It has been long since the presidential palace in Ankara has been so ecstatic. The “victories” that were achieved in western Libya thanks to Turkish drones and military expertise inspired President Erdogan to wax lyrical, on Friday: “Our soldiers together with their Libyan brothers penned legends in Libya, in Tripoli, Tarhouna and the neighbouring airports which they have purged and have brought under control.”
Not a few eyebrows were raised in Turkey when it struck home that the tens of thousands of jihadist mercenaries that Turkey sent into Libya from Syria had suddenly become “our soldiers”. The surprise was heightened when he likened the Libyan campaign to Turkey’s “epic success in fighting terrorism in northern Iraq and Syria”. “Success?” Turkish listeners with any critical faculties asked after quickly calculating the Turkish lives, materiel, prestige and money lost in their country’s military adventures to the south. Indeed, on the same day in which Erdogan bragged of “conquest” in Libya, another Turkish soldier died and two more were wounded in the renewed fighting in Idlib.
Like many an autocratic regime, Ankara tailors its statements to its audience, heedless of contradictions. So while the state run Anadolu news agency asked whether there were still chances for peace in Libya and answered “the brave do not fear tolerance for the sake of peace which is what Libyans need now after 10 years of war and destruction,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu struck an unmistakably hostile tone: “The whole world realises that Turkey has changed the balances of power on the ground. We have interests there in the Mediterranean.”
The latter statement more accurately reflects the thinking in the presidential palace whose thirst for Middle Eastern oil and gas has whetted Erdogan’s appetite to stretch his expansionist designs to Libya and fired his proclivity for engaging militant Islamist groups and militias to realise them. The US has been tacitly complicit, ostensibly for fear of growing Russian influence. It has remained silent on Turkey’s breaches of the UN arms embargo and of the pledges it undertook in Berlin, and it has dragged its feet in the process of appointing a new head to the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) which has been central to international efforts to resolve the crisis in the war torn country. This has dismayed Europe whose spokespersons fear that delays in appointing a successor to former UNSMIL chief Ghassan Salame will hamper efforts to end the conflict while some added that they will encourage the Turkish strongman’s neo-Ottoman irredentist designs.
Nevertheless, Turkish opposition forces hold out little hope that a European voice of reason will prevail in Ankara. Outside of diplomatic channels, Europe has few concrete means of persuasion. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, for example, is clearly worried that Turkey’s ambitions in Libya extend beyond their stated aim of creating a military balance that would induce the Libyan National Army (LNA) to return to the negotiating table. In a phone call with Fayez Al-Sarraj, the head of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), earlier this month, Conte said that the flow of foreign weapons into Libya was adding further fuel to the conflict and posing a security threat to Libya’s neighbours and European countries. France, too, stressed similar concerns. In a recent statement, the Elysee Palace voiced its fear of the looming threat that is coalescing at Europe’s southern borders. “We cannot want to imagine a similar case of conflict like the Syrian conflict unfolding 200 kilometres from European shores,” the statement said.
Yet, as genuine as their concerns may be, neither country went further to clarify the possible means and mechanisms they might pursue to halt Turkey’s aggressive behaviour. It is a condition that Gevorg Mirzayan of Russia Today described, in an interview with the AhvalNews site, as European “passivity”, by which he meant the inability to take concrete action because of Europe’s vulnerability to Turkish blackmail using refugees and oil and gas. He added that, of all the foreign stakeholders, Europe was the main loser in the thorny and complex tug-of-war over the Libyan crisis.
If Erdogan’s ambitions are to encounter any meaningful obstruction it will be from the direction of Moscow, which backs the LNA commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, a frequent target of the pro-Erdogan propaganda machine. Playing on American anti-Russian fears, Turkish Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin stated that Moscow may be trying to establish a regime in Libya similar to the one in Syria. He pointed to the recent Maltese seizure of allegedly “counterfeit” Libyan currency minted in Russia and a possible “air bridge” between Syria and Libya. He advised Moscow to cease its support for Haftar because it would not serve Russian interests in the mid and long term.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who serves as Putin’s special envoy for the Middle East and Africa, responded that Kalin’s claims are unfounded. He also denied Erdogan’s accusation that representatives of the Russian military command are in Libya to direct the activities of private military firms there. The Russian press also reflects the Kremlin’s mounting anger at Turkish military intervention in Libya, which Russian commentators see as a Turkish grab for Libyan oil. They have also lashed out at Ankara’s incessant bids to stir anti-Russian sentiment in former Soviet countries as part of Erdogan’s designs to expand its influence in Central Asia in the framework of his Turko-centric expansionist vision. In March, he opposed the Russian annexation of Crimea six years after the fact and declared support for the rights and interests of Crimean Tatars in the face of oppression. Ankara also supports the annexation of Georgia to NATO. In both cases he is playing to an American audience, but in the latter, he also has his sights set, once again, on oil and gas. Georgia is on the road of a gas pipeline extending from Azerbaijan through Turkey to Europe.
Cumhuriyet columnist Baris Doster suspects close coordination between Ankara and Washington on these and other matters. Pointing to recent reports of Turkish airplanes refuelling two US bombers over the Black Sea, he asked: “What is the US doing on the Black Sea? As long as Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania, all NATO members, are located on the Black Sea, the only explanation is that it is about reviving the question of incorporating Georgia and Ukraine into NATO which troubles Russia deeply.”
The darkening skies between Ankara and Moscow from Libya and Syria to Central Asia and the Black Sea have stirred speculations over the future of their bilateral relations. Turkish commentators who have watched how their government swung towards Russia when Ankara went through a rough patch with Washington now believe that it is about to shift the other way. Some predict that in order to curry favour with Trump, Erdogan will distance himself from Putin and go so far as to make a significant gesture such as using its Russian-made S-400 defence missiles. Erdogan and other Turkish officials have repeatedly insisted that the S-400s were to be used, not kept in storage. They were supposed to be deployed by the end of 2019, but this was deferred to April and then once again deferred on the grounds of the Covid-19 pandemic. But, as Ankara’s current and past allies know, the regime is unpredictable in many ways, so it remains to be seen how its current tensions with Moscow will play out.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly