The Syrian quagmire is not enough for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He is apparently unfazed that Bashar Al-Assad, whom he had vowed to overthrow in a matter of months so that he could pray in Al-Umayyad Mosque, is still in power in Damascus all these years later, that the meagre gains from Ankara’s policies in Syria are dwindling, that its military interventions have backfired and actually bolstered his even more hated foe across the border, the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Erdogan now wants to repeat the bloody exercise further afield, in Libya.
Turkish intervention in Libya is the product of the “confrontational” foreign policy that Erdogan has pursued both as prime minister and president, veteran journalist Hediye Levent told AhvalNews website. It has alienated virtually every country in the Middle East and caused his own country no end of difficulties. “As a consequence of its Syrian policy in particular, Turkey has a difficult relationship with many countries, such as Iran, Iraq, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t even have the minimum level of diplomatic channels with most of these countries. In this sense, Turkey is pursuing a very troublesome regional policy.”
But Erdogan’s Ankara refuses to see things this way. Or more precisely, it is determined to keep Turkish public opinion from seeing the bleak picture. So, it boasts successes and victories (where there are none, according to the opposition), and this ostensibly glorious record gives Turkey the right to send its troops to other countries overseas, if need be, according to Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin.
Perhaps this is Erdogan’s way of retroactively reproaching his Islamist mentor and spiritual leader Necmettin Erbakan for not upbraiding Colonel Gaddafi during his visit to Libya in the 1990s — not for mocking Ataturk’s famous adage “Peace abroad and peace at home”, but because Gaddafi said that the Ottoman Empire was the cause of the scourge of Arab backwardness and underdevelopment and that Turkey should formally apologise and compensate the Arabs for four centuries of tyranny, oppression and decay. Erdogan now plans to set the record straight, using Libya as another cornerstone for the resurrection of the Ottoman Empire in the pursuit of a neo-imperialist dream, like Enver Pasha, the Ottoman minister of war during World War I, as Ahval columnist Ergun Babahan observed.
Erdogan now has the handy pretexts. After all, Libya is no longer some backwater country in Africa; it is a neighbour of the Turkish coastal city of Antalya, as pro-Erdogan opinion pundits would have it. Also, Turkish national security, in this day and age, stretches beyond its borders, according to Kalin on behalf of his boss.
Opposition voices have pointed out how provocative and impractical Ankara’s policies are. Some of them made reference to rumours that began to circulate five years ago that Ankara was sending jihadists to Libya. Such “rumours” have begun to increase rapidly in tandem the images circulating on social networking sites of allegedly Turkish-sponsored takfiris in Libya and the growing frequency of flights from Turkey and Tunisia to Tripoli and Misrata. Erdogan already has developed the ideological, intellectual, moral, strategic and political infrastructure for moving his jihadist allies into Libya, according to the journalist Burak Tugan. Referring to the Russian-affiliated Wagner militias, he said: “Just as the Wagner militias have gone to Libya, Turkey can take similar steps.”
But Erdogan is taking this further and turning a chunk of Misrata into a Turkish military base, like the ones it has in Qatar and Somalia. Already it has thousands of religious extremists based there, the majority made up of the Turkmen and Uyghur fighters it used in Syria. With the addition of such paramilitary groups as the Sadat, this force might eventually evolve into a Sunni version of the Lebanese Hizbullah, a force of jihadists brought in from the battlefields of Syria and elsewhere to sustain the warfare even if the Libyan National Army (LNA) succeeds in winning Tripoli.
The Turkish president is clearly in a race with time and his recent visit to Tunisia falls in this context. True, the recently elected Tunisian president, under pressure from civil society organisations and numerous political forces, was forced to declare that Tunis does not support the government based in Tripoli, contrary to Erdogan’s claim. However, there remain unanswered questions. One is raised by the arrival in Libya of the Sultan Murad Brigades, made up of Arabic and Turkish speaking Turkmen. Did Ankara make some kind of deal with Tunis to make this possible? What other avenues are available to circumvent the barriers created by the rivals of the forces fighting for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA)?
Another question involves Algeria. According to the pro-Erdogan press, the GNA has forged an alliance with Tunisia and Algeria. On 7-10 January, two Turkish warships sailed to Algeria to commemorate the liberation of the Ottoman seaman Oruc, the elder brother of Hayreddin Barbarossa. Could this be the prelude to a major build up? According to reports circulating across Algerian social networking accounts, Turkish forces and Turkish-backed groups from Syria have already arrived at Algerian ports and headed towards Libya. Algiers, itself, has made no official statement acknowledging either its support for the GNA or its support for Erdogan’s military venture into a neighbouring Arab country.
It does seem odd that Ankara is strutting around like a superpower at time of severe economic straits and social disintegration, as Ergun Babahan wrote in Ahval. “Apparently Erdogan sees the era when the world is no longer mono-polar as a fortuitous moment to realise his Islamist fantasies. But the fact is, Turkey is not a superpower and overseas wars can’t be fought with drones. Expelled from the F-25 project, Turkey’s aircraft carrier has been rendered non-functional. According to experts, the tanker aircraft are outdated and unsuited to the mission.”
Ultimately, Ankara only has two choices with regard to its military intervention in Libya. Either it can keep it limited to a few Turkish advisers because the political situation is not conducive to more. Or it can do the opposite, and plunge in with an intensive military presence. The latter is, of course, extremely risky. Much depends on the extent to which Erdogan is in the thrall of his irredentist mission. Perhaps, ultimately, despite his bravado and his government’s propaganda, he will yield to Moscow’s dictates, as occurred in Syria. This was one of the salient results of President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Turkey.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.