Erdogan edges closer to deploying Turkish troops in Libya

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent his firmest signal yet that Turkey will deploy troops to support Libya’s internationally recognized government, saying recent commitments between the countries should be seen as a “harbinger of steps” to follow.

Erdogan flew to Tunisia on Wednesday in a surprise visit that’s likely to include meetings with government officials from neighboring Libya. While he’s repeatedly discussed the possibility of sending troops to back Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj’s government against rebel commander Khalifa Haftar, he left no room for doubt at a news conference in Tunis.

“If there is an invitation, we would of course evaluate it,” Erdogan said in a televised press conference with Tunisia’s new president, Kais Saied.

Haftar, who has mounted an offensive to capture the Libyan capital, Tripoli, is backed by 7,000 mercenaries but “has no political legitimacy,” Erdogan said.

Haftar already controls most of Libya’s oil facilities, as well as swaths of territory in the country’s east and south. The deployment of Russian mercenaries since September has further complicated international efforts to end the fighting. 

Libya has been wracked by violence ever since the NATO-backed ouster of Moammar Qaddafi in 2011, with the instability turning it into a bastion for Islamist radicals and a magnet for migrants hoping to reach Europe.

Turkey’s parliament last week approved a pact to defend Sarraj’s administration. The governing AK Party has begun working on a motion to allow deployment of troops in Libya should Sarraj’s government ask for reinforcement, and is expected to present it to parliament in early January, according to state-run TRT television.

Sarraj’s Government of National Accord said Erdogan’s delegation, which includes foreign and defense ministers and the intelligence chief, may meet with GNA officials in Tunis. Turkey’s parliament recently approved a pact to defend Sarraj’s administration.

In addition to the defense pact, Turkey and the Sarraj government also recently signed a contentious maritime agreement that affirms Turkish claims to areas where a planned pipeline to bring Israeli and Cypriot natural gas to Europe may cross.

Turkey has controlled northern Cyprus since sending troops there in 1974 after a failed attempt to unite the island with Greece, and wants a share of Cyprus’s gas revenue. The pact with Libya angered Greece, and it plans next week to sign an agreement with Cyprus and Israel to build the pipeline, as it confronts Turkey over maritime rights.