x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Turkey pursues its Libya mediation efforts despite setbacks

Turkey shows signs of frustration with the lack of progress in getting the warring sides in Libya to the negotiating table

ISTANBUL // Faced with anti-Turkish demonstrations in Benghazi and a stubbornness to enter talks from the warring sides in Libya, Turkey is soldiering on with mediation attempts to end the conflict in the north African nation. But the government in Ankara is showing signs of frustration with the lack of progress.

Turkey has invested much work and prestige into its efforts to find a political solution to the military confrontation between Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and the opposition in Libya, arguing that the use of soft power will prove to be more efficient than western air strikes.

Turkish officials, after weeks of trying to bring the Qaddafi camp and the opposition together, have expressed disappointment about the lack of common ground between the two sides.

Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, told reporters accompanying him on a trip through several Middle Eastern countries that Turkey is pursuing a three-fold strategy in Libya, according to news reports yesterday.

The immediate priority was a ceasefire, Mr Davutoglu said. The other goals were the start of a political dialogue between the government and the opposition and the establishment of a democratically elected government.

But in talks behind the scenes, the Turkish foreign minister and his aides have been confronted with the stubbornness of two warring sides that deeply distrust each other and are reluctant to give ground.

"Both sides are inflexible", a senior Turkish diplomat replied to a question via e-mail yesterday. "One side, the opposition, is insisting that Qaddafi should go and [that] the presence of any member of the Qaddafi family in the new administration is not acceptable. The other side is saying Qaddafi should stay. So there is no breakthrough yet."

If the Turks had expected to get credit on the ground for their mediation efforts, they were mistaken. A group of demonstrators in the Libyan opposition stronghold of Benghazi marched on the Turkish consulate in the city on Tuesday and tried to tear down the Turkish flag, according to news reports. The demonstrators were protesting against the refusal of Turkey to arm the Libyan opposition, the Turkish daily Hurriyet reported yesterday.

The protests came even as a ship sent by the Turkish Red Crescent with 290 tonnes of humanitarian relief goods was approaching Benghazi, Hurriyet reported. In Ankara, Cemil Cicek, the Turkish government spokesman, told reporters that Turkey was planning to erect a field hospital in Benghazi to treat the wounded there.

Meanwhile, another Turkish ship carrying about 300 wounded Libyans from Benghazi and the embattled city of Misrata in western Libya returned to Turkey where the injured are to be treated in hospitals. But Turkey had to overcome political resistance in Libya before the ship could complete its mission. Mr Davutoglu said the Qaddafi regime had been reluctant to let the Turkish hospital ship travel to Misrata.

Despite the setbacks, Turkey is pushing on with its mediation efforts. Earlier this week, Mr Davutoglu met Abdelati Laabidi, Libya's deputy foreign secretary, in Ankara. During the meeting, Mr Laabidi received the message from Turkey that Mr Qaddafi would have to relinquish power to free the way for a political solution, according to Turkish news reports.

Yesterday, Mr Davutoglu met the Libyan opposition figure Mahmud Jibril, who handles foreign affairs for the Transitional National Council, during a visit to Qatar. Before the meeting, the Turkish foreign minister told reporters that Ankara was also sending a special envoy to Benghazi for talks with the opposition.

For Turkey, a rising regional power, much is at stake in Libya. Driven by Mr Davutoglu, Turkey has developed a foreign policy vision that puts the country in a central position as a political and economic powerhouse in the region. Within that framework, Ankara facilitated indirect talks between Syria and Israel in 2008. Turkey has tried to help solve the government crisis in Lebanon, has made efforts to defuse the international row surrounding Iran's nuclear programme and has tried to mediate between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For all the diplomatic activity, critics say Ankara has actually achieved very little of substance. The indirect talks between Syria and Israel broke down without agreement. In the Iranian crisis, Turkey's mediation efforts led to concerns in Europe and the US that Ankara might be turning away from the West.

In the case of Libya, Turkey, the only Muslim member of Nato, criticised the air strikes on government targets that were started by France on March 19, exposing tensions within the alliance. Ankara later agreed to Nato taking over the command of the military action in Libya, triggering criticism at home that Turkey had abandoned its earlier opposition to a military intervention.

Veysel Ayhan, an expert on the region at the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, or Orsam, a think tank in Ankara, said yesterday: "It is a difficult process." But there was no easy way out, he added. Turkey's approach of talking to all sides in the conflict to broker a political solution while also sending humanitarian aid was challenging, but ultimately "without alternative", Dr Ayhan said.

"It is a political crisis, and it needs a political solution," he said. Even though the going was tough for Turkey's mediation efforts, there were also some signs that the Qaddafi side was slowly coming round, because the lack of a solution would probably mean that Libya would be split in two, he said.

tseibert@thenational.ae