Erdogan’s Ambitions for Turkey in Libya Are Growing

(Bloomberg Opinion) - If it looks like nation building, it smells like nation building ... A flood of Turkish measures and announcements suggest that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ambitions in Libya are no longer limited to protecting the Tripoli government and allowing it to negotiate with Khalifa Haftar, the rebel commander.
Turkish military support has enabled the armed forces of the government of the National Agreement to reverse Haftar's so-called Libyan National Army. However, Turkey has rejected a ceasefire proposal from Egypt, the main sponsor of the LNA.
Haftar's withdrawal to his eastern redoubt has given Erdogan foreigner boasting rights. More importantly, Turkey can expand its influence in Libya. Ankara signals its long-term commitment and seeks political and military cover in Washington and Brussels to call for a more active role for the Americans and NATO. But Erdogan wants to be in charge.
There is no talk of withdrawing Turkish troops. On the contrary, Turkey's footprint is likely to grow with plans to train the GNA armed forces. Turkey also carries out large naval exercises off the Libyan coast - even French noses from the joint.
Last week senior Turkish officials - including Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Finance and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak - met with Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, who heads the GNA, to discuss more security, investment, infrastructure and oil cooperation. Among other things, Turkish consultants are to help rebuild the Libyan banking system, help Turkish companies with energy exploration, and bring Turkish ships of Libyan oil to world markets.
Erdogan's game of Libya has always had an important economic dimension. Turkish business relations with the North African nation went back to the current civil war: in the last decade of the dictatorship of Moammar Qaddafi, Turkish construction companies were among the most important foreign companies in the country. During the uprising against Gaddafi in 2011, more than 25,000 Turks were evacuated, and the companies left construction sites littered with heavy equipment.
A motivating factor in Erdogan's support for the GNA was the resumption of construction projects worth around $ 18 billion.
Libya is also the key to Turkey's demands in the Eastern Mediterranean, where it hopes to become a major energy player. Erdogan says his maritime transport agreement with the Sarraj government, which is contested by other coastal states, gives Turkey permission to explore in the waters between the two countries.
There are also political and strategic dimensions. Sarraj's coalition government includes Islamists who are ideologically close to Erdogan's AK party. And the success of the GNA would mean a Turkish victory over Haftar's supporters, including the United Arab Emirates, which Ankara sees as a cause of chaos and instability in the Middle East.
Turkey's military, political, and economic maneuvers pose a challenge to the Emiratis and Egyptians, who must decide how to respond. President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has announced that he will intervene militarily if the GNA wants to conquer the strategic city of Sirte. Cairo is also gathering the Arab world against Turkish "interference" in Libya.
Erdogan also has to count on Haftar's other important supporter, Russia. Last week a high-ranking Russian delegation, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, canceled their visit to Istanbul. Just a few days after a phone call between Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin, this cancellation was a clear signal of discontent.
Erdogan can count on US support - he has spoken of unspecified "agreements" with President Trump - to keep Haftar's supporters at bay. But he demands a lot from an American Mercurial president who has little appetite for foreign adventures. Most likely, Trump will leave Turkey to defend himself in Libya.
Can Erdogan afford deeper engagement in Libya? You'd think he has more than enough problems at home. The Turkish coronavirus crisis continues: new cases have arisen since the block rules were relaxed. The full dimensions of the economic damage caused by the pandemic are still being measured. Although the government says positive growth is possible this year, the median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of economists is 3.6% lower. A recovery in stocks - made possible by lower interest rates and measures to defend the lira - looks fragile.
Such conditions are hardly ideal for starting a nation-building project in a country as damaged as Libya. But Erdogan doesn't seem to be looking for an exit.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a columnist in the Bloomberg Opinion. He writes on foreign affairs with a particular focus on the Middle East and the entire Islamic world.
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