The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced this week that Turkish troops would gradually be deployed to Libya to support the increasingly beleaguered internationally recognized Tripoli government, also known as the Government of National Accord. This announcement, sanctioned by the Turkish parliament where Erdogan’s party has a commanding majority, follows an agreement signed in December that divided the maritime waters between Turkey and Libya in a way that completely ignores Greece’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
These developments are the latest in Erdogan’s efforts to create a much larger Turkish footprint in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. He has expanded the Turkish navy, which will also boast an amphibious assault ship from next year. Since assuming power, firstly as prime minister in 2003, Erdogan has pressed for Turkey – as successor to the once-mighty Ottoman empire – to play a more influential role not only regionally but globally. Having consolidated power at home following the constitutional changes of 2017 that effectively ensured his control of Turkish politics, he has turned his attention to achieving this grandiose design.
Turkey already has military bases in Qatar, Somalia and Sudan, in addition to troops fighting various Kurdish forces in northern Syria and northern Iraq. Together with the first three, the Libya deployment is meant to challenge the Saudi Arabia-UAE-Egypt alliance and demonstrate that Turkey is a regional power that cannot be ignored.
Each positioning of troops builds upon the other. When Qatar was isolated by the now two-and-half-year-old Saudi-UAE embargo, Ankara provided troops and Qatar the finance. In Somalia and the Sudan, the Turks train large numbers of Somalis and Sudanese at bases that Ankara built and paid for. Those bases, positioned at the entrance of both the Arabian and Red Seas, now give Turkey a vital strategic position close to Saudi territory.
There is also a commercial aspect to this role expansion: Turkey is looking for clients for its burgeoning arms industry. In Libya, Turkish-made drones have been used extensively and at times quite effectively by the GNA forces against their chief rival, the Libyan National Army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
These deployments are not risk free. The demise of strongman Omar Al Bashir in Sudan has already undermined the relationship with Turkey, which could lead to a diminished military presence. But it is in Libya that Erdogan has taken by far the greatest risk.
The Tripoli GNA government, though internationally recognized, controls little territory and faces a concerted onslaught by Haftar’s forces, which are supported by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, among others. The Libyan parliament, which sits in Tobruk – in Haftar territory – has denounced the Turkish-Libya deal.
It must be assumed that Turkey already has covert personnel in Libya helping to operate the drones. Further military involvement by Turkey will undoubtedly mobilize the forces arrayed against the GNA and perhaps hasten its demise. Why then take such a chance by doubling down?
There are three interlocking reasons for doing so. First, Erdogan must genuinely believe that Turkish troops can halt Haftar’s advance – even if, according to some reports, those Turkish fighters might in fact be Turkish jihadist allies from Syria and elsewhere who have already been working closely with Ankara. Blocking Haftar would lead to a stalemate, which would give Erdogan some bargaining power in determining the future of Libya and Turkey’s role in it, as well as getting back some of the billions of dollars owed to Turkish contractors working in Libya.
Second, Turkish involvement in Syria complements Erdogan’s efforts to challenge the agreement between Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt on drilling for gas in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish navy has occasionally harassed drilling vessels operating in Cypriot waters, claiming they violate the rights of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – a country recognized by no one apart from Turkey. The Libyan-Turkish demarcation of their continental shelf will block a joint Israeli-Greek-Cyrpiot gas pipeline to Europe; to all intents and purposes it violates the UN Law of the Sea Convention. But it also gives Erdogan some bargaining power in the Mediterranean and demonstrates that he and his country must be taken more seriously.
Finally, we cannot overlook Erdogan’s sense of his own importance and his vain concern over his place in history. His authoritarian style of governing must be rendered legitimate, and one way of doing that is to use foreign adventures to marshal populist nationalism and demonstrate that he is actively enhancing Turkey’s global standing.
These forays are no different to his other grandiose projects, such as the enormous and environmentally questionable canal he wants to build to flow parallel to the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul. When autocrats feel their popularity is slipping away – as it does, eventually and inevitably – they seek to sustain themselves with aggrandizement wherever they can. Erdogan is no different.
Henri J Barkey is the Cohen Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations. Among other roles, he previously served as a member of the US State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, working primarily on issues related to the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean and intelligence.