Turkey’s Risky Game for its Ottoman Empire Fantasies

The previous week, President Erdogan announced his plan to send Turkish troops to Libya. The necessary legitimation of the Turkish parliament now exists and with potentially even more fragility in the region.

The plan was mandated on Thursday. As a result, Turkish troops can be deployed into Libya. Moreover, the law passed not merely focusses on Libya but displays Turkey’s geopolitical vision for the region and years to come, as the parliament’s mandate ought to protect Turkish interests “throughout North Africa and the Mediterranean.”

It is evidence of Turkish newly found self-esteem on the international stage under Erdogan. Self-esteem that involves the interests of Turkey far beyond its borders, such as in Libya now. And Turkey is willing to protect these interests militarily.

Turkey’s short-term primary geostrategic goals are to support Fayez al-Sarraj’s Libyan government. As always, in international politics, not out of unselfish reasons but in favor of a quid pro quo. Libya itself, therefore, is only a side-show in Turkey’s goal, which is to have a say in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt exclude Turkey from the exploitation of natural gas fields under the seabed. Al-Sarraj supports Turkey in its quest. As a result, an agreement from November between Turkey and the unitary government in Libya declares large parts of the area’s waters without regard to claims by Greece and Cyprus as Turkish sovereign territories.

Nonetheless, with Turkey’s decision to intervene, it risks further international isolation. So far, there are no implications that the neighboring actors may be ready to speak to Erdogan about splitting the gas reserves.

However, it is not merely isolation that Turkey faces. The other actors involved will not simply succumb to Turkey’s plans. Particularly Russia’s interests are diametrically opposed to Turkey’s, as Moscow supports al-Sarraj’s opponent, General Haftar, with mercenaries. Next Wednesday, President Putin will travel to Turkey and speak to Erdogan personally about the current developments.

Moreover, General Khalifa Haftar, who seeks to become the military ruler over all of Libya, has other powerful allies such as the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, who probably will not hesitate to equip Haftar with additional weapons and mercenaries if a Turkish intervention showed an immediate effect.

Greece and Egypt also plan to conduct joint naval exercises off the coast of Libya in the coming days. The Egyptian Air Force has moreover been on alert over the past week and is believed to have prevented several Turkish aircraft from flying into Libyan airspace. Meanwhile, Israel has communicated its plans to conduct exercises in the Mediterranean.

Europe, in the form of France, also has an interest in the conflict. French soldiers have been stationed in the Haftar-controlled area in Eastern Libya since 2014 when Haftar began his plans to liberate the cities of Benghazi and Derna, occupied by al-Qaida and the Islamic State terrorist militia. Meanwhile, Turkey’s plans also undermine Germany, which is planning a peace conference for Libya at the end of January.

Despite the ubiquitous criticism, Erdogan has proceeded with his plan. Turkey could emerge as one of the big winners from the crises in the Arab world and the procrastination of Europe. After all, Erdogan has been stating his neo-Ottoman fantasies openly and building a stronghold in the region while creating further instability can work in Ankara’s favor. In fact, Libya had once belonged to the Ottoman Empire until 1912, as had the Greek archipelago of the Dodecanese. The latter, if the maritime agreement between Libya and Turkey would become a reality, would in future be part of a “Turkish Sea.”

Nonetheless, Turkey is playing a risky game for its journey back in time as none of the countries involved in the conflict will stand by when Turkey attempts to make the al-Sarraj government, the winner in the Libyan civil war. If their intervention resulted in an escalating fiasco, both the economic interests and the geographical ones would fail, and Turkey would be forced to retreat, humiliated by reality.