Tuesday

25th Feb 2020

Opinion

Turkey's tightrope could finally snap in Libya

  • Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan at Nato. 'Dealing with other nations on a mercantile and transactional basis might seem attractive, but this clever tightrope act might end catastrophically for Turkey' (Photo: nato.int)

Turkey has embarked on a neo-Ottoman strategy, aiming to re-establish itself as a regional power.

This involves simultaneously reaping the benefits of Nato membership whilst pursuing an overtly-expansionist foreign policy which has even included a loose partnership with Russia in Syria.

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However, with the Dutch having suspended Turkey's Article 5 privileges in Nato, and the escalating conflict in Libya putting Ankara on a collision course with Moscow, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan might soon find himself between a rock and a hard place.

"Turkey is one of the strongest Nato members. I do not think that Nato can make it without Turkey geopolitically or strategically", asserted Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte recently.

Nevertheless this didn't stop the Christian Union and the Socialist Party, his coalition partners, from voting against his VVD Party and in favour of two motions: one calling for additional support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Rojava, northern Syria, and the other calling for an automatic rejection of any Turkish invocation of Nato's Article 5 so long as they conduct operations against the SDF.

In response to Turkey's incursion into Rojava two Nato members, Norway and the Netherlands, suspended arms exports to Ankara.

These are but two examples of the growing distance between Turkey and the rest of Nato.

Circus of pariahs

Rather than operating in lockstep with Nato, Turkey is opting to maximise its freedom of manoeuvre by embarking on a number of limited partnerships of convenience, comprising a circus of pariahs: Russia, Qatar, Iran, and Venezuela, and is cultivating its own sphere of influence using the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist militias from Syria to Libya as political and military proxies.

These groups have zero interest in seeing stability and prosperity return to these war-torn states and are thriving on the chaos and destruction they generate.

Whilst forging one's own path, paying lip service to allies, and dealing with other nations on a mercantile and transactional basis might seem attractive, this clever tightrope act might end catastrophically for Turkey in Libya.

With the Muslim Brotherhood proving a critical faction within Libya's crumbling Government of National Accord (GNA), Turkey has a strong ideological incentive to back them.

However, Turkey has also seen the opportunity for economic gain in Libya and signed a deal with the GNA which expanded Turkey's maritime Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) into Libya's, a controversial move, particularly with Nato member Greece, given that the island of Crete sits between Turkey and Libya's EEZs.

In order to support the GNA against general Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA), Turkey announced plans earlier this month to deploy troops, including both Syrian militants and Turkish soldiers, to shore up Tripoli.

The LNA, who are supported by Russian mercenaries, last week seized control of Sirte, a city of vital strategic importance, which has left Misrata's flank critically exposed to attack. Misrata is the last bastion of defence for Tripoli, the embattled capital and seat of the GNA's government.

It is very likely to be the LNA's next destination and this puts Turkish troops and Russian mercenaries potentially on opposite sides of a firefight.

Presidents Erdogan and Putin met last week to further discuss Libya. Whether this ends with a gentleman's agreement to divide the spoils or in Turkey being told in no uncertain terms that their venture is doomed remains to be seen.

For now the two parties have brokered a fragile ceasefire between the GNA and LNA, but only time will tell how fruitful this will prove.

In the longer term, however things turns out it will further underline to Turkey how much their partnership with Russia is one of transactional convenience and how quickly cooperation can be withdrawn once their interests diverge.

This will leave Ankara scrambling for allies as Nato finds them increasingly unreliable; relations with Iran strain over Syria; Russia opposes them in Libya; Saudi Arabia and the Gulf remain unimpressed with their increasingly reckless alliance with Qatar, and Egypt continues to harbour concerns over Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ankara might now find that the only way is down from here.

Author bio

Simon Schofield is senior fellow at the Human Security Centre think tank in London, focussing on security and defence.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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