the waters part of its continental shelf. The EU said it violates international law and poses a “threat to stability.”
Turkey has long wanted to alter the old boundaries and its drive gained urgency as Egypt, Israel and Cyprus moved to exploit newly discovered natural gas fields in their waters.
“We are tearing up maps of the East Mediterranean that were drawn up to imprison us on the mainland,” Erdogan deputy Fuat Oktay said.
Turkey's moves, particularly its claim on Greek waters, have heightened tensions between the two NATO members that openly clashed 46 years ago in the conflict over Cyprus.
The maritime claims give Turkey “pressure points” to apply against other nations around the Eastern Mediterranean, said Oded Berkowitz, an Israeli security analyst who specializes in the Libyan conflict. It can aim to block Egypt, Israel and Cyprus from directly exporting natural gas to Europe and to influence migrant trafficking.
Turkey has long had interests in Libya, mainly construction and energy projects. It has also been pressing for new business opportunities and recouping losses sustained since Ghadafi was pushed from power. The Turkish Contractor’s Association estimated that in 2011, just after the country's popular uprising, Turkish companies had more than $18 billion in contracts in Libya. Many of those were lost in the ensuing chaos and war.
In June, a Turkish delegation including the foreign and finance ministers, met Tripoli officials and presented bills for $2 billion owed to Turkish firms, another official said. Tripoli agreed to pay back that and $1.7 billion in other debts and compensation for machinery and equipment lost in the war, he said. The agreement still needs final approval from Sarraj.
Libyan officials have said Turkey is building a naval base as part of Misrata’s port and a base at the al-Waitya air base in the desert southwest of Tripoli.
A Turkish government official told the AP that the “issue of bases is not on the agenda.” He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Meanwhile, Turkish and pro-Sarraj forces are preparing an operation to retake the coastal city of Sirte and the inland Jufra air base, which Hifter’s ally Egypt has said would prompt it to deploy troops to Libya.
But it’s only a part of the bigger picture, said Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow specializing in Libyan affairs at the Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations.
“Control over that territory isn’t so much about Libya’s oil itself as it’s about the natural gas under the Mediterranean Sea,” he said.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.