Turkey pursues energy and political power with aggressive policies – intervention in Libya could be more disruptive than its moves in Syria.
By Mustafa Batman*
Conflicts in the Middle East attract an entanglement of interventions, any of which could turn the region into a powder keg, and Turkish intervention in Libyan civil conflict adds a new dimension. Turkey’s parliament approved a bill to deploy Turkish troops to Libya to assist and advise the forces of Government of National Accord against the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, supported by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Greece, Israel and Cyprus denounced the Turkish decision as provocative and destabilizing for the region. Behind these military and diplomatic maneuvers lie a struggle for energy and political power.
Fahreetin Altun, Republic of Turkey’s communication director, announced the aim on Twitter: “Turkey will work toward defending the international law, achieving security, and preserving peace in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. We will prevent any effort to exploit the conflict in the region. At the same time, we are also ready to cooperate on establishing stability.” A UN agreement formed Libya’s Government of National Accord in 2015, supported by the United States and the European Union.
Yet oil is at the center of this conflict as the Turkish government pursues aggressive foreign policy against a coalition of Cyprus, Egypt, Israel and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish policy began with a signed agreement on Mediterranean maritime boundaries with Libya – a response to Cyprus forming the coalition to develop the Eastern Mediterranean energy sector. Turkish authorities described its agreement as a means to prevent the coalition’s attempt to encircle Turkey. Greece, Israel and Cyprus denounced the Turkish-Libyan agreement as provocative, suggesting it undermines international efforts to stabilize the region. Those countries also signed a pipeline deal for shipping natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe. Turkey’s diplomatic move was also a response to attempts to exclude Turkey from Mediterranean gas exploration. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insisted that no project can proceed without Turkey’s consent following its deal with Libya.
Cyprus regards Turkey’s attempt to explore gas in the Eastern Mediterranean as provocative. The European Union has threatened sanctions, and the US Secretary of State has described Turkey’s activities as “illegal.” Even so, Fatih Donmez, Turkey’s energy minister, declared such activities will “continue with determination.” Hence, the government views intervention in Libya as the only way to achieve Turkish goals for the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkish troops will work to secure the government of Libya against General Haftar’s forces. Turkey also sought to guarantee its seat in the international conference on Libya held in Berlin in January.
Turkey seeks to use its military power to force other countries in the region to accept its demands, as it did with two interventions in Syria. However, the consequences of sending Turkish troops to Libya could be more disruptive for domestic politics than the interventions in Syria for four reasons.
First, the 2016 attempted coup resulted in a rise of nationalism and anti-Americanism in Turkey after public opinion assumed the soldiers who joined were linked to NATO and the US-supported cleric Fethullah Gülen, a notion reinforced by the Turkish government.
Second, the government had revised its vision on Syrian policy, focusing on destroying the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group that had garnered sympathy from the West for their steadfast defense of Northern Syria against the Islamic State. A majority of Turkish citizens supported the interventions, accepting these as war against the terrorist group PKK, after documents suggested that Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned PKK leader, formulated the democratic-self administration program of Syrian Democratic Forces during peace negotiations in 2013. Threats of US sanctions also helped Turkish leaders win domestic support.
All political parties in the Turkish assembly, except the People’s Democratic Party, supported the policies in Syria. However, Turkey’s gains remain unclear. Furthermore, the intervention had costs: 180 lives lost in Operation Euphrates Shield, Operation Olive Branch and Operation Peace Spring. Defense spending expanded, representing 12.9 percent of the total budget, and the unemployment rate increased to 14 percent, with the currency flailing and inflation exceeding 11 percent in December.
Third, the nationalist atmosphere posed negative consequences for the Syrian refugees in Turkey as well as the Erdoğan government. Turkish nationalists blame the government’s refugee policies for the country’s economic problems, and Erdoğan had announced a plan to send refugees to the safe zone in Syria. Many Turks did not see that settlement plan as viable, and Turkey’s many political parties were not keen to take another risk as the government attracted international condemnation for its actions in Syria.
The Republican People’s Party, the Good Party and the People’s Democratic Party rejected the bill to deploy Turkish troops in Libya. The opposition labeled the new adventure in Libya as a neo-Ottomanist policy. The Future Party, led by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu – the key person behind Turkey’s Syrian policy – also opposed the decision to send troops to Libya.
The opposition parties support diplomacy and dialogue, and the Republican People’s Party, the main opposition party in the assembly, holds a view similar to that of NATO, claiming that supporting one side during internal conflicts can promote instability. The Good Party and People’s Democratic Party also suggest that the government’s aggressive policies during the Syrian War and Arab Spring, supported by leaders linked with the Muslim Brotherhood, resulted in Turkey’s isolation and destroyed good relations with Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Iran.
Fourth, critics questioned the creation of new alliances in Libya. While Turkey, Iran and Russia close in on a deal for Syria, Russian support to the regime in Idlib triggered another refugee crisis. Over the next few months, hundreds of thousands of more people may head for the Turkish border, and Turkey has not signaled how it will handle this challenge.
The Idlib crisis and Turkey’s intervention in Libya may put Turkey and Russia at opposite sides once again. A ceasefire for Libya brokered by Russia and Turkey began 12 January. If international conferences do not achieve peace, Turkey could destroy its relationship with Russia and result in total isolation for Turkey in the region.
All in all, the Turkish gambit has two goals. First, it desires to keep the GNA in power in Libya to secure advantages in the Eastern Mediterranean and increase economic activities in North Africa by using the nation as an entryway. By sending troops to Libya, Turkey secures a seat at international conferences deciding the country’s fate. Turkey uses its military power for diplomatic advantages, but at the risk of losing respect in the international arena. Among the outcomes in the Berlin conference is a call for termination of all military movements by, or in direct support of, the conflict parties in Libya. Countries that do not abide by the arms embargo could face sanctions, which could be a useful tool for Erdoğan in the domestic arena.
The more important goal for the Erdoğan government is restoring popularity at home. Economic problems, rising of secularism among young generations and authoritarian tactics contributed to the government’s losses in 2019 municipal elections, especially in Istanbul. Moreover, the Justice and Development Party is in crisis, as former party leaders create new political parties: the Future Party of Davutoğlu and another to be announced under the leadership of Ali Babacan, former economic minister. Erdoğan may sense his only option is to rely on threats from other countries, instigating nationalism, to restore his popularity.
The international arena, in that sense, should work to find new solutions to develop diplomacy and dialogue throughout the Middle East and discourage interventions. Imposing sanctions on Turkey only increase nationalism, an appeal to historical glory under Ottoman rule legitimizing anti-democratic and anti-liberal governance.
*Mustafa Batman is a Fox Fellow at the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies in Yale University and a PhD candidate at Ataturk Institute for Modern Turkish History in Bogazici University. His research focuses on late Ottoman and Modern Turkish history, exploring contentious politics with a comparative historical study of negotiation practices of people in the late Ottoman Empire.