ANKARA: Turkey will send troops to Libya at the request of Tripoli as soon as next month, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday (Dec 26), putting the north African country's conflict at the centre of wider regional frictions.
Libya's internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) has been fending off a months-long offensive by General Khalifa Haftar's forces in eastern Libya, which have been supported by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Last month, Ankara signed two separate accords with the GNA, led by Fayez al-Serraj, one on security and military cooperation and another on maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean.
The maritime deal ends Turkey's isolation in the East Mediterranean as it ramps up offshore energy exploration that has alarmed Greece and some other neighbouring states. The military deal would preserve its lone ally in the region, Tripoli, which is surrounded by Haftar's forces.
"Since there is an invitation (from Libya) right now, we will accept it," Erdogan told members of his AK Party in a speech. "We will put the bill on sending troops to Libya on the agenda as soon as parliament opens."
The legislation would pass around Jan 8-9, he said, opening the door to deployment.
However, it was unclear what specific invitation Erdogan was referring to, as the interior minister in the Tripoli-based government, Fathi Bashagha, suggested in comments to reporters in Tunis that no such official request had yet been made.
"If the situation escalates and then we have the right to defend Tripoli and its residents ... we will submit an official request to the Turkish government to support us militarily so we expel the ghost of mercenary forces," Bashagha said on Thursday.
Haftar's forces were not immediately available for reaction to Erdogan's comments.
For weeks Ankara has flagged the possibility of a military mission in Libya, which would further stretch its armed forces less than three months after it launched an incursion into northeastern Syria against a Kurdish militia.
Turkey has already sent military supplies to the GNA despite a United Nations arms embargo, according to a UN report seen by Reuters last month.
Erdogan visited Tunisia on Wednesday to discuss cooperation for a possible ceasefire in neighbouring Libya. On Thursday, he said Turkey and Tunisia had agreed to support the GNA.
TENSION WITH RUSSIA
Moscow has voiced concerns over a possible Turkish military deployment to Libya in support of the GNA. Erdogan has said Turkey will not stay silent over mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner group supporting Haftar.
"Russia is there with 2,000 Wagner (fighters)," Erdogan said on Thursday, also referring to some 5,000 fighters from Sudan in Libya. "Is the official government inviting them? No."
"They are all helping a war baron (Haftar), whereas we are accepting an invitation from the legitimate government of the country. That is our difference," he added.
Haftar's eastern-based Libyan National Army has been trying since April to take Tripoli from the GNA, which was set up in 2016 following a UN-brokered deal. The UAE and Egypt have for years provided military support for Haftar's forces, UN reports have said.
Russian mercenaries have put more pressure on the GNA and "accelerated this quid pro quo between Tripoli and Ankara," said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of the think-tank Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.
"So the troop deployment must happen right away, but the risk is that Turkey is being sucked into a military game where the only path is more engagement and escalation," he added.
Turkish and Russian officials held talks in Moscow this week to seek a compromise on the issues of both Libya and Syria, where Russia backs President Bashar al-Assad.
In the Mediterranean, Turkey is at loggerheads with Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel over rights to resources off the coast of the divided island of Cyprus. Athens says Ankara's maritime deal with Tripoli violates international law.