Neo-Ottoman delusions in Libya

Ioannis Kotoulas
Thursday 9 Jan 2020

Turkey’s decision to send military forces into Libya is further evidence of its neo-Ottoman delusions and poses a direct challenge to Egyptian national interests and regional stability

Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) has formally requested air, ground and sea military support from Turkey in order to repel the ongoing offensive of the Libyan National Army against the capital Tripoli and thus try to bring the internal conflict in the country to an end. 

On 2 January, the Turkish parliament in an extraordinary session approved the military assistance to the Tripoli regime on the recommendation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This initiative is a clear intervention in Libya’s internal affairs that also violates UN decisions that proscribe foreign meddling in the Libyan conflict.

If Turkey proceeds with the deployment of its navy off Tripoli and its troops in the region controlled by the GNA, it will be a move having considerable potential repercussions. It is part of an attempt by the current Turkish administration to project its power in regions that once belonged to the former Ottoman Empire, and by proposing to send troops to Libya, Turkey wants to save the crumbling Tripoli government, which has become increasingly weakened and isolated. 

It also aspires to obtain a strategic presence in a part of North Africa that formed a dependent area of the Ottoman Empire until 1911. Over the last decade, Turkish Neo-Ottoman strategic thinking has attempted to create a ring of friendly states in regions that in the past to different degrees formed part of the former Ottoman Empire or were in the Ottoman sphere of influence. 

The Turkish involvement in Libya is also based on an additional historical background that carries a further symbolic dimension. In 1911, the Ottoman Empire attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to resist the dissolution of its control in Libya and with it the territorial disintegration that had begun in the 19th century with the independence of Greece and the autonomy of Egypt as major historical landmarks on the two sides of the Eastern Mediterranean. 

On a diplomatic level, the Turkish actions continue the meddling in internal conflicts in other states of the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean that has manifested itself in both Syria and Iraq. In Libya, the Turkish interference has taken many forms, including the signing in late November of two Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) between Turkey and Prime Minister of the Libyan GNA Fayez Al-Sarraj.

The MoU for the delimitation of maritime zones between Turkey and the Tripoli government is clearly abusive from the point of view of international law. It violates Greece’s core sovereign rights and undermines its territorial sovereignty. It also violates Greece’s and Cyprus’s rights over their respective maritime zones, namely their right to a continental shelf. The other MoU that deals with future security cooperation and monitoring of the coasts of Libya in the Southern Mediterranean forms the legal basis for the deployment of Turkish troops in Libya. 

On a strategic level, Turkey’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean are part of a greater pattern to project its power over an extended area and against the national interests of many of the states of the region. The Turkish offensive and the country’s destabilising actions are based on a long-term plan, the ultimate objective of which is to create a favourable situation for energy cooperation in the region. Ankara’s unilateral, maximalist and arbitrary claims and tactics are indicative of its revisionist approach vis-à-vis the existing geopolitical landscape of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Turkish military intervention in Libya is also fraught with inherent problems. In Syria, Turkey had to face mainly Kurdish non-state militias and a complex geopolitical equilibrium. In Libya, the situation is significantly different, though also in a sense clearer. In Syria, the Turkish forces were operating in a neighbouring country adjacent to bases in Turkish territory, and this enabled their effective reinforcement with personnel and arms. The Turkish air force could operate over the skies of northern Syria and support land troops with no opposition, for example. 

None of this can occur in Libya, a country located at a great distance from Turkey and separated by a vast maritime area. The Turkish navy will likely limit its actions off Tripoli, and Turkish land forces will likely operate with the use of drones, while on the ground they will have to face an effective opponent in the Libyan National Army in largely unfamiliar territory. The Libyan National Army is a main actor in the internal conflict in Libya, and it may conclude its attempts to obtain strategic control over the whole of the country in the first months of 2020.

The UN Security Council will in all likelihood condemn the Turkish overseas military intervention. Neither the US nor Russia approves of the Turkish ambition to interfere in the ongoing Libyan conflict. European regional actors such as France and Italy are also opposed to such a prospect. Greece has taken coordinated diplomatic initiatives to highlight the dangers of Turkish revisionism, with which Greece has been all too familiar over a long period of time. 

More importantly, through its declared intention to take part in an overseas military operation in Libya Turkey has set itself on a diplomatic collision course with Egypt, the main actor in the Arab world with strategic interests in the Mediterranean. Libya is also in the continental hinterland of Egypt, and Egypt cannot allow an inimical actor to establish itself on its western borders. The Turkish interference poses a direct challenge to both Egyptian national interests and regional stability. 

The cycle of neo-Ottoman delusions initiated by the Erdogan regime in Turkey over the last decade seems to be culminating in the Turkish interference in Libya. Since 2010, Turkey has alienated Egypt, Israel, Syria and Iraq, and now it is alienating Libya. Any effective and comprehensive resolution of the crisis in Libya needs to be based on the avoidance of foreign military intervention, including by Turkey. Peace in Libya as well as in the Eastern Mediterranean and the wider Middle East will mean the overcoming of anachronistic perceptions of former grandeur, Ottoman or otherwise, and the reassertion of fundamental notions of state sovereignty. 

The prosperity and stability of the region lie not in neo-imperialist schemes of indirect or direct meddling by outside actors, but in a regional network of cooperating states including Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and a future united Libya. These states will then be able to move forward with economic and diplomatic cooperation and joint energy projects. 

Egypt and Libya in North Africa and Greece and Cyprus and later Italy and France in Europe will thus be able to form the southern flank of the European Union, leading to the rise of an energy and security nexus in the Mediterranean to the benefit of the states of the region. In January, Greece, Cyprus and Egypt will continue diplomatic meetings with the participation of France to this end, while technical consultants from Egypt and Greece will meet to delimit economic zones south of Crete.

As the world becomes increasingly multipolar, the creation of regional blocs whose member states are able to cooperate closely on economic, diplomatic and military levels may be the answer to recurrent issues of terrorism, mass migration and regional instability.

The writer is a lecturer in geopolitics at the University of Athens, Greece.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly 

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