How does Biden view Turkey's role in Libya's uncertain future?

How does Biden view Turkey's role in Libya's uncertain future?
Analysis: Libya's civil war could become a source of confrontation rather than cooperation between the Biden administration and Turkey.
7 min read
Biden sees limiting Russian and Turkish influence in Libya as best for US interests. [Getty]
On 15 February, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had his first conversation with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu since becoming Washington's chief diplomat.

The two discussed a host of issues such as the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the Syrian crisis, tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkish-Russian defence relations, and the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen's religious movement.  

However, the Libyan civil war, which is a file that could add new complications to US-Turkey relations under Biden's presidency, was not a part of this discussion. It is important to understand how former president Donald Trump's approach to Libya emboldened Turkey. The Trump administration was mostly hands-off with respect to Libya's civil war. 

Consequently, Turkey - along with other regional and global powers such as France, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - had a freer hand to act more ambitiously in Libya's conflict.

Establishing itself as a new "kingmaker" in the war-torn country, Turkey's military intervention in 2019/2020 did nothing short of saving the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) from falling at the hands of Khalifa Haftar's westward offensive which kicked off in April 2019.  

To be sure, Libya is a hot spot in the wider Arab world where we can expect the Biden administration to try to rein in some of the actors that took advantage of Trump's hands-off approach to the conflict. The Biden administration has already called on Turkey, Russia, and the UAE to take their military forces and mercenaries out of Libya and allow the Libyans themselves to solve the conflict without such outside interference.

The Libyan civil war could add new complications to US-Turkey relations under Biden's presidency

This was an early indicator of how the new US leadership might handle the Libyan crisis differently from Biden's predecessor. Although the Trump administration called out Turkey and Russia for their involvement in Libya, albeit quite softly and only at a very late point in Trump's presidency, the Biden administration's demand that the UAE's military exit the Libyan theatre was significant as Trump's administration had never called on Abu Dhabi to do so.

Biden, Libya, and Turkey's foreign policy 

If Biden's administration is going to pursue a more pro-GNA agenda, it is fair to ask if the current leadership in Washington will pressure Ankara to change its role in Libya given that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government is also pro-GNA. How Biden's foreign policy team will view Ankara's agenda in Libya goes to the heart of an important question about the new US administration's perception of what many Arab states consider Turkish "expansionism", or even "neo-Ottomanism", in the 21st century. 

Read more: What does the future hold for Haftar and
the Libyan National Army?

Ankara seeks to rebuild Turkish clout in areas once ruled by the Ottomans, including Libya. Certain state actors, chiefly the UAE, have framed this discussion in terms of Turkey being a power with "colonialist illusions" in the Arab region.

Significant amounts of Emirati lobbying efforts in Washington have gone toward trying to create a greater wedge between the US and Turkey based on this narrative that Turkey's support for Islamist "extremism" makes it unworthy of being considered a US ally. 

Nonetheless, the UAE itself must now deal with a new US administration that will be less sympathetic to its arguments that virtually all forms of political Islam amount to terrorism. Whereas Trump even, at least at one point, endorsed Haftar as a bulwark against terrorism in Libya, Biden will not in any way embrace a pro-Haftar agenda. That said, this will not, by default, put the Biden administration and Ankara on the same page with respect to the Libya file.  

To the contrary, Libya could easily become more of a source of confrontation rather than cooperation between Biden and Erdogan. The new US administration is heavily focused on improving US-EU relations and in Europe there is a general unease with Ankara's conduct in Libya. Additionally, Biden's administration will likely see the US - and not Turkey - as the NATO power that should be playing a lead role in the North African conflict. 

The Biden administration has already called on Turkey, Russia, and the UAE to take their military forces and mercenaries out of Libya

There could be good reason to believe that America's new president will not trust Turkey to further the rest of NATO's perceived interests in Libya. As Sami Hamdi, a Maghreb expert who is also the editor-in-chief of the International Interest, told The New Arab, "there is objectively room for [American-Turkish] cooperation [in Libya], however Washington is more interested in 'disciplining' Turkey first before it even considers this."

Turkey as a bulwark against Russian influence? 

What if one argues that the Biden administration would possibly want to conduct a more Turkey-friendly agenda in Libya in order to counter Russian clout in the Maghreb? Hamdi is doubtful that this will be the case. Instead, he thinks that the new leadership in Washington will probably see limiting Russian and Turkish influence in Libya simultaneously as best for US interests. 

"Today, an argument could well be made that the US now sees its interests in pushing Turkey back, imposing its own military presence, and proceeding to push Russia out as well," Hamdi said. "This way, it restores [the US's] hegemon status and its [European allies] would welcome such a scenario. Washington would meanwhile expect Turkish pragmatism to maintain relations even after such tumultuous events and disgruntlement from Ankara."

Read more: From Syria to Nagorno-Karabakh: Russia and Turkey's complex regional rivalry

Ultimately, Biden's administration will be keen to ensure that Russia's entrenched influence in Libya does not grow even further. But the odds are good that the White House will want to avoid becoming too dependent on Turkey while pursuing this geopolitical goal. "I think Washington seeks to supplant Turkey in Libya and assume that role for itself," Hamdi says.

"The underlying reason is primarily the perception that Turkey's antagonism is symptomatic of a wider problem for US foreign policy in that the increasingly multipolar nature of the world is giving traditional US allies in the region other options to pursue leverage, which is compounded by too many allies feeling alienated at the exact same time and therefore willing to start exploring other options. Washington is caught between re-imposing 'discipline' forcefully or ceding to pragmatism. Currently, Biden prefers the former. But that could change." 

Biden's administration will be keen to ensure that Russia's entrenched influence in Libya does not grow even further

Moreover, even if the US were not afraid of relying excessively on Turkey as NATO's bulwark against Russian influence, Ankara's foreign policy tells us that Turkey is not interested in behaving as Washington's strategic pawn in the Arab region, including in Libya. What the Kremlin seems to want is to strike a deal with Turkey that leaves out the US and European Union

"As Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh clearly demonstrate, Turkey and Russia are willing to make their own deals without taking American interests even into account," explained Wolfgang Pusztai, the former Austrian Defence Attaché to Libya who currently serves as the Chairman of the Advisory Board of the National Council on US-Libya Relations.

Read more: Why rumours of a Biden-Erdogan showdown
are greatly exaggerated

"There is no reason to assume that they are not ready to do the same in Libya, which could allow Russia to maintain its grip on the East. Erdogan and [President Vladimir] Putin can live very well with each other's presence in the country, at least as long as this does not lead to a break-up of Libya. It would be a bit naive to assume that Turkey is in Libya to contain Russia. Its presence is more of a justification for Wagner mercenaries to stay."

In the aftermath of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum recently appointing prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, plus a three-member presidency council, to lead Libya as the country commences a new chapter in the post-Gaddafi era, Turkey is positioning itself as a supporter of this process. 

Erdogan congratulating the leadership of this interim Libyan government underscores Ankara's determination to help with this new phase as Libya attempts to unify and reconstruct. Regardless of how events unfold vis-à-vis this interim government, the North African country will remain the source of much geopolitical tension between regional and international powers that have their own interests in Libya's uncertain future.

It is a safe bet that Turkey's leadership will work to convince the Biden administration that Ankara's intervention in Libya (unlike Russia and the UAE's) is "legitimate" because the North African country's UN-recognised government asked the Turks to intervene. 

As Turkey seeks to push the rest of NATO towards supporting Ankara's actions in Libya, Turkish officials will likely put significant effort into convincing Washington that American and Turkish interests are strongly aligned in Libya. How much success Ankara will achieve on this front remains to be seen.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics,  a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero

Diana Vasconcellos is an intern at Gulf State Analytics