Erdoğan may be risking everything with historic Libya gambit

Turkey’s intervention in Libya, perhaps its biggest foreign adventure since World War One, might spell the end of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's reign should it fail, columnist and political scientist Cengiz Aktar said in a conversation with Yavuz Baydar, the Editor-in-Chief of Ahval.

The Turkish military’s support for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in the battle against the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) has broken the strategic stalemate in the country and ratcheted up tensions in the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey's intervention comes at a time when tensions have also escalated in the region over potentially rich hydrocarbon resources around Cyprus and a natural gas pipeline project between Israel, Cyprus, Greece and Egypt that excluded Turkey.

While providing military support to the GNA, Ankara signed a maritime agreement with Tripoli in November that saw Turkey and Libya as maritime neighbours, with the territory claimed by Turkey running past Cyprus and Greek islands including Crete.

Greece, Israel and Cyprus, along with the European Union, the United States, and Egypt have declared the Turkey-Libya agreement illegal. Should the GNA fall, Turkey would lose the only international support for its claims.

Ahval Editor Yavuz Baydar drew comparisons between Turkey's moves in Libya and the late Ottoman government's decision to drag the country into war in 1914, suggesting that the current situation may end in as deep a drama as a hundred years ago. The Ottoman Empire's military defeat led to its dissolution in 1921.

Failure in Libya might spell the end of the Erdoğan regime because this is the most adventurous move by any Turkish government in recent memory and a big failure there would cost Erdoğan big time, Aktar told Baydar.

Domestic economic and political considerations are certainly at play in Erdoğan's Libya intervention, with public disquiet over Turkey’s struggling economy brewing and the strength of the political opposition building, according to Aktar.

Ankara needs constant action "to hide what is happening really inside the country, and it is very happy to see discussions about the victorious Turkish army running around the world," as a distraction, Aktar said.

Turkey has militarily intervened in Syria, Libya and commenced a major military operation into northern Iraq on June 17 against Kurdish militias. However, Erdoğan cannot sustain a war on several fronts due to the severe economic downturn in the country, Aktar said.

Erdoğan's ambitions do not match with the economic numbers. "Turkey simply does not have the capabilities," he said.

Meanwhile, the escalating internationalisation of the Libyan conflict is complicating matters for Turkey. Qatar has also thrown support behind the GNA, while the LNA is backed by Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and France.

Still, U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has not decisively engaged in the Libyan conflict, which has served Erdoğan's plans in the North African country, Baydar said.

"When history is written in the future and if this conflict blows up to something unmanageable, all blame will be put on Trump,” Baydar said. “Because for Erdoğan to be successful in this policy, it will have to have a continuity of Trump's indecisive viewpoint on Libya.”

Erdoğan is prone to making serious mistakes due to his overconfidence, Aktar said.

Turkey has intervened with determination in recent weeks in Libya, providing air support, weapons and, most importantly, allied fighters from Syria to help the GNA.

Turkey's backing for jihadist factions in Syria has not been challenged until today, but the fighters are under the spotlight now after being sent from the war-torn country to Libya, Aktar said.

"Because in Syria they were unchecked and until today they are unchecked. No one tells Turkey 'what are you doing with these terrorists'" he said.

''The bottom line of all the debates about the Turkish role in Libya is the presence of tens of thousands of jihadists or Muslim terrorists in the western part of Libya,'' he said.

With its ranks bolstered by Syrian fighters and Turkish military supplies, the GNA has managed to reverse more than a year-long LNA assault on the capital Tripoli.

Now, GNA-aligned forces and Turkey say they will only stop their advance after capturing the Jufra airbase and Sirte, a key city on the Mediterranean. The plans have prompted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to threaten direct military intervention.

''The Turkish government has crossed the rubicon, by saying they will take Sirte,'' Aktar said.

Al-Sisi opened the door to direct military intervention on June 22, stating that Sirte and Jufra were a "red line” for Cairo and the Egyptian army should be prepared for any mission outside the country. His statement came just hours after Turkey demanded that the LNA withdraw from both locations.