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Erdogan Is Libya’s Man Without a Plan

Turkey is standing in the wreckage of a foreign-policy adventure with no discernible strategy.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Libya's interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil wave as they attend Friday prayers in Tripoli on Sept. 16, 2011.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Libya's interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil wave as they attend Friday prayers in Tripoli on Sept. 16, 2011. MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via Getty Images

To a group of supporters in London in late 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared: “Today, Turkey can launch an operation to protect its national security without seeking permission from anyone.” It was stock-and-trade late Erdogan-era theatrics—grievance interlaced with ambition. In the past, this kind of breast-beating might have been dismissed as politics, but this time the Turkish leader is not posturing.

It has been an unusually active and assertive moment in Turkish foreign policy, even by the standards set by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in its almost 18 years in power. Yet unlike the “zero problems” principle of yore, which relied on Turkey’s power as a trading state and its good relations with all the players in the Middle East, Ankara has increasingly militarized its approach to the region in addition to its longer-term aggressive policies in the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. In each of these areas, the Turks have raised the ire of some combination of the European Union, members of NATO, the United Nations, and the United States, but the response from each has been little more than hand-wringing, proving Erdogan correct that Turkey can shape its foreign-policy environment. Ankara is no longer content to be just an asset to the trans-Atlantic alliance or an aspiring member of Europe but a power in its own right. This is an achievement—but only a partial one. For all the power and military swagger that Ankara has acquired, it is untethered from a coherent strategy, which may very well be Turkey’s undoing.

Nowhere has Turkey’s securitized foreign policy gained more recent attention than in Libya. Last November, the Turks and Libya’s internationally recognized government agreed to demarcate their respective maritime jurisdictions. The memorandum of understanding was expansive and had no basis in fact or international law—akin to drawing arbitrary lines on a map that split the Mediterranean. The next month, the Government of National Accord in Tripoli requested Turkish military help to beat back the Libyan National Army under the command of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who has sought to overthrow the Tripoli government. Soon Turkish forces arrived, along with thousands of Syrian militia fighters who had been promised cash and Turkish citizenship to join the fight.

It is clear what is in the relationship for leaders in Tripoli, but it is less immediately apparent why Erdogan—who is struggling with economic problems and the attendant challenges of the coronavirus pandemic—would embark on a military adventure 1,200 miles from Ankara. What Turkish interest could it possibly serve? Setting aside potential lucrative rebuilding contracts for Turkish firms, a combination of Turkish politics and three related geopolitical interests is behind Turkey’s willingness to wade into Libya’s civil war.

First, Erdogan has long sought to highlight that principle drives Turkish foreign policy during the AKP era. Like Ankara’s advocacy for Palestinian rights, its insistence that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad must go, and its opposition to Egypt’s July 2013 coup, support for the U.N.-recognized government in Libya was consistent with the idea that Erdogan has sought to cultivate that Ankara stands apart from international actors in its effort to uphold norms and standards. Of course it is a self-serving narrative, but that is the point. It is good for the ruling party’s base and allows Turkey’s supine press to laud their leader. This is important as Erdogan looks ahead to 2023 elections with a persistently weak economy.

Second, Ankara’s moves in Libya are actually countermoves to the burgeoning ties among Greece, Egypt, Cyprus, and Israel. Officially, there is no security component to what is intended to be a consortium to exploit gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean, but given each of these countries’ strained—at best—relations with Turkey, it is hard not to see in these ties what international relations scholars call “bandwagoning.” In addition, when the Turks looked at the combination of these growing ties, which have American support, and the interlocking nature of Greek, Egyptian, Cypriot, and Israeli exclusive economic zones, they could reasonably conclude that their freedom of navigation in the area could be choked off.

Third, Libya is a place where Turkey can challenge its two most ardent regional foes—Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The issues that divide Turkey and Egypt are well known. The two countries are on opposite sides of the major issues roiling the Middle East including Syria, Gaza, and the blockade of Qatar. Turkey is also a leading supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, permitting its Egyptian members to set up shop in Istanbul and beam anti-Egyptian regime propaganda around the world. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Erdogan evince such disdain for each other that it has become somewhat of a spectator sport for analysts to observe the two leaders trolling each other at the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly every September. Libya is, of course, Egypt’s backyard, and because it believes that Islamists are part of the government in Tripoli, it has thrown its support behind Haftar.

In this, the Egyptians have had a partner in the UAE, which has played a major role in supporting Sisi and whose leader shares the Egyptian president’s antipathy for the Brotherhood, earning the ire of Erdogan. The Turkish government and its mouthpieces in the press accuse the Emiratis of supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara considers a terrorist organization; backing al-Shabab in Somalia; propping up Assad; helping to destroy Yemen; playing a role in the attempted 2016 coup in Turkey; and generally sowing chaos around the Middle East. A late May column in the (very) pro-Erdogan tribune Daily Sabah warned the Emiratis of unspecified revenge for these transgressions. Apparently, there were few better places for the Turks to extract a pound of flesh from the Emiratis than in Libya.

For all the success the Turks have had so far in Libya, it is hard to detect how rendering Tripoli a client of Ankara fits into an overall foreign and security policy strategy. It is a statement of Turkey’s prowess and power, but it is not connected to a clear larger purpose other than national aggrandizement and revenge. What makes the Libya adventure so striking is how far it deviates from a broader (and more important) set of Turkish foreign-policy and national security concerns that actually do make sense. Whatever one thinks of Ankara’s military operations in Syria and Iraq, Turkey’s goals are clear and entirely rational—destroy the PKK and ensure that the Syrian civil war does not yield a Kurdish state along Turkey’s southern border that could threaten the country. Similarly in the Aegean and in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Turks have been needlessly aggressive, but keeping Greece off balance, especially as its relations with the United States warm, and establishing a claim to Eastern Mediterranean gas are definable and, from the perspective of the presidential palace, entirely defensible goals.

Without a strategy to guide them in Libya, the Turks may find themselves exposed and overwhelmed. It is not clear what makes Erdogan believe that he can discipline Libyan politics in a way that will end the country’s fragmentation and violence. Even if Haftar waves the white flag, the Turks are setting themselves up to be the wards of a failing state. Add to this the Egyptian and Emirati factors. The Egyptians have a stake in Libya that it is going to make it hard for them to accommodate a robust Turkish presence next door. And while Egypt’s military may not have the same kind of technical proficiency as its Turkish counterpart, the Egyptians can bring a lot of force in terms of sheer numbers to bear in Libya. Sisi’s late June warning about Egyptian red lines in Libya may be a bluff, but there is little doubt that they, along with the Emiratis, would be willing to use proxies to disrupt the Turks and their allies in Libya. If it does not work with Haftar, they will find others.

Turkey has been buzzing recently with talk of a new security strategy called “Blue Homeland,” which emerged from an anti-Western, fiercely nationalist, but pro-Russian worldview of a number of senior-ranking naval officers. This toxic and confused brew is supposedly the guiding principle for Turkey’s more aggressive posture in the region, especially in the Mediterranean and Libya. It is interesting—but only because it offers insight into the thinking of Turkey’s senior political and military leadership. As a national strategy, it is mostly reactive and bound up in a combination of grievances and romance about Turkish power. This isn’t to suggest that Turkish leaders are incapable of strategic thinking—just that Blue Homeland isn’t it.

So it should come as no surprise to anyone in Ankara that regional alliances have solidified against Turkey and that the Turkish military is engaged in an open-ended mission in Libya. Having power is important, but what a country does with it is what matters.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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