Since the start of the 2011 armed uprising against former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the country has been the battleground for several local militarized and political factions, as well as regional and international players with opposing agendas. Lately, Turkey has emerged as another force throwing in its weight to influence the situation in the Northern African country.
Ankara provides diplomatic and especially military support to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), the internationally recognized government fighting to retain control against the forces of General Khalifa Haftar.
Turkey’s involvement in the Libyan crisis raises several questions about Ankara’s controversial foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa region.
While Turkish officials defend their involvement as a support to a government recognized by the international community, is the interference likely to destabilize Libya even further?
The economic boom that followed the rise to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2003 made Turkey a regional success story. The country then gradually turned into a key political player in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
Turkey dropped the policy of “zero problems” with its neighbors, put forward by the former prime minister and top diplomat Ahmet Davutoglu, and instead pursued a more aggressive approach to managing relations with countries in the region and reacting to game-changing events in the Arab World.
The 2011 Arab Spring provided Turkey with an opportunity to emerge, along with Qatar, as a backer of the uprisings against former Arab dictators. While the support was presented as a genuine endorsement of the democratic aspirations of the protesters, both countries’ controversial domestic human rights records gave the move more questionable connotations.
Both countries saw an opportunity to extend their influence beyond their borders, especially since the uprisings and ensuing political processes culminated in elections that brought in Islamist parties in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco. These parties all had strong ties to both Ankara and Doha.
Turkey then became a key player in the Syrian civil war. The two countries share borders that stretch over 500 miles. Ankara reports that Turkey now hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees.
When the war broke out, Turkey became a passage for foreign fighters who joined different armed groups fighting on the ground in Syria, contributing to further destruction of the country and the deterioration of the humanitarian crisis.
The Arab Spring put Turkey at odds with countries that are opposed to the uprisings, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt. Relations between Turkey and the countries on the other side of the diplomatic argument soured as a result, especially when the Egyptian military ousted President Morsi.
The Syrian regime became, in turn, hostile to Turkey and its president after Ankara provided support to the Free Syrian Army, a faction of Syrian army deserters who supported the uprisings against the regime.
Turkey’s feet sank deep into Syria as it launched military operations in 2016 against Kurdish armed groups, seen by Ankara as a threat to national security. Authorities feared the Kurdish militant factions would establish a de facto autonomous Kurdish region near its border, thus giving momentum to the aspirations of other Kurds in Turkey to achieve independence.
The list of Turkey’s adversaries would only grow bigger as Ankara sought to extend its influence to other parts of the MENA region, including Libya.
“Neo-Ottomanism“ and “Micro-Imperialism”
The Arab Spring period was characterized by reminiscence of the past Ottoman dominance of the Arab region. The nationalist ideology has become known as “Neo-Ottomanism.”
Along with its ‘’Neo-Ottomanist’’ doctrine, the Turkish Government is preaching a discourse of protectionism and pursuing an independent policy that cuts with its historic long term ties with the West and alignment with NATO. As a result, Turkey’s political agenda estranged more countries, this in Europe, in addition to Israel.
For Turkish analyst Axel Corlu, Erdogan was emboldened by the failed 2016 military coup. In the wake of the unsuccessful attempt to seize power, the government received a domestic ‘’carte blanche’’ and used it to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy abroad, as well as corner internal political opposition.
“Erdoğan was the leader who would represent a resurgence of pride seeking to be fulfilled in response to the lost empire trauma that had been so carefully cultivated for a century,’’ wrote Corlu for Ahval News.
Corlu described Erdogan’s adventures in the region as ‘’micro-imperialism,’’ suggesting the policy will only further expose this part of the world to more instability.
After an alliance of regional countries that included Israel, Greece, and Cyprus excluded Turkey from projects to transport gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to European markets, Ankara rushed, in November 2019, to strike a maritime agreement with the GNA delineating maritime borders between Turkey and Libya.
The deal was a counter-attack by Turkey, as the three countries sought to bypass Ankara as they proceeded with their EastMed gas pipeline project.
Erdogan said in a speech in January 2020 that it was “no longer legally possible” for other countries to carry out search or drilling activities without Turkey or Libya’s approval. He also announced that Turkey will start exploring for gas off Libya.
The GNA seems to be helping Turkey’s ambitions in the region a great deal. Still, the Tripoli-based government is clearly a weak partner that needs to be sustained as it struggles to assert its power in Libya, especially in its conflict with the much better equipped National Libyan Army (NLA), led by Haftar.
While Ankara’s presence in Libya could be marketed domestically in the name of national interest and to the Libyans, supporters of the GNA, as a helping hand to stand against the NLA campaign to capture the capital Tripoli, the intervention is, increasingly, causing concern in Libya.
“Turkey was previously seen favorably in Tripoli. Yet, its direct involvement is increasingly making locals concerned by it weighing in on political life. Turkey’s political weight forces other local actors to the sidelines and can cause the internal political game to be closed’’ wrote Ali Bensaad, a researcher at Institut Français de Géopolitique, on Orient XXI.
Ben said explained that Erdogan’s comments referring to Libya’s past as part of the Ottoman Empire as a justification for his country’s current role in the Northern African nation ‘“were understood’’ by Libyans ‘“as a claim to a right of tutelage.”
A Failing Dangerous Gamble
Turkey’s military involvement in Libya seems a dangerous gamble and one that is failing. Its military presence on Libyan soil is not limited to its own soldiers, as Bensaad mentioned in his article, but also through the presence of Syrian Arab fighters. Ankara’s privatization of its military involvement is reminiscent of the Bush administration’s disastrous use of mercenaries in its invasion of Iraq.
The Arab fighters were brought to Libya from Syria by Turkish military company Sedat, whose founder, Adnan Tanriverdi, is a military advisor to Erdogan. Tanriverdi’s relationship with Turkey could be likened to Wagner’s Evgueni Prigojine and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Wagner fighters are deployed for the opposite camp, alongside General Haftar forces.
By relying on mercenaries Turkey aims to avoid public anger by sparing the lives of its own soldiers. However, the use of this type of mostly undisciplined out-of-control “soldiers” is likely to end up alienating the local population.
On an operational level, the presence of mercenary troops does turn out to be a liability for the forces loyal to the GNA.
“On the different frontlines, fighters did not always receive a warm welcome because their presence only adds to the disorder and lack of coordination between the Tripoli defense units, even though they are more motivated and more combative than those supporting Haftar,” wrote Bensaad.
Furthermore, the lack of air cover renders the GNA forces more vulnerable as they are confronted with a disadvantage vis-à-vis the NLA. A disadvantage that Haftar forces are exploiting in their attempt to seize the capital Tripoli in an ultimate battle to exert control over Libya.
With every military advancement, the Haftar forces make they are not only scoring points against the GNA but also against their Turkish backers, threatening to make the Turkish role in Libya another failed military adventure for Erdogan.
“Even the least capable international observer could have seen that becoming allies with a rapidly unraveling, moribund political entity in Tripoli facing the rival General Khalifa Haftar, supported by Russia, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, was bound to be a disaster,” Corlu emphasized.