Erdogan’s East Mediterranean game

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Friday 29 May 2020

Might Erdogan’s military meddling in Libya ultimately have a domestic goal?

Erdogan’s East Mediterranean game
Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) takes control of Watiya airbase, southwest of Tripoli, on Monday (photo: Reuters)

As the domestic situation grows bleaker for him and his ruling party, Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan is struggling to turn the Turkish public’s attention away from home.

In his desperation, Erdogan is laying bare his designs to cement the cornerstones of a new/old empire founded on an odd coupling of Turkish ethnic chauvinism that harks back to a mythical Turkic ancestor in pre-Islamic Central Asia, and an aggressive brand of Muslim Brotherhood Islamist ideology.

Haci Yakisikli, of the pro-Erdogan newspaper Yeni Akit, is a good source to turn to for a chilling view into the mindset of the Erdogan regime. On his personal Twitter account, he rejoices at the “Amazing News!”: “The Turkish World Cooperation and Solidarity Society together with 100 NGOs are preparing to file lawsuits at the international level concerning 12 islands, Crete, Libya, Mosul-Kirkuk, Crimea and Western Thrace that they believe legally belong to Turkey! These lands might be able to re-join Turkey!”

Although observers have described this as the ravings of a madman, thousands of right-wing Turkish academics, journalists and opinion pundits subscribe to these irredentist dreams and they are growing more and more belligerent in their calls for the restoration of Turkish “rights” in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean.

Undoubtedly, much of this is orchestrated. On 11 April, Erdogan announced that his government would continue its resolute defence of Turkish rights and interests in Cypriot regional waters in the Aegean. Turkey claims it is operating on behalf of the interests of the Turkish Republic of Cyprus that was created following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and that is recognised by no other member of the international community but Turkey. His remarks came after a joint declaration by Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, France and the United Arab Emirates denouncing Turkish activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara’s oil and gas drilling operations in areas where Cyprus has exclusive economic rights have been condemned on numerous occasions by the abovementioned countries, as well as by the EU and the US.

To further fuel tensions in the region, the Anadolu Agency (AA) reported Thursday, 15 May, that the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPAO) officially asked the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya for permission to drill in the eastern Mediterranean. The state-run news agency cited Erdogan’s Energy and Natural Resources Minister Fatih Donmez as saying that the exploration work will begin “as soon as the process is completed”. GNA head Fayez Al-Sarraj signed a widely condemned maritime border agreement with Erdogan in November last year in order to create a Turkish maritime zone that improbably stretches from southern Anatolian shores to the coast of northeast Libya.

Then, in another of those three card monte games the Turkish regime plays to deflect attention from its own belligerent and autocratic policies, officials of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lashed out at Al-Sarraj’s chief adversary, the Commander of the Libyan National Army Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. In an interview with the Turkish A Haber news channel on 16 May, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Haftar’s forces were growing more aggressive as they continued attacks targeting Libyan civilians. Cavusoglu likened this to the “Syrian regime’s aggression against its people”. Critics of Erdogan’s policies at home and abroad have said much the same if not worse about the activities of Turkish militias in Libya and Syria.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar may have spoken the truth when he said that no Turks have died in Libya. But this has not prevented the Erdogan regime from sending thousands of Syrians to die in Libya, including children. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which has been monitoring and tracking Turkish operations to transfer Syrian mercenaries to Libya, reports that the Turkish backed factions in Afrin have been recruiting minors in order “to send them to engage in fighting in the side of the GNA against Haftar’s forces in Libyan territory”. According to the Syrian rights organisation, 22,250 Syrian mercenaries have volunteered to join fighting in Libya, with 287 killed in Libyan territory so far. “Among the total number of recruits, some 150 children between the ages of 16 and 18, have been recruited to fight in Libya, the majority of whom are of ‘Al-Sultan Murad’ Division, by offering material incentives, exploiting their difficult living situation and poverty.” Sixteen of these children have been killed so far.

Thanks to these mercenaries, the GNA has been growing more aggressive in its military offensives despite EU High Representative Josep Borrell’s reiterated appeals to “all sides” to adhere to a truce. Borrell may not have mentioned the Turkish-backed GNA militias explicitly, but the implied censure was clear. The GNA had initially committed to a ceasefire agreement in January while Turkey has become more and more brazen in its breaches of the UN embargo on arms and military support for the warring factions in Libya.

As is often the case with Ankara’s best laid schemes, spanners crop up to make them go awry. A recent spanner is the increasingly close relations between Benghazi and Damascus.

“Turkey may face additional obstacles to its military interventions in Syria and Libya as a result of increasing cooperation between its adversaries in these two war-torn countries,” reports Paul Iddon for AhvalNews website. The relations have not yet translated into substantial military cooperation against Turkey, but considerable potential is there, he observes. Cooperation could be “in the form of joint diplomatic efforts, but also an exchange of knowledge, intelligence and expertise”, Iddon wrote, citing the representative of a research and consulting firm based in eastern Libya. “Benghazi and Damascus could coordinate attacks against the Turkish military and its militia proxies in both countries to divide and stretch Turkey’s attention as well as its resources.”

Iddon also cited Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, as saying that Haftar and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad presented themselves as the secular option for their countries, invariably portraying their opponents (the Turks and the Turkish-backed militias) as Islamic State-like fanatics. Landis also notes that Al-Assad and Haftar are both allied with Russia and “hope to find ways to leverage their new relations against Turkey”.

Earlier this month, a delegation of the Libyan National Army announced that it had opened an embassy in Damascus as part of joint Syrian-Libyan efforts to combat Turkish aggression. “The establishment of formal representations between Damascus and the LNA raises the possibility of diplomatic and economic, as well as military cooperation down the road,” Iddon observes, adding: “The LNA can help Damascus economically, since it controls Libya’s oil reserves, and diplomatically, through its connections with the Gulf states that oppose Turkey’s policies in the region.”

The Gulf states, specifically the UAE, appear to be a crucial component of the Benghazi-Damascus cooperation against Turkey. Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow at the Conflict Research Unit of the Clingendael Institute, who focuses on Libya, told Ahval that the LNA delegation’s visit to Damascus 3 March revealed the increasingly close ties that now exist between the UAE and Syria. “This dynamic is true diplomatically, but also financially, and perhaps militarily also,” Harchaoui said.

One effect of such developments is to feed Erdogan’s bent for seeing conspiracies being hatched against him everywhere.

In a teleconference with his cabinet 11 May, Erdogan railed against an “alliance of evil” with its mastermind in the Gulf. As other commentators observed, such statements are part and parcel of the Erdogan regime’s propaganda drive that has grown increasingly strident since the Turkish economy and currency began their downward spirals against the backdrop of Ankara’s military adventures abroad and its mounting tensions with Europe and the Arab region because of his persistent illegal drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, creating yet more enemies for Turkey.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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