Before President Recep Tayyip Erdogan left for Berlin on Sunday, Turkey’s pro-Justice and Development Party (AKP) television networks broadcast lengthy excerpts from the opinion piece the Turkish leader wrote for Politico. It was called, “The road to peace in Libya goes through Turkey.” The title, alone, brought a bitter smirk to members of the Turkish opposition at home and Erdogan’s critics abroad for the simple reason that its author — Erdogan — has systematically worked to undermine any consensus between the Libyan factions because he knew that if they made peace he would no longer have a role to play in Libya.
Western officials have been aware of this, too. In fact, a number of diplomatic sources have said, “The longer the war in Libya drags on, the stronger a presence Turkey will have in Libya.” This is why Erdogan had worked to derail efforts that might culminate in a European or UN brokered ceasefire or truce, which would throw a spanner into his expansionist plans in Libya. It is also why he has done everything he could to elbow other parties aside so that he could have the ultimate say on the Libyan crisis.
As though to underscore the hollowness of his lip service to peace, the websites administered by the Turkish-backed jihadist forces in Syria heaped adulatory praises on him. He was the “dove of peace” who strews “only flowers”. Needless to say, Kurdish civilians along with other minorities and the Syrian Human Rights Observatory have another opinion on both Erdogan and the militias that adulate him and whose members in large numbers now serve as mercenaries in Libya under Erdogan’s Ottoman revivalist banner, furnishing tangible proof of his less than peaceful designs.
These designs are motivated by an intense thirst for underwater fossil fuels. As Ankara faces looming EU sanctions because of its illegal drilling activities off the coast of Northern Cyprus, which is unrecognised by any other state but Turkey, Erdogan signed a memorandum of understanding with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) to delineate a maritime border where no shared waters exist. It was an action deliberately calculated to raise tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. These designs are also ideological and target, above all, Egypt and the UAE, both of which oppose the religious extremists that Ankara supports in Libya. Paris shares the concerns of Cairo and Abu Dhabi regarding the Islamist radicals that have allied with the GNA and has urged an UN-sponsored inquiry into their behaviour.
In light of the foregoing, it came as no surprise to observers of developments this week in Berlin that Erdogan would dig in his heels against any calls or measures to disband the pro-GNA militias, or that might enable Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army (LNA) to play a role in the peace process and the future of the Libya. He wants Libya in his pocket and only the GNA and its militias will hand it to him on a platter.
As the curtains closed Sunday on the events of the Berlin meetings on the Libyan crisis, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas hailed the conference’s success in achieving its designated aims. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio called it a starting point towards a lasting ceasefire and an end to the weapons influx that had begun when Haftar launched his campaign against Tripoli nine months ago. Both Rome and Berlin oppose foreign military meddling in Libya and have made it clear that this includes Turkish military meddling above all. They will therefore expect Turkey to halt sending both Turkish troops and Turkish-backed jihadist militias from Syria into Libya to support the GNA and its militia allies. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pointed out, the Berlin resolutions to this effect will be forwarded to the UN Security Council that will adopt them and probably also call for the withdrawal of foreign forces (meaning Turkish troops and “advisors”) from Libya.
Although Erdogan could probably have predicted this, it did not prevent him from urging Europe, ahead of the Berlin conference, to support his country’s actions in Libya. He also said that Turkey would stay in Libya until the “legitimate government” (meaning the GNA) is safe. Neither of these remarks elicited a significant response from Europe. As for his dismissal of Haftar as “someone who can’t be trusted”, Germany quickly refuted that with the announcement, on the German Foreign Ministry Twitter account, that Haftar had renewed his commitment to the ceasefire between the LNA and the GNA forces after a meeting with Maas in Benghazi.
Provocative remarks by Erdogan’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, also fell on deaf ears, as was the case with his charges that France, Egypt and the UAE were trying to sabotage peace efforts.
Ahead of the talks, Erdogan tried to enlist Algeria and Tunisia into the service of his irredentist dreams. He failed in this endeavour as well, while Morocco made it clear that it was onto Erdogan’s “evil” intentions. As an Ahval editorial wrote on 19 January, “If (GNA head Fayez) Al-Sarraj is able to exercise any power today in his country, it is thanks to the Skhirat political agreement which he violates every day at the command of Erdogan who has never forgiven Rabat for condemning Turkish intervention in Libya and thereby threatening his African project. Ankara sees Tripoli as the main gateway for its penetration into Africa, which is why it is determined to come to the rescue of the Islamist militias in the Libyan capital and to prevent the LNA from taking control of Tripoli.”
In view of developments in Berlin, where Erdogan was isolated among European leaders and probably only had Al-Sarraj for company in the Ritz Carlton, that ambition may be rapidly slipping out of the Turkish strongman’s reach. Even in Libya, the situation took a nasty turn for him when tribal elders in eastern and southern Libya called for the closure of Libyan ports in protest against the GNA’s use of oil revenues to bring in “mercenaries” and “Turkish colonisers”.
Meanwhile, back in Ankara, Erdogan must be girding himself for the impending visit of German Chancellor Merkel on Friday, 24 January. A number of thorny subjects will be on the table, not least Turkey’s military presence in western Libya. Perhaps she will tell Erdogan that the time has come to translate the substance of the Berlin conference into action in the form of an “honourable” Turkish exit from Libya.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.