The battle for control of Libya is about to enter a new and potentially disastrous phase if Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish President, is given the go-ahead to proceed with his plan to deploy forces to Tripoli.
The long-running Libyan civil war, which has been raging since the overthrow of its dictator Col Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, is approaching a decisive phase, with forces led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar closing in on the capital.
Widely regarded as the leader who has the ability to restore order to this war-ravaged country, Field Marshal Haftar, who enjoys the backing of countries including Egypt and Russia, recently announced that his forces had launched their “final battle” for control of Tripoli.
The aim of the 76-year-old rebel commander is to remove the Government of National Accord, led by prime minister Fayez Al Sarraj and backed by the UN, and bring to an end its chaotic attempts to restore order to the country.
But the prospects of the battle for control of Libya being resolved any time in the near future could be seriously compromised if, as now seems likely, Mr Erdogan presses ahead with his proposal to send Turkish forces to Tripoli in support of the GNA. A bill has now been sent to the Turkish Parliament seeking approval for the deployment which, if granted, could see forces from the country arriving in Tripoli within the next few days.
Such a development would undoubtedly complicate efforts to resolve the dispute and might even result in an escalation of hostilities as Mr Erdogan, who increasingly sees himself as a major powerbroker in the Mediterranean, seeks to consolidate his influence over a key North African state.
Although the GNA is officially acting under the auspices of the UN, its abject failure to bring any sense of stability and security to the country has meant that it has very few international backers.
One of the main reasons the GNA has failed so miserably to assert its authority is because of the malign influence of groups, many of which have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Those with influence include Abdelhakim Belhaj, leader of the conservative Al Watan Party and former head of Tripoli Military Council. He was head of the defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a group that previously campaigned for Qaddafi’s overthrow and has been linked to the Manchester Arena terrorist attack in May 2017 that killed 23 people during a concert given by the American singer Ariana Grande.
Belhaj was named on the list of terrorists drawn up by Saudi Arabia at the start of the diplomatic dispute with Qatar in 2017.
Its association with known militants is one of the main factors for the GNA’s failure to win international backing. To date the only countries actively supporting the GNA are Qatar, Turkey and Italy which, alone among the European nations, believes the body is the best means of protecting its extensive oil and gas interests in the North African state.
Mr Erdogan’s proposal to send troops in support of the GNA will, therefore, be seen as a desperate throw of the dice designed to save the Tripoli-based organisation from suffering certain defeat at the hands of Field Marshal Haftar.
Mr Erdogan’s move also needs to be seen in the context of Ankara’s wider policy of seeking to expand its influence in the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa after the recent discovery of large undersea gasfields.
Turkey is concerned that it might end up being isolated if the four main beneficiaries of the gas discovery – Egypt, Israel, Cyprus and Greece – are able to establish a co-operation mechanism to protect their energy assets in the region.