Spotlight: Turkey flexes muscles in Mediterranean, renews pledge for Libya

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ANKARA, Dec. 16 (Xinhua) — Turkey renewed pledge to provide military support to Libya’s UN-backed government, taking the risk of a potential conflict with easter-based forces.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday that Turkey is ready to provide Tripoli with any military support it needs after they signed a security cooperation and a controversial maritime boundary deal late November, which has inflamed tensions with Greece, the European Union, the U.S. and other Middle East countries.

“We will protect the rights of Libya and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean,” said Erdogan in an interview with local TV. “We are more than ready to give whatever support necessary to Libya.”

Libya has been mired in chaos since an uprising that toppled and killed former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Erdogan made the remarks after meeting in Istanbul with Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister of the UN-backed Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), to whom he renewed Turkey’s willingness to send troops to assist his forces against the rebels.

Turkish experts are divided on the likelihood of sending Turkish soldiers to Libya, a move which would risk a direct military confrontation with Libyan militia backed by Russian mercenaries, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

“Turkey can send troops at any moment in Libya where a bitter conflict rages over the sharing of the nation’s underground reserves, oil and gas,” argued Ibrahim Karagul, an influential Turkish political expert and columnist in the pro-government Yeni Safak daily.

Karagul pointed out that Arab and European nations have been very upset by the maritime agreement signed between Ankara and Tripoli which expands considerably Turkey’s energy exploration ambitions in Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey is trying to prevent a major threat by its move in Libya. “It aims to establish a defense shield there, which is a necessity rather that an aspiration,” he said.

Hasim Turker, a military expert at the Ankara-based think-tank Bosphorus Center for Asian Studies (BAAM), considers unlikely that Ankara would send combat troops into Libya, which would amount to a direct confrontation with Russia.

However, the former navy commander, who has participated in NATO-led missions off Libya, thinks that Ankara is likely to send additional military equipment to the GNA “in the current state of affairs” which could further deepen already existing differences over Syria between Moscow and Ankara.

Turkey and Russia who are in a difficult cooperation over the Syrian war have outstanding disputes over the war-torn country.

The defense cooperation agreement with Tripoli, sent to the Turkish parliament on Saturday, provides for a so-called quick reaction force for police and military in Libya, as well as enhanced cooperation on intelligence and defense.

Turkish support for the GNA has until now been limited to drones and armaments, and it would be a major escalation to send ground troops to defend Tripoli, specialists agreed.

The air forces of Khalifa Haftar, who leads forces in the eastern part of the North African country, have bombed the airport of the Libyan coastal town of Misrata in a warning to Turkey against sending its troops or further supplies.

The already multi-layered conflict has been made more complex by the arrival of Russian mercenaries backing Haftar, an intervention that Serraj is highlighting to drum up support for his government from Washington.

As part of a binding between Turkey and the Tripoli government, the two sides have also drawn up a deal to carve out drilling rights in the Mediterranean with huge natural gas reserves that has infuriated the EU, in particular Greece. Athens says the exclusive economic zone agreement is illegal.

A Turkish diplomatic source who spoke to Xinhua on condition of anonymity noted that the military cooperation agreement allows the Turkish government to deploy troops in Libya, but a decision by the parliament is also needed.

“If there’s a request we are legally ok to send troops, every aspect of such an assistance is currently being assessed by different state institutions,” namely the military, he added.

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