TURKEY’S LIBYA POLICY AND EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN DISPUTE CLOSELY LINKED
Libya has become the focus of Turkish President Erdogan’s assertive foreign policy in the wider region ever since tensions increased over Eastern Mediterranean offshore gas resources. Excluded from cooperation on the development and export of gas to European markets, Turkey decided to back up its claim through a belligerent stance, sending military warships into Greek waters and organising drills.
Earlier this year, the leaders of Israel, Greece and Cyprus signed an accord on construction of a pipeline to export gas from newly discovered offshore deposits in the southeastern Mediterranean to Europe. Erdogan sees this as an attempt to sideline Turkey from regional strategic matters. Turkey is afraid of being bypassed for the first time in energy transportation to Europe by the deal, as Ankara used to play a special role in transporting Russian, Iraqi and Azerbaijani oil and gas to Western markets.
Turkey’s relationships with regional and neighbouring countries are already troubled due to President Erdogan’s aggressive foreign policy ambitions. Ankara has complicated the future of the EastMed project by signing the controversial maritime delineation deal with the UN-recognised Libyan government. Turkey’s move is an attempt to counter the EastMed project and to re-establish itself as a vital player in the region. Not surprisingly, right after the signing of the maritime deal with the Tripoli-based Libyan government, the Turkish president said that without his country’s participation no energy project could be completed in the region. President Erdogan defended the maritime memorandum with Libya by saying that Turkey cannot be imprisoned in its own waters and has to have a major role in regional energy projects.
In addition, involving Turkey in Libya’s multisided civil war on the side of the Tripoli-based government, Erdogan appealed to nationalistic and religious sentiment. He referred to Libya’s historical bond with Turkey, as a former Ottoman province, and cited Ataturk’s role in Libya as an Ottoman military commander in the fight against the Italians in 1911-12. President Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman assertiveness poses a major risk to Turkey, as the country is involved in regional conflicts on three fronts. The Russian airstrikes on Turkish military units in Syria showed how vulnerable Turkey really is.
TURKEY’S LIBYA GAMBIT AND RISKS
As Turkey faces a backlash from Greece, Cyprus, Israel and the European Union over its deal with Libya, the country’s support for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) is setting Turkey against French geopolitical interests. The French embassy in Greece issued a statement at the end of March, declaring the maritime deal between Libya and Turkey “invalid”. Under the security cooperation agreement with the GNA, Ankara has already deployed a small number of Turkish forces alongside the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army group as military “instructors” to help the internationally recognised government in Tripoli to fight against the controversial warlord Khalifa Haftar. Haftar’s backers include France, the UAE, Egypt and Russia, though he has been accused of war crimes in Libya by international human rights agencies. Last year, after getting strong military and political support from the UAE, Egypt, France and other countries, Haftar launched a military offensive against the GNA government. Turkey defends its involvement in the conflict on the side of the UN-recognised government as “legitimate”, as it was requested by the legitimate government in Libya.
France’s policy of backing Haftar is an attempt to install a strongman in Libya in order to achieve strategic objectives, which have not been achieved since the overthrow of Colonel Qaddafi by the French-led NATO intervention in 2011. Paris has a special economic interest in Libya’s oil and gas industry, as Wikileaks revealed through an email from Sidney Blumenthal to Hillary Clinton, the former US Secretary of State, in 2011. Paris is also seeking to increase its political influence in North Africa and to combat Islamist groups in the Sahel region. Since the downfall of Qaddafi, Libya has become an entry point for illegal migration to Europe and French President Macron is interested in curbing the flow of migrants into Europe through the Libyan route. Turkey is doing the opposite and endangering French interests by supporting the government against Haftar. Thus, the collision of French-Turkish interests risks more chaos in war-torn Libya for years to come. If Turkey and Russia reach a deal and pressurise both sides to agree a ceasefire, French interests would be in jeopardy as Turkish-Russian cooperation might sideline Paris.
The UAE and its Arab allies, namely Egypt, are also playing a disruptive role in the civil war. It is no secret that Haftar’s military gains were achieved thanks to UAE air support including drones and piloted aircraft. Since 2015 Haftar has been getting all the necessary military and political support from his backers, which has helped him to control vast areas from a tiny city. Supplying arms to Haftar, despite international arms controls, fuels the criminal militias under him and disinclines them from a political solution. The UAE’s support for Haftar is part of their wider strategy to prevent and abort any democratisation in the Middle East and North Africa and reinstall friendly dictators. French President Macron strongly objects to the Turkish involvement in Libya. Turkey’s involvement is smaller than the Emirati presence and France criticises Ankara for its interference but not Abu Dhabi. Victory for Haftar would create a pro-Paris Libya, which has been the centrepiece of French foreign policy since 2011.
Turkey and Russia tried to broker a ceasefire between the warring sides in Russia. However, Haftar declined to sign the deal after consulting with his backers. The disastrous French involvement in Libya has already created a foothold for Russia, as Moscow’s Wagner group of mercenaries has a strong military presence inside the country. If Turkey and Russia can work together as they have done in Syria, France and its Arab allies are going to be sidelined from the conflict. However, Ankara’s Libya adventure is going to be costly and the future of Turkey’s opposition to the EastMed project increasingly depends on the outcome of the Libyan civil war.