Erdogan’s ambitions for Turkey in Libya are growing


IF IT looks like nation-building, smells like nation-building… A flurry of Turkish measures and announcements suggests President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambitions in Libya are no longer restricted to protecting the government in Tripoli and enabling it to negotiate as equals with Khalifa Haftar, the rebel commander.

Turkish military support has allowed the forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA) to inflict reversals on Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army (LNA). But Turkey has rejected a ceasefire proposal from Egypt, the LNA’s main backer.

Haftar’s retreat toward his eastern redoubts has given Erdogan foreign-policy bragging rights. More important, it allows Turkey room to expand its influence in Libya. While signalling its long-term commitment, Ankara is seeking political and military cover from Washington and Brussels, calling for a more active American and NATO role.

But Erdogan intends to call the shots.

There is no talk of withdrawing Turkish troops. On the contrary, Turkey’s footprint is likely to grow with plans to train GNA forces. Off the Libyan coast, too, Turkey is staging major naval exercises — even putting French noses out of joint.

Last week, senior Turkish officials — including Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak — met Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj, who runs the GNA, to discuss more cooperation on security, investment, infrastructure and oil.

Among other things, Turkish advisors are expected to help rebuild the Libyan banking system, Turkish companies will help in energy exploration, and Turkish ships will get Libyan oil to global markets.

Erdogan’s Libya play always had a significant economic dimension. Turkish business ties to the North African nation predate the current civil war: In the final decade of Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship, Turkish construction companies were among the most important foreign businesses operating in the country.

More than 25,000 Turks were evacuated during the 2011 uprising against Gaddafi, and the companies left behind construction sites littered with heavy equipment.

One motivating factor in Erdogan’s backing of the GNA was the resumption of construction projects worth about US$18 billion (RM76.86 billion). Libya is also key to Turkey’s claims in the Eastern Mediterranean, where it hopes to become a significant energy player.

Erdogan says his maritime agreement with Sarraj’s government, contested by other littoral states, gives Turkey licence to explore in the waters between the two countries. There are also political and strategic dimensions.

Sarraj’s coalition government includes Islamists ideologically close to Erdogan’s AK Party. And the success of the GNA would represent a Turkish victory over Haftar’s backers, including the United Arab Emirates, which Ankara views as a root cause of chaos and instability in the Middle East.

Turkey’s manoeuvres — military, political and economic — represent a challenge for the Emiratis and Egyptians, who must decide how to respond. President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has indicated he will intervene militarily if the GNA moves to seize the strategic city of Sirte. Cairo is also rallying the Arab world against Turkish “interference” in Libya.

Erdogan must also reckon with Haftar’s other important backer, Russia. Last week, a high-level Russian delegation, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, called off its visit to Istanbul at the last moment. Coming just days after a phone call between Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin, this cancellation was a clear signal of dissatisfaction.

Erdogan may be counting on US support — he has spoken of unspecified “agreements” with US President Donald Trump — to keep Haftar’s backers at bay. But he is asking a lot from a mercurial American president with little appetite for foreign adventure. More than likely, Trump will leave Turkey to fend for itself in Libya.

Can Erdogan afford a deeper engagement in Libya? You’d think he has more than enough problems at home. Turkey’s coronavirus crisis continues: New cases have spiked since lockdown rules were eased.

The full dimensions of the pandemic’s economic damage are still being measured. Although the government says positive growth is possible this year, the median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of economists is a 3.6% contraction.

A rebound in stocks — enabled by lower interest rates and measures to defend the lira — looks fragile. Such conditions are hardly ideal for embarking on a nation-building project in a country as damaged as Libya. But Erdogan doesn’t seem to be looking for an off-ramp. — Bloomberg

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.