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Why is Turkey in Libya?

Many analysts in the West accuse of Erdogan trying to recreate the Ottoman Empire. While the doctrine of neo-Ottomanism does play a role in Turkey’s military and diplomatic adventures beyond its borders, there are significant economic interests at stake

Why is Turkey in Libya?

The recent years of  Erdogan’s  tenure has been characterized by many military conflicts, which is the most significant deviation in Turkish foreign policy from its historical conventions. Since the end of War of Independence in 1923, Turkey used its military only once. This was in 1974, when it staged two successive campaigns in Cyprus to rescue the Turkish minority from nationalist Greek Cypriot genocide.  Since, its only cross-border activity has been brief incursions into Northern Iraq to raid PKK camps.

All this changed with the Syrian civil war, where Turkey is now a main actor, thanks to its “dominions” like Idlib City, Afrin, al Bab-Azez area and of course the “Safe Zone” to the East of Euphrates, traditionally the homeland of Syrian Kurds.

Recently, Turkey sent military advisors and pro-Turkish Syrian militia to Libya to intervene on behalf of the besieged al Sarraj government. Many analysts in the West accuse of Erdogan trying to recreate the Ottoman Empire. While the doctrine of neo-Ottomanism does play a role in Turkey’s military and diplomatic adventures beyond its borders, there are significant economic interests at stake.


Conn Hallinan at International Policy Digest sheds light on the intricate choices underpinning Turkey’s foreign policy:


While last year’s invasion of Syria did drive most of the Kurds from Syria’s eastern border, Syrian and Russian troops blocked Ankara’s plans for a 20-mile deep cordon sanitaire to which it could re-locate millions of refugees. After almost a decade of intervention, Erdogan finds his army bogged down on the losing side of a civil war, growing discontent at home over the refugees and the economy, and looking outmaneuvered by Moscow and Damascus.


And yet once again Turkey is picking sides in a civil war, and this one more than 1,000 miles from the Turkish border.


There is a certain logic to Ankara’s move. Turkey’s claim to energy resources is based on its occupation of northern Cyprus, and Turkey objects to being left out of the regional energy agreement drawn up by the consortium. But since no country in the world recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Ankara’s claims for a slice of the energy pie have been ignored.

When Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, Italy, Jordan, and Palestine formed the Eastern Mediterranean Forum last year, Ankara was left out. Some Forum members want to build a pipeline to ship natural gas through Crete to Italy and Greece.


The author forgets to mention that the Eastern Mediterranean Forum also divvied up the Eastern Mediterranean among themselves through an Exclusive Economic Zone Treaty, which bottles Turkey up at its very shoreline.


The confrontation over energy has, at times, gotten ugly. Turkish warships drove off Italian drillers last year, but backed down from an American energy company accompanied by a US destroyer. Tensions are high between Athens and Ankara, and some sort of military clash is not out of the question, in spite of the fact that Turkey and Greece are both members of NATO.


Returning to Libya,  by guaranteeing it would protect the Tripoli-based GNA government, Turkey has painted itself into a corner. Its only real ally is Qatar and (clandestinely) Italy. Openly arrayed against the GNA are the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which along with French supplied rockets and Russian mercenaries and drones, have driven the Tripoli government out of Surt and are knocking on the door of the capital. Erdogan’s plan to use Turkish soldiers was scotched by the unanimous opposition of the 22-member Arab League and the Jan, but he may yet decide to fetch troops in Trablus comes under further pressure.


Despite the risks, Erdogan is right in paying attention to Africa at large and trying to obtain footholds: Pointing out to trade volume between Turkey and African countries, Erdogan said: “[the trade volume] has reached $26 billion, a 381% increase in the last 17 years as a result of our efforts”, before he began his three-country African tour.

Erdogan’s visit to Gambia will be of historic importance as “it will be the first-ever official presidential visit to this country,” the statement added.


Erdogan had visited 27 African countries during his terms as prime minister and as president and now with Gambia visit, this number will increase to 28. The Turkish president’s last stop in Africa will be Senegal.

A number of other foreign adventures have gone south as well. Last month several Turkish contractors and policemen were targeted by a roadside bomb in Somalia. Turkey has poured more than $1 billion into that war-torn country, taking over its major airport and seaport. But if you want the definition of “quagmire” you do not have look much further than Somalia.


A new blow could be coming from Qatar. Erdogan is at odds with the EU and every country in the Middle East save Qatar. And even Qatar seems to be positioning itself to settle its differences with two of Turkey’s regional foes, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  Qatar’s loss would impact the economy, because the tiny Arab sheikdom has become the number one investor in Turkey’s stock exchange and has a large number of acquisitions.


While the tally of foreign adventures reveal more losses than gains thus far, the fate of Turkish foreign policy will be decided not in Libya, but in Idlib,  Syria.  Erdogan has warned Putin and Assad to pull back their forces to the demarcation lines envisioned  in the Sochi Agreement before the end of February. Assad is not heeding this warning, inching closer to Idlib City.  Erdogan has already sent a large number of special forces battalions and over 1K pieces of armored vehicles to cut the Syrian National Army off.  If Turkey loses Idlib, close to a million refugees could flock to Turkey, in addition to an estimated 50K violent jihadis, overburdening welfare services and destabilizing Southern provinces.  If Erdogan convinces Putin to tame Assad, he will win a great victory by keeping the hope of sending the 4 million Syrian refugees back and guaranteeing  a piece of the Syrian reconstruction pie.


Atilla Yesilada



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