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Will Erdogan escalate?

Beset by troubles at home, Turkey’s Erdogan continues to drive wedges around the region. Is he serious about making so many enemies, or is it all for domestic consumption

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Thursday 23 Jul 2020
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As ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) officials continue to boast of the grand success of Ankara’s interventions in Syria and Libya, its persistence in drilling for gas in the Eastern Mediterranean and other policies, both foreign and domestic, that continue to ratchet up regional and international tensions, many are wondering whether this is a case of “the lady doth protest too much.” Turkish opposition circles certainly think so. They dismiss the government’s claims that the Turkish public and, indeed, the entire Islamic world have rallied behind it and point to the direct consequences of these polices: Turkey’s international isolation and the disastrous state of the economy at home.

On 16 July, a reconnaissance plane crashed on Mount Artos, at an altitude of 670 metres, in Van province near the border with Iran, killing all on board. The dead were hailed as “martyrs” and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, who rushed to the site, announced that an investigation was under way into the cause. Some observers conjectured wryly that the investigation would produce “proof” to pin the crash on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). That would kill at least two birds with one stone: legitimise the escalated bombing campaign in northern Iraq and cover up a technical failure.

A third bird, of course, is the production of another distraction to divert public opinion from high levels of unemployment and soaring costs of living. IYI (Good) Party leader Meral Aksener is not the first or last of the opposition figures to accuse AKP leader and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of manipulating public perceptions. She has said he fabricated “artificial crises” in order to distract from rising unemployment and she has accused the Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK) of manipulating figures to show a rise in employment over the previous years. “Your trolls are just online but the teachers who are waiting assignments are real and so are the millions of unemployed young people… The 200,000 citizens who went unemployed in the last year know the truth,” she said recently.

Another front where Ankara has been on the offensive is Libya where it furnishes massive military support to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). Last month, Cairo declared a “red line” from Sirte to Al-Jufra as the boundary of Egypt’s national security defence realm and threatened to intervene militarily if the GNA’s Turkish-backed militias and mercenaries cross that line. Last week, Erdogan announced that he would conclude a new military cooperation agreement with GNA Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj, and added that this one would be under “UN sponsorship”. Was this a sign of escalation or the reverse?

Some believe it is the latter. On Saturday, 18 July, Germany, France and Italy announced decisions to impose sanctions on countries that violate the UN arms embargo on Libya as well as their determination to back UN efforts to broker a ceasefire in war-torn Libya. The UN, itself, has frequently expressed its concern over the influx of thousands of jihadists into western Libya. So, on what grounds does Erdogan base the claim that the UN would back his North Africa adventure?

True, a recent Pentagon report said it found no proof that the mercenaries on the Turkish payroll belonged to the Islamic State group or Al-Qaeda. It stated that the mercenaries were motivated less by ideological and political reasons than by the promise of money and Turkish citizenship. But regardless of the mercenaries’ motivations, their presence in Libya still violates the embargo as well as the pledges Turkey made in Berlin in January.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) notes, firstly, that the Pentagon report only covers the first quarter of this year, two months before the GNA escalation in June. The Pentagon report gave an estimate of 3,500 to 3,800 Syrian mercenaries for that period. On 13 July, the SOHR reported that “Turkish authorities have sent a new batch of jihadi fighters to Libya” bringing “the number of recruits who arrived in Libya to 16,100 Syrian mercenaries, including 340 children under the age of 18.” In a subsequent report, the SOHR also stated: “Turkish intelligence have transferred jihadist groups and Islamic State members of different foreign nationalities, from Syria to Libya in the past few months.” These included “over 2,500 Tunisian IS members” out of thousands of other IS-affiliated Tunisians operating in Syria.

According to opposition sources, civilians in Sirte are grateful for the return of stability and normality to their city after the Libyan National Army (LNA) drove out GNA-affiliated militias, which the locals accused of plunder and maltreatment. The sources hold that the “Muslim Brotherhood triangle” (Turkey, Qatar and Tunisia) resent that success and plan an advance of GNA affiliated mercenaries and militias in order to retake Sirte. The staunchly pro-Erdogan Milliyet newspaper reported that Ankara sent Turkish-made missile launchers to support a GNA offensive against Sirte and Al-Jufra. Nevertheless, observers and analysts in the opposition press or on social networking sites suspect that this is a form of posturing and/or propaganda for domestic consumption.

They believe that the same applies to Erdogan’s vow to “stand up against” any offensive against petroleum rich Azerbaijan and his intimation that Baku asked for Turkish military intervention. They saw a similar bravado in a recent statement by the Turkish official responsible for relations with independent Turkic republics who said, “the Republic of Turkey, the heir to the great Ottoman Empire, must establish a coalition with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan even if that leads to a confrontation with Russia.”

Russia sits on the other side of the Sirte-Jufra line in Libya and tensions have spiked between Moscow and Ankara over Syria. But if the gap between Ankara and Moscow has begun to widen, the gap between Erdogan and the West is yawning.

In Europe, where Erdogan is increasingly perceived as a synonym for flouting international and European laws and conventions on human and civil rights, he has zero friends. Germany is on the verge of rupture, fed up with his blackmail ruses — in particular using refugees as pawns. Some in Turkey have entertained hopes that now that Germany assumed the presidency of the Council of Europe there is hope for patching up relations between Ankara and the EU. Ismail Ertug, a member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the EU Parliament, could see no grounds for such expectations. In interview with the AhvalNews website, he pointed out that when Angela Merkel presented her programme at the European Parliament, “she never mentioned Turkey, not once.”

In an opinion article in Das Bild on Sonntag, on 19 July, Margot Käßmann, the former head of the German Evangelical Church, denounced the “pitiful” political tactics that Erdogan uses to rally support among conservative Muslims. She referred to the recent conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Many in Turkey would also add the revived push to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, a landmark convention that seeks to protect women from violence and abuse.

In the US, one gauge of the health of Ankara’s relationship with Washington is to be found in the fact that Turkey’s name was erased from the official website of the Pentagon’s F-35 fighter jet programme which includes, in addition to the US, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, Norway and the UK. Turkey was eliminated from the programme last year after it accepted delivery of the S-400 missile defence system it had purchased from Russia the previous year.

The question now is where Erdogan will take his next step to alienate friends, make new enemies and ultimately make life worse for the Turkish people.

Some have placed their bets on Libya.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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