Libya Tribune

By Michael Mackenzie

The dust has not yet settled in northern Syria after Turkey launched a military operation there in October, capturing a strip of territory from Kurdish militias that it views as terrorists.

As well as the continuing uncertainty about how Turkey will administer the so-called safe zone it took over between the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn.

Syrian government forces have ramped up their attempts to capture Idlib governorate from the opposition, potentially driving tens of thousands of Syrians toward Turkey’s border.

Questions remain unanswered on how Turkey intends to fund and implement its plan to build settlements for returning Syrian asylum seekers in its safe zone.

A storm is brewing in Idlib, which as the last opposition-held province has become home to more than a million Syrians displaced from other parts of the country.

But with trouble still on the doorstep in Syria, this week the focus of Turkey’s media has remained firmly on Libya, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has signalled that a new military adventure could be on the cards just two months since the last.

This announcement has been amplified throughout the week by outlets like Yeni Şafak, which proclaimed that Turkey was ready to send troops on Monday, and Türkiye, which kept the war drums beating on its front page on Tuesday.

This time, unlike in Syria, there has been some pushback from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), not least because an intervention could leave Turkey on opposing sides to Russia, which is reported to have sent mercenaries to aid the Libyan National Army that is attacking Turkey’s allies.

Erdoğan has already accused Moscow of meddling in the country, saying the presence of the Russian Wagner Company could lead to Turkish troops being sent.

This is a rare stance in a period when Turkey and Moscow’s frequent collaboration in defence and energy deals and the Syrian conflict have raised considerable discussion about Turkey’s drift eastwards.

There has been much talk of the tight links growing between Moscow and Ankara in recent years, though many analysts have distanced themselves from the view that Turkey’s recent foreign policy is specifically a pivot to Russia, rather than an effort to pursue an independent policy that serves the government’s conception of the country’s self-interest.

The logic behind the latest move in Libya goes that other regional countries have ignored Turkey’s claims while dividing sections of the eastern Mediterranean, where potentially huge hydrocarbon resources are located.

This includes parts of the sea south of Turkey where Greece, Cyprus and Israel plan to build a gas pipeline to Europe.

The assertive moves by Turkey stake a claim to a share of the sea’s resources by setting expansive marine borders with Libya’s Tripoli government, to which it has also offered to increase its military support.

They are also described by some as part of a broader “Blue Homeland” strategy conceived by an anti-Western ultranationalist admiral that aims to increase Turkey’s influence in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas, where Turkey has been embroiled in disputes with Greece for decades.

So, while opposition parties in parliament have made a stand against the agreement to send troops to Libya, their stance does not appear to have gained much traction.

On Friday, as Yeni Şafak’s front page castigated the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) for supporting General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, Türkiye led with a simple headline: We’re going to Libya.

Writing for Aydınlık newspaper, whose columnists also include the retired admiral credited with authoring the Blue Homeland doctrine, İhsan Sefa defined the struggle in Libya as being vital for the doctrine and consequently the defence of Turkey’s interests. He added the condition that Turkish troops should not be involved in front-line fighting.

A theme came up in coverage from outlets known for their affiliation with the government which described the move in Libya as a battle against a “new Sevres,” referring to the 1920 treaty that partitioned the remaining Ottoman territories after the empire suffered defeat in World War One.

Some writers went even further back to remind readers that the North African country was part of the Ottoman domains until 1911, when Italy invaded.

The conflict had even greater repercussions for Turkey than the loss of Libya, as Italy occupied the Dodecanese.

The islands were never returned to the Ottoman Empire despite an agreement promising to do so signed in 1912, and they were only finally reunited with Greece in 1947.

The Dodecanese play a significant role in the mounting eastern Mediterranean dispute, as Turkey’s marine borders deal with Libya overlaps with Greek claims to marine territories off the islands of Rhodes and Karpathos.

In this sense, the prospect of a military adventure in Libya can be seen – and sold – as a defence of Turkey’s legitimate claims off its south coast, while it is also framed as a return to the regional position occupied by the Ottomans.

Writing for the Daily Sabah, columnist İhsan Aktaş went so far as to condemn the CHP for opposing the move in Libya when the Mustafa Kemal, the founder of both the Turkish Republic and the CHP, was involved in the defensive campaign against Italy.
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Michael MacKenzieis is a journalist working on Turkey.

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