What do Erdoğan and Trump’s warm ties mean for Libya’s conflict?

Great interest has been shown of late in the improving relations between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump.

Erdoğan said in mid-June that the two leaders had shared a positive conversation which - though there were no substantive details provided - included discussions on developments in Libya. What impact might their currently positive personal relations have on events there?

Washington has stated its support for the Turkish-backed, United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in its fight against rebel General Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), which is backed by Russia, Egypt, France, and the United Arab Emirates, among others.

But the United States has only given the GNA weak diplomatic backing - the U.S. embassy to Libya is in Tunisia.

Russia has allegedly used personnel from its Syrian and Sudanese clients to augment the forces of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group to support Haftar.  France rails against the Russian actions, condemns Turkish intervention, but - like the U.S. - provides little in the way of material support while calling on all parties to agree a ceasefire and negotiate a settlement to the conflict. 

Add to this the tension over hydrocarbon exploration in the disputed Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of the eastern Mediterranean, in particular in the memorandum between Turkey and Libya’s GNA - which expanded Turkey’s maritime claims in the region but has been condemned as illegal by Greece, Cyprus, and others - and one begins to see that perhaps Trump is right to avoid any substantial, direct involvement in Libya’s war. 

For him, it is most likely just another intractable conflict in “that part of the world” not worth much investment of U.S. time and treasure, and certainly not American lives. Like in northern Syria, he appears more than willing to let his Turkish counterpart take on the burden, the costs and risks.

Erdoğan, however, is looking to the benefits, but ones that will accrue to his image and regional standing, not to Turkey or its people.

He wishes to be a player in regional affairs, recovering influence that Ottoman Turkey had in past centuries. Erdoğan had previously sought to establish influence through diplomacy, economic cooperation and investment, and educational endeavours. 

But recent military forays into Syria, the establishment of a base in Qatar, and now direct military intervention in Libya reveals a increasing willingness to use military resources to extend his influence, and possibly a desire to shift from influence to dominance.

In Libya, we can expect Erdoğan to push right up to a conflict with Russian-backed forces, and even Russian personnel present there, but to draw back from open conflict with Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

It is a risky strategy, but close relations between Russian-Turkish forces in Syria - even though they are backing opposing sides there too - likely serve as an model of how he can manage relations with Russia for maximum advantage with “acceptable losses” (acceptable for the Turkish State he leads, not the bereaved relatives of the soldiers killed in conflict with Russian or Russian-backed forces). 

At the same time, Erdoğan is trying to gain favour with those opposed to Russian efforts to assert control over Libyan affairs and oil, in order to distract attention from his maritime EEZ grab directed against the interests of Egypt, Cyprus, and Israel.

It also distracts from the brutal behaviour of his Syrian rebel allies in northern Syria, though one expects that they will soon engender close scrutiny by their activities in Libya since Turkey is recruiting mercenaries from Syria to fight there alongside the GNA.

As always, Erdoğan also has an eye on the domestic political situation.  Many in his base are proud of him for raising Turkey's profile in the world, and he relies on sycophantic reporting from the government-dominated press that praises his actions without giving too much attention to the costs in lives or to the economy. 

As in Syria, if the number of Turkish military personnel killed or injured is kept low, he’ll likely not meet a strong counter-reaction from most Turkish voters.

Perhaps most importantly for the domestic situation, supporting the GNA in place of the U.S. or others blunts calls for sanctions against Turkey for having cozied up to Moscow by buying, but not yet activating, the Russian S-400 missile defence system in the face of NATO condemnation.

With the Trump administration under suspicion, again, for not taking the Russian threats to the United States seriously enough, Turkish forces standing up to Russia in Libya will go down well, albeit quietly, with many in the U.S. Congress.

But what of the recent sentencing of Metin Topuz, a Turkish employee of the U.S. embassy, to eight years in prison? Does Trump not care?  Well, not much - if at all. His “America First” stance relegates non-Americans, even loyal employees of our diplomatic missions, to a lesser status not worthy of actions such as sanctions against Turkish ministers, which were applied over the case of U.S. citizen Pastor Andrew Brunson who was also jailed by the Turkish authorities. 

And what of reports that Trump has instructed the FBI to investigate Fethullah Gülen’s activities in the U.S. to see if the cleric - whom Turkey accuses of orchestrating the failed 2016 coup - can be deported?

Perhaps the reports are true, but they are unlikely to lead to any deportation soon. As a legal, permanent U.S. resident, the burden of proof of illegal activities that would call for Gülen’s deportation rest with the U.S. authorities. He would have to first be convicted of a crime that under U.S. immigration law could be used to order his deportation. 

And while many in the U.S. might gladly consider a “trade” of Gülen for improved relations with Turkey, Trump does not exercise anywhere near the control of the justice system or judiciary in the U.S. that Erdoğan does in Turkey.

It looks like Erdoğan is playing Libya, and Trump, quite well; getting a distraction from domestic problems, earning a likely delay in U.S. sanctions, extending Turkish influence abroad, and gaining admiration from his electoral base. 

The only thing likely to erode that base of support would be a large number of Turkish personnel killed in Erdoğan’s overseas adventures - and no decent person hopes for that.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.