Erdogan’s Libyan adventure

Hany Ghoraba , Thursday 11 Jul 2019

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s involvement in the Libyan crisis is part of an increasingly desperate pattern of Turkish interventions in the region

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting in Ankara, Turkey, July 10, 2019. (Photo: Reuters)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has seen better days than thus far in 2019, which is now witnessing a series of unfortunate events for him and his Islamist supporters particularly in the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) Party. 

The latter is witnessing the worst wave of dissent since its inception in 2001 after losing the mayoral elections in Istanbul in June to opposition CHP Party candidate Ekrem Imamoglu in a major blow to AKP unity and faith in its leadership. This is something that directly reflects on the image of the party’s symbol, Erdogan. 

Before the rerun of the Istanbul mayoral elections, Erdogan upped the ante by presenting his supporters with a choice between opposition candidate Imamoglu, whom he likened to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, and AKP candidate Binali Yildrim.

Much to Erdogan’s dismay, Istanbul voters chose Imamoglu, sending a clear message that Erdogan and his entourage of Islamists are no longer wanted by a majority of the residents of Turkey’s most important city.

As a result of this domestic defeat, Erdogan has tried to shift attention to external conflicts and his support for the Islamist Government of National Accord in Libya.

Libyan armed forces led by field marshal Khalifa Haftar recently shot down a Turkish drone supporting terrorist militias during the battle of Al-Gharian on the outskirts of the capital Tripoli, for example.

The Turkish involvement in the battle has also forced the Libyan army to declare that it will target Turkish ships and arrest any Turkish nationals on Libyan soil. 

It has already arrested six Turkish nationals suspected of aiding terrorist militias in Libya, causing the Turkish Defence Ministry to issue a warning to the Libyan army. The six sailors were later released, but the extent of the Turkish involvement in the Libyan crisis has now been revealed for all to see.

The Libyan army is backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in its battle to retake Tripoli and unify the war-torn country. This cannot be attained except by clearing the Libyan capital of terrorist militias backing the Islamist government led by Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj.  

Erdogan is adamant about carrying on with what will soon prove to be another failed Turkish military adventure.

At the same time, he is still apparently unrepentant after suffering significant military setbacks in Syria and Iraq, especially against the Kurdish groups in Syria that are seeking independence.

Erdogan’s adventures in Syria have failed to shift the tides in favour of the Syrian Islamist groups fighting against the Syrian state and President Bashar Al-Assad.

They have been met with continuous military failures and have caused major humanitarian disasters, especially in the city of Afrin where reports of mass murders have been released.  

Erdogan faces another challenge in Libya, since Turkish forces are now face to face with the Libyan army, which is the strongest and most organised armed force in the country. Egypt and the UAE have pledged full support to its leader Khalifa Haftar in his efforts to unite the country.

Moreover, Egypt will not allow Erdogan to establish a foothold on Libyan soil, since this could jeopardise its national security. 

The Turkish regime is known to be supporting terrorism in Egypt by harbouring and financing Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist elements.

The Turkish financial and logistical support for terrorism in North Sinai is well known to the Egyptian authorities, and hence the Egyptian leadership will not countenance Erdogan’s ambitions to carry out hostile activities in a neighbouring country such as Libya.

The UAE has similarly pledged support to the Libyan army in its efforts to combat terrorist militias. 

Despite the biased reports in the Western media and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated outlets, the Libyan army’s moves to recapture the capital have been steady and calculated.

The Libyan army command chose to move slowly in order to avoid civilian casualties in Libya’s largest city, and accordingly the march towards the final goal has been slow but successful.

This march has irked the Turkish leadership, which cannot fathom the fall of another Islamist ally in the region. However, Erdogan’s ambitions also go beyond the military and political to the economic, since Libya possesses the largest proven petroleum reserves on the African continent, and this would be a juicy prize for Erdogan to take a military gamble on.

Those ambitions are shared by Erdogan’s Qatari allies, which have attempted to control the flow of Libyan oil exports since the early days of the civil war.

The Libyan oil refineries have now been liberated by the army, yet the Tripoli government still holds large oil sites which are major incentives for Erdogan to carry on with his aggression. 

Turkey has been openly sending armoured cars, weapons and drones to Libya and even shipping jihadists from Syria to the country on Turkish vessels.

Last December, a Turkish ship arrived in Khoms in Libya carrying weapons and an estimated 4.8 million rounds of ammunition manufactured by the Turkish companies Zoraki and Reta to aid the Islamist militants.

In May this year, dozens of Turkish-made armoured cars reached Tripoli in an attempt to back the Libyan Islamist government, according to Libyan army reports. These incidents among many others are violations of the UN Security Council embargo on exporting weapons to Libya. 

Erdogan is still using Turkish political influence in his attempts to get away with the crimes he has been committing in his own country and abroad, and he has not been held adequately accountable for them.

Facing internal dissent, Erdogan has gone further with the purges and arbitrary arrests he carried out after the alleged failed coup d’etat in Turkey in 2016.

This week, the Turkish government arrested 122 military personnel over alleged connections to exiled Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen. By December 2018, a total of 15,242 military officers had been dismissed, and an estimated 150,000 public-sector workers in Turkey had met the same fate. 

There are now over 96,885 people in jail in Turkey pending trial. Media outlets have been shut down, with a total of 189 shut and 319 journalists arrested.

The judicial system has not been left intact either, with nearly 4,463 judges and prosecutors accused of being Gülenist supporters having been dismissed. Germany’s Deutsche Welle news outlet has reported that 3,000 such prisoners are in solitary confinement.

These numbers are part of an ever-increasing trajectory in Turkey. However, like a compulsive gambler Erdogan seems to feel that he is losing control, and his instinct is to make ever-bigger gambles in a desperate attempt to regain his position.

But his adventures are financed at the expense of the Turkish nation, and they will eventually lead the Turkish tyrant to fall further into an abyss that he has himself created.

The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 11 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Erdogan’s Libyan adventure

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