Analysis: Turkey has found a new proxy war in Libya

Erodogan’s Sunni Islamist ambitions have found a new proxy war theater: Libya.

By Burak Bekdil, Gatestone Institute

Turkey, since 2011, has been waging a pro-Sunni proxy war in Syria, in the hope of one day establishing in Damascus a pro-Turkey, Islamist regime. This ambition has failed, costing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey violent political turmoil on both sides of Turkey’s 911-km border with Syria and billions of dollars spent on more than 4 million Syrian refugees scattered across the Turkish soil.

In Egypt, in 2011-2012, Erdoğan aggressively supported the failed Muslim Brotherhood government and deeply antagonized the incumbent — then-general but now president — Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Since Erdoğan’s efforts in Syria and Egypt failed, his Sunni Islamist ambitions have found a new proxy-war theater: Libya.

On December 10, Erdoğan said he could deploy troops in Libya if the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli (which Turkey supports) requested it.

Erdoğan’s talks with GNA’s head, Fayez al-Sarraj, who is fighting a war against the Libyan National Army (LNA) of General Khalifa Haftar, produced two ostensibly strategic agreements: a memorandum of understanding on providing the GNA with arms, military training and personnel; and a maritime agreement delineating exclusive economic zones in the Mediterranean waters.

Greece and Egypt protested immediately while the European Council unequivocally condemned the controversial accords. Meanwhile, the deals apparently escalated a proxy competition between Turkey’s old (Greece) and new (Egypt and the United Arab Emirates) rivals.

With the al-Sarraj handshake, Erdoğan is apparently aiming to:

minimize Turkey’s isolation in the Mediterranean, one which has gradually worsened since 2010, following one diplomatic crisis after another with Israel;

counter strategic cooperation between Cyprus, Greece, Egypt and Israel, including joint diplomatic, energy and military initiatives;

cut into the emerging Cypriot-Greek-Egyptian-Israeli maritime bloc;

push back against Arab (Egyptian and UAE) pressure on al-Sarraj;

fill the European vacuum in Libya;

and emerge as a deal-breaker in the Mediterranean rather than a deal-maker.

All that ambition requires military hardware as well as diplomatic software. Since 2011, a year after the Mavi Marmara incident ruptured relations with Israel, Turkey has been investing billions of dollars in naval technologies, in an apparent effort to build up the hardware it would one day require.

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Navy buildup

In the eight years since then, Turkey has built four Ada-class corvettes; two Landing Ship Tank (LST) vessels; eight fast Landing Craft Tank (LCT) vessels; 16 military patrol ships; two deep-sea rescue ships; one submarine rescue ship; and four assault boats.

The jewel in the naval treasury box is a $1 billion Landing Platform Dock (LPD), now being built under license from Spain’s Navantia shipyards, to be operational in 2021.

The TCG Anadolu, Turkey’s first amphibious assault ship, will carry a battalion-sized unit of 1,200 troops and personnel, eight utility helicopters and three unmanned aerial vehicles; it also will transport 150 vehicles, including battle tanks. It also may be able to deploy short takeoff and vertical landing STOVL F-35 fighter jets. Turkey will be the third operator in the world of this ship type, after Spain and Australia.

Erdoğan’s naval ambitions, however, are not limited just to an emerging fleet of conventional vessels. In 2016, he said that the LPD program would hopefully be the first step toward producing a “most elite” aircraft carrier. He also said he “sees it as a major deficiency that we still do not have a nuclear vessel.”

On December 22, Turkey’s first Type 214 class submarine, the TCG Piri Reis, hit the seas with a ceremony attended by Erdoğan. “Today,” he said, “we gathered here for the docking of Piri Reis. As of 2020, a submarine will go into service each year. By 2027, all six of our submarines will be at our seas for service.”

Unsurprisingly the docking ceremony reminded Erdoğan of his Libyan gambit: “We will evaluate every opportunity in land, sea and air. If needed, we will increase military support in Libya.”

Turkey goes on offense

Erdoğan seems to think that his best defense in the Mediterranean power game is an offense. On December 15, Turkish Naval Forces intercepted an Israeli research ship, the Bat Galim, in Cypriot waters and escorted it away, as tension over natural resource exploration continued to rise in the region.

On December 16, Turkey dispatched a surveillance and reconnaissance drone to the Turkish-controlled north of the divided island of Cyprus. A week before the drone deployment, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that Ankara could use its military forces to halt gas drilling in waters off Cyprus that it claims as its own.

Libya is another risky proxy war theater for Turkey. Its deals with the al-Sarraj government over troop deployment and maritime borders will become null and void if the Libyan civil war, begun in 2014, ends with Gen. Haftar’s victory. The chief of staff of the LNA, Farag Al-Mahdawi, announced that his forces would sink any Turkish ship approaching the Libyan coast.

“I have an order; as soon as the Turkish research vessels arrive, I will have a solution. I will sink them myself,” Al-Mahdawi warned, noting that the order was coming from Haftar. On December 21, Haftar’s forces seized a Grenada-flagged ship with Turkish crew aboard, on the suspicion that it was carrying arms. The ship was later released.

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The European Union is another factor why Erdoğan, once again, is probably betting on the wrong horse. Technically speaking, Turkey is a candidate for full EU membership, but it is an open secret that accession talks have not moved an inch during the past several years, and with no prospects of progress in sight.

Making membership prospects even gloomier, EU foreign ministers in November agreed on economic sanctions for Ankara for violating Cyprus’ maritime economic zone by drilling off the island.

The Mediterranean chess game leaves Turkey in alliance with the breakaway Turkish Cypriot statelet and one of the warring factions in Libya, versus a strategic grouping of Greece, Cyprus, Egypt (and the UAE), Israel, and the other warring Libyan group.

Playing into Russian hands?

One emerging power in Libya, however, is not a Western state actor. After controlling Syria in favor of President Bashar al-Assad and establishing permanent military bases inside and off the coast of the country, Russia has the potential to step into the Libyan theater with a bigger proxy and direct force, to establish its second permanent Mediterranean military presence.

As in Syria, where divergent interests did not stop Turkey from becoming a remote-controlled Russian player, Moscow can once again make use of the Turkish card to undermine Western interests in Libya.

Also as in Syria, Turkey’s Islamist agenda will probably fail in Libya, but by the time Erdoğan understands that, it might be too late to get out of Moscow’s orbit.

Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey’s leading journalists, was recently fired from the country’s most noted newspaper after 29 years, for writing in Gatestone what is taking place in Turkey. He is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.