With an emergency convening of Turkey’s parliament, the path has been cleared for Ankara to send troops to Libya – but such a move may be less about ending the bloody civil conflict there and more about Turkey’s power ambitions.
The new year barely begun, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan fast-tracked a motion to approve the potential deployment of Turkish troops, which passed handily in parliament on Thursday.
Erdogan’s move follows a pattern of recent muscle-flexing and is an obvious play to force Ankara into a more influential position. This is a gamble that could backfire.
Ravaged by years of conflict, perhaps the last thing Libya needs is another foreign power sending its troops into an already desperate situation – but Erdogan hasn’t hidden his desire to make Turkey a “top ten” world power and if it takes a military campaign in North Africa to do it, perhaps, he thinks, it’s worth the risks.
The vote to clear the way for a deployment of troops follows a military cooperation deal signed in November between Ankara and the UN-recognized government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Sarraj has been locked in a bloody civil war with the rival government of General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army to the east – the debacle is a direct result of NATO’s 2011 ‘humanitarian’ intervention, which saw Western powers back anti-government militants in ousting and murdering PM Muammar Gaddafi, leaving the country ripe for plunder and with a power vacuum needing to be filled.
Yet, Erdogan is putting all his eggs in one basket with Libya, hoping that if Sarraj’s government in Tripoli eventually wins the civil war (and he seems to believe Turkey can help tip the balance there), Ankara will be rewarded with extended influence in the Mediterranean.
The tricky thing for Ankara is that, with its oversized ambitions, it threatens to alienate itself from its burgeoning relationship with Moscow – recently strengthened by the purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense systems, much to the annoyance of Ankara’s NATO partners. Russia, which has been reticent about side-taking in Libya and calling for dialogue, said last week it was “unlikely” that interference from third parties in Libya would lead to a settlement.
This all at a time when Erdogan has few solid friends to turn to as his relationship with Washington teeters on rocky ground, following Turkey’s sudden October incursion into northern Syria against the Kurds (a move which the US was most decidedly“not happy” with).
It’s not just Russia and the US who Ankara will be irking with this latest power play, either. Erdogan’s deal with Sarraj, which also aims to create an exclusive economic zone from southern Turkey to Libya’s north east, also angered Cyprus and Greece, who complain that it violates the international law of the sea.
Erdogan has long harbored grand ambitions for Turkey, repeating regularly that the world is “bigger than five” – a reference to the five members of the UN Security Council. The Libya crisis is seen as an opportunity by which he can force Turkey into the club (or at least be taken more seriously by it) – but he’s not the only outside player in the game. Haftar reportedly promised last week that his LNA forces would take Tripoli “in hours” if Egypt sent troops to help.
With Haftar already receiving material support from France, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates (and, allegedly, from Russia too), Erdogan may get himself in over his head and find Turkey increasingly isolated. In his Libya gamble, the risks may be greater than the rewards.
By Danielle Ryan, an Irish freelance writer based in Dublin. Her work has appeared at Salon, The Nation, teleSUR and others.