OPN 190913 Tripoli-1568375772320
Fighters backing Government of National Accord (GNA) shoot a truck-mounted gun during clashes with forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar in the capital Tripoli's suburb of Ain Zara, on September 7, 2019 Image Credit: AFP

“The victory flag will soon be raised in our capital” boomed Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar on 24 July, nearly four months after launching his ambitious campaign to wrestle Tripoli from the grip of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government of Fayez Al Sarraj. “It will become a city of peace and regain its role as the capital of all Libyans” he added, seemingly reminding the world that despite suffering a heavy blow with the loss of Gharyan earlier this summer, Field Marshal was still on the move — still focused — and still determined to reclaim the historic capital of Libya, plagued by eight years of uncontrollable chaos.

The statement struck a particularly raw nerve in Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been trying hard to prevent a Haftar victory in Libya. Dismantling the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya would be particularly painful for Erdogan, who only just lost a strategic ally in Khartoum. He already faces a monumental challenge if the United States decides to designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, which Donald Trump has been toying with for years, which would deal a heavy blow to states that continue to provide the Brotherhood with arms, media access, money, and sanctuary.

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If Haftar succeeds in taking Tripoli, Erdogan’s ambitions in the Arab World would be coming to an end, as government troops regain control of most of Syria, and Brotherhood-affiliates are rounded up in Yemen. Frantic that he might soon lose Al Sarraj as well, the Turkish President has been sending help to various Brotherhood militias in Tripoli, in clear violation of a UN arms embargo on Libya.

Last month, Haftar destroyed a Turkish military base in-the-making in Misrata, 200-km east of Tripoli. He also launched an offensive to regain Gharyan (northwestern Libya), which failed, promising to liberate the city by next October.

To add pressure on Haftar, the state-run Libyan oil company has restricted supply of kerosene to eastern parts of the country under his control, claiming that he was using it for fuel for his warplanes. This will have a damaging affect on people’s lives and industry. Kerosene supply to Haftar-held territory fell from a maximum of 8.8 million litres in June-July to around 5 million last August.

The Turkish press has been erroneously claiming that Field Marshal Haftar is trying to drag Turkey into a confrontation in Libya, a statement that is factually and historically, incorrect. In fact, the exact opposite is what happened since Haftar announced the start of his campaign on April 4. The 76-year old general only declared war on the Turks and suspended flights to Turkey after discovering stockpiles of weapons being shipped into Tripoli, including at least one drone that was destroyed by the Libyan National Army (LNA).

Haftar even reportedly sent a handful of private messages to Erdogan, asking him to stay out of the Libyan conflict, but all his early warnings were ignored. He then went a little bit further, arresting six Turkish sailors on 30 July, but releasing them just 24-hours later, hoping that Erdogan would ultimately get the message — that he should stop meddling in Libyan affairs — but to no avail.

Three terrorist attacks ripped through Benghazi earlier this summer. Turkish newspapers trumpeted the attacks, saying that Daesh, was making a comeback to Libya, adding that Libyans should rally around their legitimate government to ward off the extremist threat.

Last month, Haftar destroyed a Turkish military base in-the-making in Misrata, 200-km east of Tripoli. He also launched an offensive to regain Gharyan (northwestern Libya)

- Sami Moubayed

A Haftar victory would end Erdogan’s ideological schemes for Libya and terminate the steady arms flow that his proxies have been sending to Sinai. For years, these weapons have made their way into Egypt and reached the hands of the Daesh-affiliated Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, where they were used to launch attacks against the Egyptian police and armed forces. Squeezed out of Libya and Egypt, he would also have little future in Sudan, after the toppling of Omar Al Bashir earlier this year, effectively ending his tutelage in North Africa.

In Tripoli itself, Turkey will likely be excluded from all future business contracts with a Haftar-led government and its $23 billion debt to Libya will probably get scrapped. So would the $18 billion worth of contracts, mostly in construction, currently signed with Fayez Al Sarraj. The Turkish leader believes that General Haftar, like Colonel Muammar Gaddafi before him, supports Kurdish national aspirations in Turkey.

It all depends on how Turkey plays its cards in the upcoming months. If Erdogan accepts the fact that Haftar is a reality that needs to be accepted, respected, and dealt with professionally, he can still use his considerable influence to bring stability to Libya. That can come in many forms, like ending support for the Brotherhood militias, for example, or helping with a Libya peace conference.

Judging from his track record, however, the Turkish President will do none of the above, but rather, insist on pushing through with his ideological agenda, regardless of the consequences. That’s what he did with Egypt, after all, until his country’s influence was completely terminated in 2013, and that is what he did with Syria since 2011, leaving no room for climb down or retreat.

— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also the author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.