30.06.2020 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Through Libya, Turkey eyes a Neo-Ottoman Era Dominance

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With tectonic changes, reflected largely through a massive decline in Saudi influence, taking place within the ‘Muslim world’, a potent struggle for new dominance has already begun. The symbolic and actual battlefield is Libya, gateway to a big part of the Muslim world in Africa. While a number of countries—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Russia, France—are involved directly and indirectly in the ‘Libyan saga’, Turkey’s involvement is not only deeper than all but also the most ambitious one. Turkey, unlike other countries, is not merely a supporter of a particular regime or a political faction; its presence is rooted in its ambitions to reassert and re-establish Turkey’s Ottoman era dominance and become the leader of the entire ‘Muslim world.’ This leadership has both political and religious dimensions rooted in Turkey’s support for a particular brand of Islam expressed widely through the Muslim Brotherhood.

That Turkey’s ambitions go beyond its military support for the Government of National Accord (GNA), is evident even from the way pro-Government media in Turkey has been projecting Turkey’s ‘military victories’ in Libya. Although Turkey’s gains in Libya are significant, the GNA still does not control more than one fifth of Libya, including its oil fields. Yet, for the sellers of Neo-Ottoman dreams in Turkey, the recent military gains are a window to Turkish pre-dominance in the Mediterranean sea. These projection sees Turkish presence in the Mediterranean as the key to the future:

“One of the reasons for the decline of the Ottoman Empire was its loss of power on the high seas, while one of the reasons for Turkey’s growth internationally will be the gains it has made thanks to the agreement with Libya and the insistent will of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.”

Turkey, in Libya, is therefore on an imperialist agenda, although its ability to carry out this agenda depends largely on the fate of GNA and whether or not it receives support from its NATO allies, particularly the US. So far, in Libya, Turkey is yet to receive open support from Washington. Despite Erdogan’s efforts, the US president has still chosen to support ceasefire instead of a continued Turkish-backed GNA offensive on Haftar’s forces.

As it stands, Turkey has not always received support from its allies for its Neo-Ottoman dreams. A case in point may be the way the US-Turkey relations fell apart in Syria, where persistent US support for Kurdish militias forced Ankara to ally more closely with Russia and Iran, although the underlying objective of its involvement remained increasing its own influence in Syria with or without Assad.

Turkey’s military involvement in Libya stems again from the same objective i.e., like-minded Islamist leaders installed from Africa to Asia and thus create a chain of states looking towards Turkey as the ‘centre of power and glory.’

For Erdogan, Libya and other countries of North Africa are the heritage of his forefathers and the legacy of his country. In a recent speech, he said: “Turkey has a vast historical and civilisational basin. The Mediterranean and North Africa are an important part of that basin. Libya is the legacy of our Ottoman Empire.”

Pro-Government media in Libya has been toeing the same line of thought to give Turkey’s intervention a popular and ideological currency.

It is significant to note that even before Turkey’s military adventure began in Libya, this media had already started to project the Ottomans as the true liberators of Libya from the Spaniards in the 16th century. The Ottomans then launched a ‘Libya campaign’ as the Neo-Ottomans have done now with a view to ‘Ottomanising’ a large swath of territory beyond Turkey’s current territorial borders. For Erdogan, Turkey will “challenge all who reduce the history of our country to 90 years……Turkey cannot be confined to 780,000 square kilometres.”

That Turkey’s support stems from this dream and that this dream has religious-ideological roots is also evident from the fact that in all of Turkey’s overseas military expeditions and interventions, a powerful ideological element is overwhelmingly visible. This is evident from the fact that the GNA is an off-shoot of Muslim Brotherhood (banned in the Russian Federation), a religious organisation that preaches a particular brand of Islam; it has its own expansionist ambitions and has deep roots in Turkey. With Erdogan’s close ties with the organisation going back to the 1970s, Erdogan’s support for this organisation has expanded exponentially since 2005 both within Turkey and globally.

In Libya, the Brotherhood has been a dominant political element since the formation of Justice and Construction Party (JCP), a political party that sought to establish a Libyan Islamist caliphate and which was reportedly modeled after the Egyptian Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. Muslim Brotherhood remains an ideologically and politically dominant element in the internationally recognised GNA.

Whether Turkey can materialise its objectives or not depends largely on the support it receives from its NATO allies.

So far, France has been supporting Haftar, leading Erdogan to accuse France for spreading ‘instability.’ What, however, might still give Erdogan a leeway is the deepening divisions within the NATO alliance and its increasingly inability to chart a united course over a range of issues, including the member countries’ financial contributions.

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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