x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Turkey's cautious diplomacy is Libya's last, best hope for unity

While France has argued for full military support of Libya's rebels, Turkey has maintained relations with both sides of the conflict. If the country is to remain unified, that is the way forward.

The tussle between France and Turkey over whether Nato should command the Libya air campaign dominated last week's media, yet the coverage was misleading. It was about more than the bureaucratic squabbling that arises when war is waged by committee, or squeamishness over bombing another Arab country, or even personality conflicts between President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And it was hard to take seriously France's argument that Arab participants would prefer Anglo-French leadership to Nato command.

Sure, France has repeatedly snubbed Turkey, whether for a meeting before the first air strikes, or Ankara's efforts to join the European Union. But neither of those snubs, nor Turkish investments and expatriate workers in Libya, explain the discord. Turkey and France were fundamentally at odds over the mission's purpose. Ankara sees its goals as protecting civilians, stopping the fighting, and brokering a political settlement; Paris wants to bring western air power to help the rebels to win their war to topple Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.

Keeping the decision-making outside of Nato would have given France more freedom of action to tip Libya's military balance decisively in the favour of a rebellion that France has already recognised as the country's only legitimate government. That's because Nato's consensus-based decision making grants an effective veto to sceptics of the war such as Turkey and Germany, and will limit the operation to the implementation of United National Security Council Resolution 1973, which calls for an arms embargo, a no-fly zone and the use of "all necessary means" to protect civilians on the ground. The UN resolution says nothing about regime change or helping rebels win. On the contrary, it requires the pursuit of an immediate ceasefire and negotiations to achieve a political solution.

The fact that France lost the fight - leaving Mr Sarkozy to fret last Friday that "it would be playing into the hands of Colonel Qaddafi to say Nato is taking over" - suggests that the western powers recognise the dangers of escalating their mission into a regime-change operation.

There's no question that the Obama administration wants Col Qaddafi out. So does Turkey. But on the question of how to bring that about, neither is willing to back a military operation aimed at regime change. Mr Obama talks of protecting rebel-held areas, but his commanders say they have no plans to support a rebel offensive. Instead, the White House is helping to protect rebel gains and escalating economic and political pressure to collapse Col Qaddafi's regime from within. Turkey is even more focused on a soft landing for Libya, advocating a negotiated settlement.

Rebel control of Benghazi and Ajdabiya appears to have been consolidated by the air campaign, with Qaddafi forces unable to hold towns that far east of their power centres once western war planes prevented resupply and reinforcement. There may be battles in the days ahead for control of other towns on the eastern shores of the Gulf of Sirte, and the fate of Misurata, the only rebel-held town in western Libya, remains uncertain. But the lack of training, organisation, discipline and heavy weaponry on the rebel side has limited their ability to march on Qaddafi strongholds, and changing that equation would likely take many months, even if international authorisation were in place. Right now, the rebels appear more likely to consolidate a mini-state in the east than to storm the capital.

Mr Qaddafi still retains a measure of popular support, and no other western powers have followed France's unreserved endorsement of the rebel leadership. Most are more reluctant than Mr Sarkozy has been about using their own power to ensure that one side prevails in a civil war whose underlying dynamics they don't fully understand.

Tomorrow's meeting in London to plan the course of the operation will probably include a focus on efforts to broker a ceasefire, even as western air power consolidates rebel control over eastern cities.

Turkey has kept talking to Col Qaddafi and his sons throughout the conflict, but was also first to send a shipment of humanitarian aid to the rebel capital of Benghazi. And it has worked energetically to engineer a ceasefire to prevent a war that tears Libya apart and makes putting it back together a far more complex and perilous challenge. Ankara sees the no-fly zone as a means of creating conditions for a political solution.

"In all of our contacts," Mr Erdogan said last week, "we clearly suggested to Muammar Qaddafi to step down and hand over his duties to someone whom all Libyans can trust ... Our concern has been to have a violence-free transition in Libya. We wanted Libya to solve its problems with its own will, without external interference."

Another reason that Turkey's position may prove more persuasive than France's is its likely role in winning the peace. Ankara has maintained contact and credibility with both sides in the Libyan conflict, helping to get detained western journalists freed and operating as the western powers' point of contact with the Qaddafi regime. And that's a role that's likely to grow.

One fact that nobody has been willing to discuss is that the Libyan state - built around patronage and the personality cult of Col Qaddafi - has collapsed into two rival administrations and numerous armed formations. The construction of a Libyan state reflective of the will of its people will have to begin from scratch, and is unlikely to be possible without substantial numbers of foreign peacekeeping troops.

The western powers are sincere and prudent in their reluctance to commit any ground forces to Libya. It's a fair bet that when a stabilisation mission is called for, Mr Obama and his allies will turn to Turkey to take a lead. Indeed, if the western powers are to avoid a long and messy engagement more akin to their interventions in the Balkans or Afghanistan, they may well need Turkey to pull their chestnuts out of the fire by making good on its demands for regionally owned democratic transition.

Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst. Follow him on Twitter @Tony Karon