What in the world is Erdoğan doing in West Africa?
There is no longer any doubt about Turkey's role in dispatching jihadists and mercenaries to Libya. The latest confirmation came from French President Emmanuel Macron January 29 at a news conference with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
"I want to express my concerns with regard to the behaviour of Turkey at the moment, which is in complete contradiction with what President [Recep] Tayyip Erdoğan committed to at the Berlin conference," Macron said.
"We have seen during these last days Turkish warships accompanied by Syrian mercenaries arrive on Libyan soil. This is an explicit and serious infringement of what was agreed in Berlin. It's a broken promise.”
Macron confirmed the presence of Turkish ships off the Libyan coast and accused Ankara of "violating Libya's sovereignty and endangering European and West African security."
Erdoğan is sending Syrian jihadists and mercenaries to Libya to back the Islamist militias and other forces loyal to the Government of National Accord of Fayez al-Sarraj. Why is Macron talking of Turkish threats to "West African security"?
There are suspicions that some militants and mercenaries have been departing Islamist strongholds in Tripoli and Misrata for West Africa, known as an area of French influence but now infested with terrorist groups, cross-border and transcontinental smuggling organisations (Colombia-Gulf of Guinea-Sahel and Europe) and organised crime. There is also talk of Ankara seeking to establish a military base in West Africa.
There have been reports that some Syrian fighters were headed to Western Europe.
Macron has repeatedly confirmed his wariness about Ankara's designs, including in Berlin during the conference on Libya.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov admitted at a news conference January 28 in Moscow with his South Sudanese Foreign Affair Minister Awut Deng Achuil that he had asked Erdoğan to stop sending terrorists from Syria to Libya.
The question that torments Western governments is how far will Erdoğan go in this devious confrontation in West Africa after the Middle East and the Maghreb? Is this a form of revenge against Europe in general and France in particular for slamming the gates of the European Union shut in the face of Turkey?
It has been clear, for at least a decade, that France would not accept the accession of Muslim, let alone Islamist, Turkey to this "Christian" group, even if it fulfils all required conditions. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was the most outspoken on this subject.
“To let Turkey think that it can join the EU is a monumental error,” he declared on December 2, 2015, on Europe 1 radio. “I stand by my words. Turkey is in Asia Minor, not in Europe.”
As a reminder, negotiations on Turkey's hypothetical accession to the European Union were relaunched in 2013, after a sudden interruption in 2010.
In 1963, Turkey, a central member of NATO, became an associate member of the European Common Market. Turkey was officially recognised as a candidate for EU membership in 1999 at the Helsinki summit and negotiations began in 2005 but Turkey has been knocking on the door of the union for more than 50 years, in vain.
The reasons for European distrust of Ankara are legion: Turkey’s worrisome drift, particularly after the failed coup in 2016, towards an authoritarian presidential regime; its crackdown on the media and public liberties; its support for Islamist networks; its complacency with terrorist groups in Syria and Libya; its blackmail-type policies about migratory flows to Europe; its occupation of part of Cyprus since 1974; and, most recently, its signing of a military agreement with the government of Sarraj, coupled with a memorandum of understanding on the delimitation of maritime jurisdictions in the Mediterranean Sea, the latter in clear violation of international maritime law and the U.N. Charter.
Erdoğan's possible involvement in the Sahel and West Africa could be another step on the road to the global confrontation that Turkey is waging against French and European interests. French security experts see this as a step fraught with consequences insofar as it endangers the lives of the French soldiers involved in Operation Barkhane (4,500 troops) and the U.N.-peacekeeping MINUSMA (13,500 soldiers), as well as the stability of all the Sahel countries badly damaged by militant networks and terrorist groups.
Erdoğan’s latest trip to West Africa (Senegal and Gambia) shows to what extent Africa, particularly French-speaking countries with a Muslim majority, constitutes for Erdoğan a venue for a showdown with the former European colonial powers.
If it were only a race to open new markets for the Turkish economy, which is going through difficult times, Ankara's encroachment in West Africa could be less worrisome, especially when is the known that Turkey has had an economic presence in Africa for about 20 years.
However, as shown before in other parts of the continent, such as the Horn of Africa, Turkish encroachment follows a multifaceted strategy including military bases, the establishment of intelligence networks and the promotion of Turkish economic interests.
All of this is couched in the instrumentalisation of Islamism in the colours of the Muslim Brotherhood, in alliance with Qatar. Turkey's project is much more ambitious than mere conquest of markets.
Turkey claims to offer Africans a deal more equitable than that of Western countries but many of them not convinced.
Turkey's interventions, old and recent, in the continent, follow an expansionist and aggressive agenda without many scruples. Its recent role in Libya has hardly reassured Africans who are doubtful of Turkey’s designs after Ankara's abrupt abandonment of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Some see Turkey's African policy as a way for Erdoğan to find new inroads outside his country when Ankara finds itself increasingly isolated on the international scene because of its troubled game in the Syrian crisis, in the Gulf, Somalia, Sudan and mounting evidence of its support for jihadist groups in Syria.
Europeans, who are also attentive to Turkey’s attempts to take hold of Islam in Europe itself, have not shown a clear strategy of how to deal with Ankara's dangerous game of igniting fires everywhere but the European Union is not without possible recourse. For starters, the European Union could re-examine its economic ties with Turkey, which remains Europe's first trading partner. When this re-examination starts, worry could change sides.
This article was first published in the Arab Weekly.