Turkey is stirring up trouble wherever it can. That is Ankara’s cardinal policy these days. It ignites fires in the Arab world in order to create roles for itself and expand its presence in areas far beyond its borders. Then it fans the flames right beneath the noses of world powers that once exercised extensive influence in the region.
An array of global and regional developments has opened windows for the Turks to expand beyond their borders and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken advantage of every crisis, fuelled every disturbance and played every trick in the book in the pursuit of regional hegemony. The Turkish autocrat’s ambitions are unbounded. With two years to go until the next election, and economic woes mounting at home and political opponents and rivals increasing, he’s growing more and more desperate. He has a project in his head. He’s fighting for it at home and abroad. And the menace of that project is growing clearer by the day.
As he chases his dreams of power and wealth, Erdogan has embarked on an extended folly of foreign interventionism. As the domestic opposition has cautioned, his adventures in Libya, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere are damaging Turkey’s image in the Arab region and among regional organisations such as the Arab League and EU. Beneath the guise of protecting Turkish national interests, his fallacies and fictions are endless. He speaks of looming “perils” facing Turkey, yet dispatches troops to distant lands. “We will protect our interests in the Middle East and Aegean,” he proclaims in one breath. “We will exercise our sovereign rights, as we did when we reopened the Hagia Sophia for prayer,” he adds in the next. He has already stretched those “sovereign rights” to neighbouring territories, which Turkey has effectively annexed. What other lands does he have in mind?
Needless to say, he is indifferent to regional condemnation of his policies as he boasts of “crowning our struggle from Syria and Iraq to Libya”, of bringing “victory to ourselves and our brothers over there”, and of championing “the downtrodden in all parts of the world”. Who does he think he is fooling? It is palpably evident to all that Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman hegemonic project poses a grave threat to the peace and security of the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. Many members of the international community are naturally concerned. France, which has had a direct run-in with Turkish belligerence, is particularly acute to the dangers posed by the expansion of Turkish military operations into Africa. Turkish encroachment into Africa threatens areas where France has a longstanding presence and influence, most notably the Sub-Saharan Francophone countries where Ankara is using humanitarian and educational aid, and other outwardly philanthropic enterprises, to sow discord and upheaval.
Erdogan, given his particular obsessions, has made a particular point of threatening Egyptian interests, in East Africa in particular. Whenever possible, Ankara targets countries where the state is crumbling or collapsed. Its aim is to fuel discord and divide societies, establish a foothold with permanent military bases, then launch military expeditions and split the spoils with Turkey’s proxies. While Turkey creates crises in the pursuit of Erdogan’s adventures, Egypt tries to solve them. It works to prevent social disintegration and the erosion of territorial integrity, to restore national security and to promote peaceful solutions to disputes. Unlike Turkey, Egypt has no interest in gaining control over Libyan petroleum wealth, or that of any other country. When the Erdogan propaganda machine claims otherwise, it is merely to deflect attention from Ankara’s own acquisitiveness.
The longer the international community fails to stand up to Erdogan’s regional designs, the more the realm of civil strife and warfare will expand and the harder it will become to foster peaceful solutions to the crises in Syria and Libya. If world powers, moved by certain interests or calculations of their own, continue to turn a blind eye to Erdogan’s ambitions or actively indulge his desire for more hostile policies against other countries of this region, they will be in part to blame for a spiralling cycle of conflict and chaos that will be difficult if not impossible to contain.
Containing Erdogan is the key to restoring a degree of equilibrium needed to restart a genuine peace process. This applies in particular to Libya with which Turkey shares no borders, using armies of mercenaries brought over from Syria and unleashed unchecked against the Libyan people.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly