By Carlotta Gall
A new wrinkle in the battle for an oil-rich country, and a signal from President Erdogan that Turkey aims to be a power broker in a volatile region.
Turkey’s Parliament approved plans on Thursday to send troops to Libya, escalating what has become a chaotic proxy war between multiple powers for control of the oil-rich country.
The Turkish deployment, a dramatic intervention championed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, aims to bolster the fragile United Nations-backed government in Tripoli after nine months of siege from rebel forces based in eastern Libya.
The size and nature of the military deployment was unclear. But coming just months after Turkey’s third military incursion into Syria, it expands Turkey’s military footprint in a volatile region and, analysts say, offers new evidence of its growing self-confidence as a regional power.
For Libya’s embattled government, Mr. Erdogan has become an essential patron. Already this year, he has sent military advisers, arms and a fleet of 20 drones to defend Tripoli from the forces of Gen. Khalifa Hifter, which control much of eastern Libya and are backed by Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
According the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an independent monitoring organization, Turkey has already sent Syrian proxy fighters to Libya, and more have assembled in training camps in Turkey ahead of deployment.
But in recent weeks, General Hifter’s forces have gained the upper hand in the battle for Tripoli. Buoyed by the arrival of Kremlin-backed Russian mercenaries, and armed with sophisticated drone-jamming technology, they have pushed farther into Tripoli, tightening their grip on the capital.
“In recent days, things have been quite bad for the government on the front line,” said Emad Badi, a Libya scholar at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. “They might have held on for just another week. Now I don’t expect Turkey to allow that to happen.”
Much depends, Mr. Badi said, on what Turkey will bring to the fight and how quickly those reinforcements will arrive. Turkey could deploy a warship off the coast of Misurata, a govern-controlled city east of Tripoli, he said. Or it could deploy fighter jets to combat General Hifter’s attack drones in the air.
In any event, such maneuvers might pause the fight for Libya, but not decide it. “It will be an incremental approach,” Mr. Badi said, adding that Turkey was likely to deploy the minimum resources needed to repel the offensive on Tripoli, and no more.
President Trump spoke with Mr. Erdogan on Thursday, the White House said, and “pointed out that foreign interference is complicating the situation in Libya.” The White House did not say whether Mr. Trump had asked Turkey to refrain from sending troops.
Mr. Erdogan has long held an ambition for a kind of restoration of the Ottoman Empire, re-establishing Turkey’s position of leadership in the Muslim world with an expansive foreign policy.
His stance, in alliance with the wealthy Gulf state Qatar, has pitted Turkey against Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The opposing groups represent a new fault line in the Middle East, having backed opposite sides of the Arab Spring uprisings and rival forces in Libya and Syria.
An intervention in Libya may deepen Turkey’s feud with the Emirates, which is General Hifter’s main backer. But it may also open a new conflict with Russia, which has been a partner of Turkey’s in Syria and recently sold Turkey an advanced antiaircraft missile system.
At home, though. Mr. Erdogan’s geopolitical aspirations are popular. The mission in Libya, part of the former Ottoman domain, fits neatly into his vision of restoration. His assertive foreign policy has also given Mr. Erdogan a handy slate of challengers that he can point to abroad, helping him nurture nationalism and maintain his support domestically.
Six months after his party’s loss of Istanbul’s mayoralty in local elections — his most significant electoral setback in a 25-year political career — Mr. Erdogan, 65, is pondering holding general elections in 2020, according to some political analysts. Although his term runs until 2023, his slide in the polls and the splintering of his party are making him consider calling a snap election in the fall, Mehmet Ali Kulat, a political consultant and pollster in Ankara, said.
A faltering Turkish economy may only add urgency to the president’s considerations.
Mr. Erdogan’s assertive posturing has helped stir up nationalist feelings and rally his core supporters, Ali Bayramoglu, who was close to Mr. Erdogan’s party in its early years, said.
“Our right-wing parties did not use to act like they did not care about the United States,” Mr. Bayramoglu said. “This independence, this challenging is a new thing. Turkish right-wing voters love it.”
With some justification Mr. Erdogan has argued that he has security interests in Iraq and Syria, since Turkey shares a long border with both and has suffered from instability spilling over from their conflicts. With Libya he has made similar arguments, as well as historical ones.
Mr. Erdogan has noted that Libya was the last of the Ottoman territories to be lost and that Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, fought and was wounded there as a young officer.
“It’s not difficult to convince Turkish public about the need for an intervention in Libya, in part because of the Ottoman legacy,” Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow of the European Council for Human Rights, said in written comments.
There are important Turkish commercial interests at stake, too. Beneath Mr. Erdogan’s agreement with Libya is a desire to position Turkey for oil and gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, off the coast of Cyprus, in competition with Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel, analysts say.
“Turkey does not want to be frozen out of the great game which revolves around the hydrocarbon deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Ms. Aydintasbas said.
As in Syria, Turkey wants to have troops on the ground in Libya to gain a place at the table, she said.
There is also an ethnic link. The main Libyan faction backing Tripoli is from Misurata, whose population is mostly ethnically Turkish and traces its roots to Turkey.
Turkey has already signed an agreement for an exclusive economic area with the Tripoli government. If the Libyan government falls, the agreement would fall with it. So Mr. Erdogan is trying to protect that agreement, said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director in Ankara of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Mr. Erdogan’s ever more aggressive angling has unnerved his neighbors, especially in Greece, who now openly worry about confrontation. Diplomats in Athens and Brussels say the situation is tensest it has been in more than two decades, since 1996, when the two neighbors exchanged fire in the Aegean.
Under pressure, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece is poised to change decades of foreign policy, announcing on Sunday that he was prepared to take Turkey to international arbitration at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
But diplomats in Brussels readily admit that there is only so far they can press Turkey, considering how desperately they depend on Mr. Erdogan to control the flow of migrants to Europe, which was destabilized by the arrival of more than a million asylum seekers in 2015.
Now, Mr. Erdogan faces the possibility of a new refugee crisis coming from Syria, where Russian and Syrian government forces have redoubled their offensive in Idlib, the last rebel-held province.
Seeking leverage from the potential for a crisis as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany prepares to visit Turkey this month, Mr. Erdogan has warned that he will be forced to open the gates for the refugees to enter Europe again.
Elsewhere, Mr. Erdogan’s flirtation with Russia has stirred American and European ire. So has his foray into Syria, despite President Trump’s apparent green light for it.
Typically, Mr. Erdogan is having none of it.
“Of course, everyone is giving advice to us: ‘What are you doing in Syria?’ they say. ‘When will you leave Syria?’” Mr. Erdogan said in London.
“We have only one answer to them: ‘What are you doing in Syria? Do you have a border there? No. And, what are you doing there? You go there from a distance of 10,000 kilometers, 3,000, 5,000. But we have a 911 kilometer-long border.’”
Mr. Trump has so far not acted on attempts by Congress to punish Turkey for its purchase of the Russian S400 missile system and for violating United States sanctions against Iran.
That has not stopped Mr. Erdogan from threatening to close off United States access to Turkish bases, including Incirlik Air Base, which houses roughly 50 American tactical nuclear weapons.
Mr. Erdogan has also remained loyal to the Arab Spring uprisings since they began in 2011, placing him at odds with longstanding dictators in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, as well as the United States.
Even as other Western nations ceased support when extremists took over the uprisings or, as in the case of Egypt, a counterrevolution ousted the elected Islamist government, Turkey supported the Islamist-leaning groups that emerged from the uprisings.
That includes Libya, underlining Mr. Erdogan’s desire for an independent foreign policy.
“Today there is a Turkey with an independent foreign policy, making operations for its own national security without looking for permission from anyone,” he said in London.
Carlotta Gall is the Istanbul bureau chief for The New York Times, covering Turkey. She was previously based in Tunis, from 2013 to 2017, covering the aftershocks of the Arab Spring.
The New York Times