North Africa, West Asia

Who is pushing Turkey to Libya: the partnership of Eurasianism and Islamism?

Turkey is being submerged into yet another escapade that will profoundly and negatively impact the whole region.

Ahmet Erdi Ozturk
9 January 2020
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) shakes hands with head of Libya's UN-backed government, Fayez al-Sarraj, during their meeting in Istanbul on December 15, 2019.
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Photo by Turkish President Press Office /dpa/PA images. All rights reserved.

On January 2, the Turkish Grand National Assembly approved a military deployment mandate regarding sending troops to Libya. Senior Turkish journalist and Middle East expert Cengiz Çandar dubbed it a “mandate of adventure”, which supported the bilateral agreement Turkey made on November 27, 2019 with the Libyan Government of National Accord, whose power and influence varies from day to day. The paramount reason for hastily passing the mandate, no doubt, was Erdoğan’s desire to enter with the upper hand the January 8 negotiations with Vladimir Putin, who supports the gradually strengthening forces of Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army against the Libyan Government of National Accord. However, it seems that he could not reach his aim, properly.

Additionally, the coincidence between the date the mandate was passed with the date Israel, Greece, and the Republic of Cyprus signed a natural gas pipeline agreement, called EastMed, to transport Israeli and Cypriot gas to Europe, sent an entirely separate diplomatic message. In this context, Turkey, according to its own narrative, is overturning the game played in the eastern Mediterranean and bringing stability to the region by pre-empting the “rebels” in Libya supported by western forces. This is, undoubtedly, what Erdoğan’s regime and supporters see—or, more precisely, wish to have seen—in Turkey.

But the other side of this “adventure” is far different and much darker. This decision is primarily a nascent indicator that Turkey has strayed far from its classic and balance-focused understanding of foreign policy from which it began to diverge in the early 2010s. It is also an indicator that Turkey may easily intend to employ military force and take part in conflicts outside its borders.

This is not a first for Erdoğan’s Turkey; there was a situation in Syria, which can earn relative legitimisation in domestic politics because of its proximity, and the Kurdish card. But Turkey now seeks to partake in the convoluted military, social and political space of Libya, a place it last suppressed militarily while Libya was an Ottoman territory. Turkey has no land border with Libya, but rather it has a flight distance of close to 1,400 miles. Furthermore, according to numerous news sources, Turkey is preparing to propel the Islamist groups it had supported in Syria before getting involved directly, and this situation could exacerbate Turkey’s already problematic international image.

When we simultaneously look at both sides of the same coin, we can make a few inferences. First, it is clear that the issue of Libya will not embody an achievement in Turkey, where the use of foreign policy for domestic political purposes is a habit. A territory that is largely unknown and, if known, finds no sympathy in Turkish society will not bring much power to Erdoğan’s regime. Second, it was not very realistic to expect the Libyan Government of National Accord, which Turkey supported, to assume command over the country. To the contrary, the forces of Haftar, whom Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia supported, are more likely to dominate the country. In such a situation, Turkey will be in a position where it has both failed and the agreements it made have disappeared. Finally, Turkey will encounter much greater problems if it attempts to deploy a battalion or brigade larger than a train-equip military team of 100 to 150 people, acting upon the requirements of the mandate. Replenishing agreements between Greek and Egyptian airfields may not be long term, and experts’ question with doubt whether Turkey has the military capacity to overcome such an obstacle.

Why is Turkey taking such a great risk?

In short, the current policy Turkey is pursuing in Libya is militarily quite risky, is problematic in terms of international relations, and will bring little gains for the current Turkish government in the balance of domestic politics. Turkey is certainly a significant force in the balances of power in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Eastern Mediterranean and should not be excluded from the establishment of any stratagem. As with Egypt, Cyprus, Israel, and Greece, Turkey should respond to its exclusion by nations presently considered its adversaries, but this response must not be overtly risky. On the one hand, perhaps Turkey seeks to dissolve the order in the region, as it did in Northern Syria, with a coordination agreement with Russia. But, on the other hand, we must remember that Libya is not a major border concern for Turkey like Syria, nor is Turkey as determinant of an actor in Libya as it is in Syria. So, why and how is Erdoğan’s Turkey assuming these multifaceted risks? To answer this question it would be better to look for the main supporters of Turkey’s current Libya policy in Turkish domestic politics and when we do that we can see an interesting picture which deserves an explanation.

Eurasianism and the concept of the ‘Blue Homeland’

The retired Rear Admiral Cem Gürdeniz, who was tried and convicted in the Balyoz (Sledgehammer) trials spawned by the partnership between the controversial Gülen Movement and Erdogan’s AKP, first used the concept of the Blue Homeland on June 14, 2006 at a symposium about the Black Sea and Naval Security organised from the Naval Forces Command. According to him, the Blue Homeland was the name of the land that encompassed spaces of naval jurisdiction in the Black, Mediterranean, and Aegean seas (coastal waters, the continental shelf, and exclusive economic zones) that surround Turkey with animate and inanimate resources. The concept was used also by former members of the naval forces and, now, the Doğu Perinçek team, who are defined as Eurasianists and who attained their freedom by exploiting the conflict between the Gülen Movement and the AKP especially after mid-2015. Eurasianists, carry the motto of the Blue Homeland as the National Pact at Sea, they embody a structure that collaborated with Erdoğan after the violent July 15 coup attempt and possess the power to profoundly influence him into veering Turkey’s bearings from a western-focused foreign policy towards the China-Russia bloc while questioning NATO’s importance for Turkey.

This structure, in a sense, asserts that Turkey’s place is not in the European Union or within an Eastern Mediterranean hegemonic configuration focused on Egypt and Israel but rather aims to establish dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean on its own. In this regard, they argue that Turkey’s interests lie outside the Western world and Turkey should join the Russia and China-led anti-imperialist camp. Reaching this goal requires the preservation of borders they had dubbed the Blue Homeland. In order to protect these borders, the Eurasianists expected Turkey after the Libya agreement to pursue an initiative that would ensure the same effect as with Syria. Among the issues that are certainly not up for debate are with whom Turkey would make this agreement in Syria.

Love for the Muslim Brotherhood and the race to lead the Ummah

Interestingly, although the Eurasianists claim to represent the hardcore secular wing in Turkey, they recommended actions on Libya at the same level as the Islamists whom Erdoğan represents in Turkey. The foreign policy vision that recognizably began during former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s tenure under the name “neo-Ottomanism” and sought to both dominate the populations of the former Ottoman territories and influence the Muslims of the world through authoritarianism and the further instrumental employment of religion, has failed as far as Erdoğan’s ambition to lead the Muslim world.

Here, they found the economically more powerful Saudi Arabia and the theologically more influential Egypt opposing them almost everywhere in the world. This necessarily pushed them towards a multifaceted and global cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood. After all, Erdoğan’s marriage of nationalism and Islam is after all very much compatible with the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology.

When such circumstances prevail, Erdoğan and the Islamist wing surrounding him, in some way, found themselves supporting the Libyan Government of National Accord’s President Fayez Al Sarraj, a known member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdoğan’s Turkey hence opened another front against Saudi Arabia, with whom it has engaged in successive conflicts since the latter half of the 2010s, and against Egypt, towards whom it has explicitly declared its hostility.

Two dissimilarities converge again

Even though the two structures, Eurasianism and Islamists, have been in conflict over a great many things in Turkey they did, contrary to all historical odds, intersect on the issue of Libya. As one manoeuvres to divorce Turkey from the west in foreign policy, the other seeks to construct a new fortress in a competition that does not befit the religiosity of Turkey. It will be difficult to estimate the extent to which the collective nature of these two structures will exist in Turkish domestic policies, but they certainly submerged Turkey into an escapade that will profoundly and negatively impact the region.

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