By Jalel Harchaoui
Through a historical analysis of Turkey’s military intervention in Libya, this essay identifies the various motivations, reasonings, and threat perceptions underlying Ankara’s current Libya strategy.
THE STAKES FOR TURKEY IN LIBYA AND IN THE SEA
The brief overview above has delineated the principal goals fueling Turkey’s Libya adventure: (a) assertiveness on the water; (b) commercial interests on Libyan soil, including in the energy sector; and (c) political and commercial ambitions in the remainder of Africa.
The maritime ambitions of Turkey require additional nuances. Its recent gas-survey sorties in the Eastern Mediterranean—aggressive gestures that multiplied after the GNA’s Tripoli victory—are in fact not primarily about gas reserves.
The motivation behind them has more to do with territorial sovereignty and other political stakes void of direct economic windfalls. To understand why this is, one needs to gain more perspective on how Turkey sees the Eastern Mediterranean and how, quite crucially, Libya fits into its geopolitical calculus.
The naval doctrine dubbed “Blue Homeland” that inspired Ankara’s November 2019 memorandum with Tripoli was first articulated 13 years earlier, long before the last decade’s natural-gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean. The doctrine’s main author is Admiral Cem Gürdeniz, a figure better characterized by his staunch nationalism and secularism than any sympathy for the AKP’s own ideology.
After Erdogan’s party lost its parliamentary majority in 2015 owing to the rise of a pro-Kurdish grouping, the Turkish president struck an alliance with several nationalist organizations.
The most powerful one is veteran political leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahçeli’s far-right party, which emphasizes national security and nurtures strong anti-Western views.
Despite philosophical differences, Erdogan and Bahçeli promote a worldview dominated by the belief that the Turkish state is under threat, hence a reflex toward preemptive expansionism. Giving free rein to ultranationalists has helped Erdogan maintain his grip on power.
In the process, the ultranationalists became the key engine behind Ankara’s militaristic foreign policy that has been on display since 2018. A few of its tenets are rooted in rationality, discipline, and pragmatism as far as seizing the geoeconomic rewards that U.S. apathy and the growing international anarchy offer.
Yet, other aspects of present-day Turkey’s aggressive revisionism go beyond strict realpolitik.
Ankara’s maritime pursuits, for instance, are in large part driven by a maximalist sense of sovereignty and intangibles, such as identity, national pride, and thirst for prestige abroad.
The current imbroglio over the competing EEZs in the East Mediterranean has roots tracing back to the 20th century, and
sometimes further into what has been a centuries-old rivalry. Some of them are linked to Turco-Greek grudges of the Cold War era.
Initially, the crises between the two nations—such as the Istanbul pogrom in 1955 or the killing spree targeting Turks in Cyprus after the latter became an independent state in 1960—featured no maritime dimension.
Then, after Turkey invaded the northern part of Cyprus in 1974, Ankara began issuing maritime claims with regard to the Aegean Sea. Such grievances are arguably a reflection of the fact that modern-day Greece controls an extraordinary number of small islands in the eastern half of the Aegean, a peculiar geography that puts Turkey at a structural disadvantage.
Distinct from Turkey’s resentment vis-à-vis Greece about the Aegean Sea, the unresolved Cyprus crisis itself has important maritime facets, too. The waters surrounding the divided island are indeed crippled with tensions as a result of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ unrecognized status and Ankara’s continued military involvement there.
In the two cases above, the Turco-Cypriot crisis and the Turco-Greek crisis, the relevant parties are expected to resolve their respective issue of overlapping EEZs through bilateral negotiation on the basis of international law or, if no agreement can be reached, by referral to international courts.
In reality, Ankara resists both paths and, instead, clamors for a special ad-hoc arrangement. While Ankara officially declares a willingness to go to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, it insists on a wholesale approach, encompassing several issues at once—arguably a way of undermining Greece’s case from the outset.
All of this means that the overall problem is profound and complex. Turkey’s arguments can hardly be dismissed altogether, nor are they likely to be resolved through one simple concession by Greece, assuming that the latter is prepared to do so.
The quantity of natural gas discovered by Turkey’s international competitors since 2011 hasn’t been very large, but it has helped galvanize their solidarity against Turkey while reigniting all the old, unresolved issues.
In 2019, Cairo inaugurated the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum to which it invited Italy, the Republic of Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority.
One of the Forum’s main goals is to utilize Egypt’s liquified natural gas facilities for the purpose of streamlining the transportation of natural gas from the area into Europe.
The endeavor not only excludes energy-poor Turkey, but it also undermines its long-standing aspiration to become a vital transit platform for foreign gas to Europe.
In sum, the last 10-to-15 years saw the cohesion amongst Ankara’s rivals grow in the Eastern Mediterranean. This gives Turkey very real reasons to fear becoming trapped into a narrow strip of sea off its southern coast.
Within that context, the Tripoli government is the only internationally recognized government nearby that it can invoke as embracing its interpretation of territorial waters conventions.
If that interpretation is defended with relentless action over a sustained period of time, Ankara’s thinking goes, Athens will eventually give in and accept a redrawing of the maritime jurisdiction zones in the Aegean.
At present, Greece is a long way from such a capitulation, as both France and the UAE strongly support it, including militarily. For instance, both French and Emirati warplanes participated in Greece’s military exercises in late summer 2020.
In fact, on a regional level, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Moyammed bin Zayed is emerging as the leader of the pushback against Turkey. In Libya specifically, although economic and geostrategic considerations do matter to the UAE, the latter’s top concern—overriding all others—has been ideology.
By ensuring the survival of a government, whose pluralistic character lets the Muslim Brotherhood exert a degree of influence on the national governance of a wealthy North African country, Ankara reinforces its ideological prestige in the eyes of various constituencies across much of the region and beyond.
Erdogan’s style of rule is authoritarian, but that form of authoritarianism is somewhat looser, less vertical, and more diffuse than Mohammed bin Zayed’s own preferred model.
The added political uncertainty associated with the kind of bottom-up dynamic that Erdogan encourages across the Arab World is regarded by the UAE as a threat to the survival of the Emirati regime.
Eradicating it in Libya has been an important Emirati goal since 2011.
Support for the Muslim Brotherhood, although an indubitable reality on a tactical level, wasn’t per se a primary motivation behind the Turks’ decision to go to Libya.
In fact, ultranationalism played a greater role as that decision’s underlying Ankara’s foreign policy isn’t as pragmatic as some of its advocates proclaim.
They argue that it is producing “coercive diplomacy,” or a dynamic that will compel Turkey’s rivals into acquiescing to a new geostrategic configuration and, ultimately, accepting a negotiated settlement that is viable and satisfactory to Ankara.
Things may end up going in that direction, but at the time of writing, no concrete clues indicate that they will. Ankara’s Libya play—although not a failure thus far—still hasn’t secured any of its strategic goals.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s ever-intensifying urge to assert itself abroad in a cantankerous manner serves a domestic purpose for its leaders. Erdogan and his associates have a strong incentive to deflect the Turkish public’s attention from a hard-currency debt crisis that has slipped out of control, halved the dollar value of the lira in two years, and hurt the real economy.
This means that only an unequivocal, crushing defeat can uproot the Turkish juggernaut from Libya within the next few years.
Jalel Harchaoui is a Senior Fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.