The region’s number one troublemaker, as critics have dubbed the Turkish president, is still in raptures over what he and the pro-government press in Turkey have unabashedly called “conquests” in the Arab world. Turkish military adventurism in Iraq, Syria and Libya has triggered alarm in the region and mounting concern (at least on the surface) in Europe. Most recently, Ankara’s bid to acquire a foothold in Yemen has triggered Saudi anger, especially given that the Turkish expedition to Sanaa has to pass via Tehran.
Much of Erdogan’s euphoria relates to “his defeat of the plans of the Libyan National Army and the project of its commander, Khalifa Haftar,” in the words of a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Typical of the bloodthirsty rhetoric from those quarters, the pro-Erdogan Yeni Safak added: “The greatest honour one can offer a dead man is to bury it. Attempts to save a decaying body by holding its feet will only cause it greater harm. Hiding behind a corpse serves nothing.”
Yeni Safak columnist Zeki Kursun is a great adulator of Erdogan whom he describes as a “gift from heaven” who will not only save Turks but all Muslim peoples. As for that leader’s immediate task in Libya, it is to revive the Maghreb Union, which could become stronger and more effective if stability is restored in Libya. It could serve as an alternative to the Arab League and create better conditions for lasting regional peace “and for Turkey, of course”. In his opinion, the Arab League never solved the problems of the Arab world and only exacerbated the situation in Libya. This was because “instead of confronting the real crises, it chose to stand up against Erdogan”.
Erdogan’s Chief Adviser Yasin Aktay was the source of the “amazing news flash” that Haftar, the “war contractor”, had made a secret visit to Venezuela to transfer sums of gold and money, suggesting possible designs to leave the country. The narrative, which Aktay at least admits comes from unconfirmed sources, is telling, less because of its mudslinging intent than how it brings to mind the types of shenanigans the Erdogan government gets up to, such as the scheme to purchase millions of dollars’ worth of Venezuelan gold to help Maduro evade sanctions.
If pro-Erdogan pundits in Turkey expressed their “surprise” at President Al-Sisi’s remarks concerning the threat from Libya and the possibility of Egyptian intervention to protect the Sirte-Jafra line, the opposition media in Turkey took advantage of the little space available to it to point out that the Tarhouna tribes have pleaded for Cairo’s urgent intervention and that the UAE and Saudi Arabia fully back the Egyptian position.
The opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP) also drew attention to approximately $16 billion worth of Turkish business contracts in Libya, including $400-500 million in projects that have not begun yet. Of course, the firms and their CEOs are all close to the Erdogan clique. CHP officials also drew attention to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s announcement last Thursday that NATO would launch a probe into an incident in which the naval targeting radar on a Turkish warship set its crosshairs on a French frigate participating in a European operation to enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya.
In a statement prior to the announcement, the French Foreign Ministry said that “the main obstacle to the establishment of peace and stability in Libya today lies in the systematic violation of the UN arms embargo, in particular by Turkey, despite the commitments made in Berlin.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu quickly tried to deflect the charges, calling the EU’s Irini operation “biased”. It “does not take into account the demands and fears of the GNA”, he said in a press conference with his Italian counterpart in Ankara, referring to the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord based in Tripoli.
Perhaps because the French government and press have been so outspoken about Erdogan’s megalomanic designs, French newspapers have acquired increasing popularity among the Turkish opposition. Le Point’s cover stories, such as “The Dictator: How Far Will Erdogan Go?” and “Erdogan: From Dictator to Eradicator”, and numerous articles in Le Figaro warning of the “Turks’ return to the Mediterranean” in the framework of Erdogan’s vision to reconstitute the Ottoman Empire, have been circulating widely over social networking sites.
Certainly, Erdogan’s adviser, Yasin Aktay, has been a chief advocate of a vision for re-establishing Turkey at the centre of a resurrected caliphate with the Muslim Brotherhood as a main proxy in the Arab region and beyond. Are the policies based on this vision losing Turkey friends and influence?
“In recent years, the foreign policy of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been defined by promoting a pro-Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) position rather than by national interests. This ideological attitude has been stubbornly maintained, despite the cost of confrontation with neighbouring countries,” writes Haluk Ozdalga, an academic and former member of the AKP who has served parliament for two terms. “Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Syria turned hostile because of Ankara’s pro-Ikhwan policy. Similar ideological stances damaged relations with Israel. And now these states have moved to align themselves with Greece and Greek Cyprus to counter Ankara’s moves in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.”
Ozdalga urges a new policy outlook that prioritises national interests over Ikhwan interests. Turkey “should stop acting like a partisan in Arab conflicts. We need friends not enemies.”
Meanwhile developments in the US are affecting Turkey in various ways. One is the release of former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s memoirs, The Room Where It Happened, which has several segments on Turkey and Erdogan whom Bolton likened to the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Another is the demonstrations that have rocked the US following the murder of African American George Floyd by a white policeman. Speaking by video linkup to a seminary organised by the Turkish American National Steering Committee while Turkish planes bombard northern Iraq, Cavusoglu noted that the US was not the only place where violence was used to stop peaceful protests. He cited the French police’s use of violence against Yellow Vest protesters, and Greek security agencies’ use of violence against refugees Turkey amassed at the Greek border.
The purpose of such remarks was twofold. Apart from taking digs at Paris and Athens, they deflected attention from the violence Turkish police used to disperse peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators. The march, which set off from Silivri in northwest Turkey, was organised by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) after two of its MPs and a deputy from the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) were barred from parliament. Police fired tear gas and plastic bullets at the demonstrators.
The HDP, which has long spearheaded the advocacy of the political, social and cultural rights of Turkey’s large Kurdish minority, as part of a larger pro-democracy movement, has been the prime target of a government campaign to shutter the third largest party in parliament. Since the last municipal elections, 45 popularly elected HDP mayors have been dismissed by interior minister edict and replaced with AKP-appointed “trustees”. The EU has vehemently condemned the actions primarily targeting predominately Kurdish municipalities in southwest Anatolia. Perhaps a small breath of hope for a large swathe of Turkey’s population comes with the Turkish Constitutional Court’s ruling calling for the release of the former HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas on the grounds that his lengthy detainment exceeded a reasonable period and his right to freedom had been violated.
It remains to be seen whether the ruling will be implemented. It would not be the first time that Erdogan thumbed his nose at that court and the constitution it is tasked to uphold.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly