31.01.2020 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

What of Turkey’s intervention in Libya?


While many reports in the western main stream media claimed that Turkey’s ‘real motive’ behind its direct intervention in Libya is (a reflection of Erdogan’s obsession with) creating a neo-Ottoman empire in the region, it may not be true. Creating an ‘empire’, even if the word is not literally translated and is broadly understood as a chain of countries under Turkish influence connected by the Muslim Brotherhood, creating this chain is far fetched from reality and may not be possible even if Erdogan has the support of Tripoli. Turkey’s agreements with Government of National Accord (GNA) are not meant to facilitate an ‘empire’, but only geared towards creating a ‘legitimacy’ for a greater Turkish role in the region otherwise dominated by Turkey’s own rival countries, the UAE, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus etc.

In other words, it is more of a power struggle between rival countries in the region than a bid to re-establish an ‘empire.’ Turkey’s ambitions are further curtailed by the fact that its only ally in the region in GNA, which controls less than 30 per cent of the Libyan territory and about half of the population, facing an onslaught of Khalifa Haftar, who has the support of Turkey’s rival parties.

As far as the question of the legitimacy of Turkey’s intervention is concerned, GNA being an internationally recognised government can theoretically ‘ask’ Turkey to intervene. However, whether this will truly lead to a massive change in the Libya’s internal balance of power is another question all together, evident from Khalifa Haftar’s walk out of the summit that was otherwise a Turkish success story in terms of forcing the opposition to come to the negotiating table with the GNA.

A number of forces supporting Khalifa’s Libyan National Army have also closed ranks to oppose Turkey’s military intervention in Libya. And, while Turkey’s state-owned media has been claiming support from countries like Tunisia and Algeria, the fact of the matter is that both of these countries have refused to become a party to the conflict by providing Turkey with logistical support for its operations inside Libya.

Algeria, instead of agreeing for providing a base for Turkey, has resorted to diplomacy to resolve the conflict, staying away from the military conflict. Sabri Boukadoum, Algeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, recently conferred with UN Secretary-General António Guterres and successively with his counterparts from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Mali, Niger, Chad and France, which all play some part, whether directly or indirectly, in the Libyan conflict.

As far as Tunisia is concerned, the country made its position clear to Erdogan when he paid an unscheduled visit to Tunisia on December 25. Far from convincing Tunisia to become a Turkish ally, the visit ended up reinforcing Tunisian neutrality. Tunisian President Kais Saied denied his country had aligned with Turkey and the Tripoli-based Libyan government against the Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Haftar, confirming that they would not become a part of the “nexus.”. Parliament speaker Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda and a close friend of Erdogan in the Muslim Brotherhood network, said that Tunisia was not part of the Libyan conflict and could act only as a mediator.

There are crucial reasons as to why Turkey’s friends are refusing to become a part of the conflict. Turkey’s is not just sending its troops to Libya; it is also relocating its Syria based militias to Libya—a fact that is perhaps working to its disadvantage in terms of pushing its friends away from the conflict, who are avoiding getting embroiled in yet another Turkish ‘jihadi adventure’, and the increasing threat of the spread of Islamist militancy.

While inserting itself in the conflict in Libya will let Turkey increase Tripoli’s dependence on Ankara, and Turkey will inevitably become a power broker in the region, like the way it inserted itself in Syria and became a party to Astana and Sochi peace processes and continues to militarily protect its interests through a seemingly open-ended military presence in Idlib, where Turkish flags and portraits of Erdogan are decorating the streets. However, even after fighting a for quite a few years, its intervention in Syria has not paid off in terms of advancing Turkish ‘neo-Ottoman empire’ dream.

Accordingly, due to its even weaker position in Libya and the opposition it is facing from friends and rivals alike is going to further limit the extent to which it can go.

On top of it all is the fact that the EU, too, has not come out to support Turkish intervention. While Turkey, over the last few years, has increasingly adopted a foreign policy approach rather independent of the NATO and has embraced the increasingly multi-polar world, there is no gainsaying that part of Turkey’s motives is anti-Greece, aimed at stealing the maritime of an EU member; hence, EU’s stance against Turkey.

With Greece offering its military as a peacekeeping force in Libya and Turkey threatening to intervene on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood government, it could lead to a dangerous escalation—something that would further invite external diplomatic interventions, limiting Turkey’s ability to manoeuvre.

Therefore, the only real benefit that Turkey might and will earn out of its intervention is that it will have a lot more say in the outcome of the conflict than would have been the case otherwise. By sending its troops and militias, it has carved out a significant space for tactical manipulation. Its ability to massively change the balance of power in favour of Tripoli by actually defeating Haftar is an extremely remote possibility only, let alone creating a ‘neo-Ottoman empire.’

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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