Turkey’s PR guns-for-hire cannot help Sarraj in Washington

By Claude Salhani

If French President Emmanuel Macron is wary of Turkey’s dispatching of mercenaries to fight the Islamists’ war in Libya, many in Washington are intrigued by Ankara’s choice of a guns-for-hire approach to fight the Tripoli government’s public relations battles.

Footing the bill for the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli is the generous Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Washington PR firms don’t come cheap by any means. For US registered public relation firms, contracts with foreign clients are a lucrative source of income. The more profligate the client the better.

Lobbying the White House for the GNA and its Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj is a Washington firm called Mercury, Ahval.com reported. Since last April when the firm was retained by Ankara on behalf of the GNA, Mercury has spent large sums on properties owned by US President Donald Trump, such as the Trump Hotel in Washington, just a block or two from the White House, or in his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida where Trump tried to get the G8 leaders to have their next summit.

The lobbyists hoped that spending large sums of money on a Trump property would win them points with him and maybe buy them face time with the president and influence policy in favour of their client, reported Ahval.com’s Nicholas Morgan.

Mercury retained some of Washington’s highest-profile lobbyists, who, upon signing with Turkey or Libya, had to register with the US Justice Department as foreign agents, Morgan said. Among those retained were former US Senator David Vitter, former Trump adviser Bryan Lanza and Suheyla Tayla, a former Turkish-American policy expert at the US Embassy in Ankara, who are registered as lobbyists for the GNA contract, which Politico reported to be worth $150,000 per month, the Ahval report stated.

However, when you tabulate the number of lobbyists retained to push for a client and add the expenses involved, the figures charged to the client can run to the millions of dollars.

Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) records show that lobbyists representing the GNA all worked for or are simultaneously registered with Turkish interests in the United States.

Morgan said Lanza lobbied cabinet officials on the Turkish-American Business Council’s (TAIK) behalf in 2018 and is on the GNA contract. Tayla, a lobbyist for the Turkish Embassy, registered on the day the GNA deal was signed in April. Morris Reid, Mercury’s lead on GNA work, is servicing both the Tripoli government and TAIK.

“Persuading the Trump administration to adopt positions favourable to the GNA is a goal shared with another Turkey-linked lobbying firm, Gotham Government Solutions. Among the lobbyists registered to support the GNA are Gotham’s founding partners, Bradley Gerstman and David A. Schwarz. Both men have ties to Trump and those in his orbit,” Morgan wrote.

Gotham’s FARA filing shows the GNA contract to be worth $1.5 million and is focused on highlighting its contributions to US goals while undermining Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Haftar’s image with the administration. To do this, Gotham is working to point out human rights violations committed by Haftar’s forces and announced it was seeking journalists to send to Libya for that purpose.

Like Mercury, Gotham aims to change US policy decisively in favour of the GNA despite the latter’s ties to extremists and rogue militias.

They will bank on the mixed signals coming from Washington. Libya is no exception. Last April, during a phone call between Trump and Haftar, Trump praised him for “fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources.” The US State Department later rebuked Haftar’s Tripoli offensive.

Lobbyists are also using the Russia card. That would not be the first time Washington lobbyists use that kind of card. This time, Pro-GNA PR men and women are likely to insist that Russian contractors working for the Wagner Group are supporting Haftar in his campaign against the GNA. Russian encroachment in Libya (and everywhere else) is traditionally a matter of concern to Washington. It is also good ammunition for the influence peddlers.

Asked if Turkey’s stance on Libya was favourable to the United States, Gerstman told Ahval: “I don’t see anything wrong with Trump having a good relationship with Erdogan… Turkey is an influential actor in the region and can’t be ignored.”

Turkey is today one of those countries that are ignored only at great peril. Many in the West worry about Ankara’s support to Islamists all around the Middle East, its militarised foreign policy in the Mediterranean and Africa and its conflicting interests with the West on a multitude of issues despite its membership in NATO.

Many Western countries are now fuming over Turkey’s dangerous decision to dispatch militants and mercenaries from the Syrian battlefields to Libya, a country just a sea-crossing from Europe.

Rami Abdurrahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said there are at least 130 former ISIS or al-Qaeda militants among more than 4,700 pro-Turkish Syrian mercenaries sent by Erdogan to fight for the GNA. The mercenaries are said to cost Ankara about $2,000 a month each. A lot of money but definitely much less than what the Washington lobbyists would charge.

Even an armed militia commander in Tripoli told the Associated Press recently that he feared the Syria fighters could “tarnish the image” of the Tripoli-based government.

Turkey’s lobbyists who are working on the GNA account may have not drafted their issue brief on Turkey’s policy of sending mercenaries to Libya. It is going to be difficult to explain how bringing more terrorists to the shores of Tripoli could help US interests, but they could try.

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