Marc Pierini is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where he focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective. He was a career EU diplomat from December 1976 to April 2012, and served as an ambassador and head of delegation to Turkey (2006–2011) and as an ambassador to Tunisia and Libya (2002–2006), Syria (1998–2002), and Morocco (1991–1995). He also served as the first coordinator for the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership from 1995 to 1998, and was the main negotiator for the release of the Bulgarian hostages from Libya from 2004 to 2007. Diwan interviewed Pierini in mid-January to get his views on the Turkish and European perspectives toward the situation in Libya. This interview runs in parallel to that with Jalel Harchaoui published last week at Diwan.
Michael Young: What are the reasons for why Turkey, which already has a troop presence in Syria, is willing to deploy more troops to Libya, in the midst of what could be a long, drawn out proxy war?
Marc Pierini: I see various reasons leading to the deployment. First, Turkey had substantial ongoing contracts in Libya when the uprising took place in 2011 and is therefore intent on returning to doing business in the country.
Second, Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army under his command are supported by Egypt. That is another reason for Turkey to take an opposing stance, as the two are deeply divided over the Muslim Brotherhood.
Third and most importantly, the military intervention in Libya goes together with the fierce nationalist narrative currently being heard in Turkey. In addition, it is based on memories of the Ottoman presence in Libya. The military deployment serves to bolster the idea of a “powerful Turkey” that can defend its interests and project force in an area of past influence. But this is easier to explain in political speeches and much more difficult to implement in practice.
MY: France supports Haftar’s forces in Libya. What are the French, and indeed the broader European, calculations in intervening in the Libyan conflict?
MP: The French position is most often described as supporting Haftar. In reality, France and the entire European Union are in favor of a negotiated settlement under United Nations auspices. European energy companies—not so much French ones, but British, Dutch, German, Spanish, and Italian companies—have substantial energy interests in Libya. At the same time, many countries are also keen to partner with the Libyan authorities in curbing illegal migration to Europe. These objectives can only be served by, first, having a peaceful settlement in Libya.
MY: How do you anticipate that Turkey and Russia will manage their relationship in Libya, as they back contending sides in the conflict?
MP: As we saw on January 14 in Moscow, Haftar left without signing the ceasefire agreement proposed by Russia and Turkey because of the presence of Turkish forces on the ground and the proposed involvement of Turkey in post-ceasefire monitoring. This was followed by a threat from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to “teach a lesson” to Haftar. The meeting ended with personal antagonism between Haftar and Erdoğan, which in a way freezes both sides and, most important, leaves Russian President Vladimir Putin in the driver’s seat. Much as in Syria, Turkey’s activities are tolerated by Russia, but the red lines are set by the Kremlin.
MY: Turkey and Libya have signed a bilateral accord defining a large maritime zone in the Mediterranean. How will this affect Turkey’s gas interests as well as ties with Cyprus and Greece, and do you see the potential for conflict there?
MP: Turkey’s redefinition of maritime boundaries with the participation of Libya should be considered a unilateral move. Indeed, Libya’s Government of National Accord doesn’t control the eastern shore of the country that faces the Turkish zone. The aim is to force European Union (EU) countries and the United Nations to reopen discussions on maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean. This goes along with gas drilling around Cyprus by Turkish ships under military escort. Cyprus and Greece enjoy full support from the EU, but this alone will not be enough to stop Turkey’s assertive moves.
I see the Turkish steps as a “foot in the door” aimed at forcing negotiations with at least two EU countries, Greece and Cyprus, over both maritime boundaries and drilling rights and, if possible, thwarting the project of a gas pipeline linking Israel directly to Greece and Italy. Again, domestic politics play a major role in this domain, but it is doubtful that Turkey’s military can afford a real confrontation with the EU and Israel if it ever comes to that.