Haftar makes 'call to arms' as Turkey threatens intervention

The Turkish decision to approve the deployment of troops to Libya risks plunging the North African nation deeper into a proxy war between regional powers including Russia.

TRIPOLI - Flights were suspended at the only functioning airport in Libya's capital Tripoli on Friday because of rocket fire and shelling, as people in eastern Libya protested Turkish military support for their rivals and analysts warned of a drastic escalation in Libya's civil war.

Mitiga airport has been repeatedly closed and reopened in recent years because of risks from shelling and air strikes, reopening most recently on Dec. 12 after a closure of nearly 3-1/2 months. It closed early on Friday because of rocket fire nearby, reopened briefly and then shut again because of shelling, airport and airline officials said.

Turkey's parliament voted on Thursday to allow troops to be sent to support the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, deepening fears of more fighting, though analysts and officials said Ankara was unlikely to immediately put boots on the ground.

The GNA has sought Turkey's support as it fends off an offensive by General Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA), which controls the east and swept through southern Libya in early 2019.

Haftar's forces said they had carried out air strikes in several places on Friday, including south of the city of Sirte and in Tripoli. Sirte lies in the centre of Libya's coastline, on the dividing line between the warring factions.

An increase in air strikes and shelling in and around Tripoli has caused the deaths of at least 11 civilians since early December and shut down health facilities and schools, the UN mission in Libya said.

There were protests in several cities and towns in eastern Libya against the Turkish parliament's decision.

In Benghazi, where about 3,000 people took to the streets, protesters said they had turned out to oppose a Turkish "invasion" of Libya, which was part of the Ottoman Empire before coming under Italian occupation.

'Facing a coloniser'

Haftar later gave a televised speech in which he announced that "we accept the challenge and declare jihad and a call to arms."

He urged "all Libyans" to bear arms, "men and women, soldiers and civilians, to defend our land and our honour".

He said it was no longer a question of liberating Tripoli from militias allied to the GNA, but of "facing a coloniser", accusing Ankara of wanting to "regain control of Libya" in reference to the Ottomans.

He described Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a "deranged Turkish Sultan" who was fuelling a "national war" throughout the whole "Arab region". His comments were interpreted as a call for support from neighbouring Arab states.

Libyan deputies allied with Haftar voted Saturday for a break in diplomatic relations with Turkey over its agreement with the GNA. At an emergency meeting in Benghazi, parliament also urged the international community to withdraw recognition of the GNA which MPs accused of "high treason" because of hotly contested military and maritime deals it signed with Ankara in November.

Parliament speaker Abdallah Bleheq said MPs voted "unanimously" to scrap the accords, which they likened to "a return of colonialism", and to sever ties with Ankara.

The parliament, which was elected in 2014 and took refuge in eastern Libya, has been weakened by divisions within its ranks and the departure of around 40 members to Tripoli. Saturday's meeting fell short of the required quorum, according to pro-GNA media, but there was no independent verification of the number of MPs who took part.

According to GNA interior minister Fathi Bachagha, the agreements with Turkey were concluded "legally and openly", unlike deals between Haftar's forces and his foreign supporters.

Meanwhile three subsidiaries of Libya's National Oil Corporation (NOC) which operate in areas under Haftar's control - Ras Lanuf Oil and Gas Company, Sirte Oil Co and Arabian Gulf Oil Company (AGOCO) - said they would boycott Turkish companies.

An engineer from Ras Lanuf said one Turkish company had been doing contracting work at Ras Lanuf port since 2017. It was unclear what immediate impact the companies' statements would have.

Syrian-style war

The Turkish decision to approve the deployment of troops to Libya risks plunging the North African nation deeper into a Syrian-style proxy war between regional powers including Russia, experts warn.

Libya has been mired in conflict since a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled dictator Moamer Kadhafi, with rival administrations in the east and the west battling for supremacy.

Turkey and Qatar have taken the side of the GNA in Tripoli, which has been under sustained attack since April from Haftar's forces.

Haftar's LNA, which has superior air power, is backed by Turkey's regional rivals - Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Although no date was given for the potential troop deployment, which would draw Turkey deeper into conflict with Haftar's forces, Ankara has already sent the GNA drones, according to the United Nations.

Some reports have suggested that Ankara has sent in some of the Syrian rebels that led a Turkish intervention against a Kurdish militia in northeast Syria in October.

The LNA, meanwhile, has reportedly received backing from hundreds of Russian mercenaries from private military group Wagner, believed to be controlled by an ally of President Vladimir Putin.

Russia, whose military intervention in Syria helped turn the tide of that conflict in President Bashar al-Assad's favour in 2015, has denied sending mercenaries to Libya.

But the UN's Libya envoy, Ghassan Salame, has said himself that Russian mercenaries are indeed operating on the ground and has accused several countries of violating a 2011 UN arms embargo on Libya.

'Arms from everywhere'

Salame has slammed the foreign interference in a conflict that has turned Libya into a haven for jihadists and migrant smugglers.

"Arms are coming in from everywhere," he told AFP news agency in an interview in late November, accusing unnamed "external parties" of causing increased civilian casualties through drone strikes.

Like the Syrian conflict, the Libyan war has developed into a "very complex" power play between Ankara and Moscow who are not allies but whose interests sometimes converge, Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher on Libya at Dutch think-tank Clingendael Institute, said.

Russia and Turkey support opposing sides in the Syrian civil war but together launched peace talks with Iran that effectively killed off UN-sponsored talks in Geneva.

Moscow also initially stood back while Ankara intervened against Kurdish rebels in northeast Syria in October, allowing Ankara to carve out a buffer zone along its border before negotiating a ceasefire.

"Could something similar happen in Libya? My answer is yes," Salame told France's Le Monde newspaper in a recent interview.

Harchaoui noted that there had "never been a direct clash between Turks and Russians on Syrian soil" and predicted that they would also avoid direct confrontation in Libya.

Underpinning the strategies of both countries was "the same anti-European, post-American logic," he said.

'West not leading'

Europe, meanwhile, has been relegated to the role of onlookers, in a war which has facilitated the smuggling of migrants across the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe.

Attempts by French President Emmanuel Macron to broker a peace deal by inviting Haftar to talks in Paris with the GNA in 2017, have come to naught.

As France scales back its mediation attempts following criticism of its perceived pro-Haftar bias, Germany has stepped in to try fill the void.

Berlin has invited regional players to a UN-backed conference in Berlin planned for January.

"The West isn't leading the way in Libya. The Russians and Turks will do their own Yalta on Libya," Harchaoui predicted, in an allusion to the conference at which the US, USSR and Britain decided on the post-war order in Europe in 1945.

Moscow and Ankara are operating on the assumption that the US, which has withdrawn some troops from Syria and Afghanistan, has "disappeared from the scene", Harchaoui added.

For Emadeddin Badi, an expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, Turkey's aim is "to force a political settlement that guarantees the survival of the GNA" and preserves its economic interests in Libya.

The maritime agreement Ankara signed with Tripoli in November angered Greece and Cyprus by dividing much of the energy-rich Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Libya, ignoring the Exclusive Economic Zones of both Turkish-occupied Cyprus and the Greek island of Crete.

Nathan Vest, a Middle East expert at the US policy institute Rand Corporation, described the deal as part of a "broader competition for resource equities and influence in the eastern Mediterranean".