Meddling in Libya Erdoğan’s last hope for backing Islamist groups in Middle East

Turkey’s deployment of troops to Libya is likely to lead it into a long-term and costly conflict, but President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sees it as vital to support his last Islamist allies in the region and pursue his Mediterranean energy strategy, Egyptian state-run newspaper Al Ahram English reported, citing experts.

Erdoğan announced on Sunday that Turkish troops had begun deploying to support the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, where the renegade Libyan National Army under General Khalifa Haftar has launched an offensive to capture the capital city.

Mohamed Abdelkader, Turkey expert at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the Turkish president’s strong backing of the Government of National Accord (GNA) was a last-gasp attempt to save Turkey’s Middle East policy of backing Islamist political movements across the region.

"If Turkey loses Libya, it will lose North Africa as a whole. This is the case in light of the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Omar Al-Bashir in Sudan and the military gains made by the Libyan National Army in Libya in its Tripoli campaign," said Abdelkader.

Relations between Turkey and Egypt soured in 2013, when Egypt’s military deposed the Muslim Brotherhood-linked President Mohamed Mursi in a coup. The current president, Abdel Fettah al-Sisi, declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, and Egypt and its regional allies including Saudi Arabia have accused Turkey of funding terrorists over its ongoing support for the Islamist group.

But Libya has an added dimension of importance for Turkey as it seeks to impose itself in the struggle for energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean, where other regional countries have made agreements that ignore Turkey’s maritime claims.

Erdoğan and Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s U.N.-recognised GNA in November signed a deal to boost military cooperation along with a separate accord on maritime boundaries in the sea.

Turkey’s involvement in Libya will also bring business opportunities, both by reopening the African country’s markets to Turkish companies and by granting it access to a country that has the ninth largest oil reserves in the world, Ahram Online quoted Lenore Martin, associate for Harvard’s Centre for Middle Eastern studies, as saying.

But Erdoğan’s plans could be foiled by rising opposition to a north African military adventure at home, said former Turkish lawmaker and Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior director Aykan Erdemir.

“Given the Turkish electorate’s scepticism about risking Turkish lives in the Libyan civil war, Erdogan has so far built his strategy on using Islamist mercenaries that he has airlifted from Syria,” Erdemir said.

“This strategy based on hired guns, however, is unlikely to succeed, forcing Erdogan to deploy Turkish troops, not only in advisory and training capacities, but also in combat roles,” he added. “In Libya, growing involvement of Turkish troops in active fighting, and potential casualties from thereof, would exacerbate Erdogan’s legitimacy deficit and further undermine his support, already shaken by the ongoing economic crisis.”

"Just as Turkey has not benefited from its troop deployments in Syria and its support of opposition forces there, it is not clear that Erdogan’s policies in Libya will be any more successful. Turkey has thrown its chips onto the table and time will tell if it will be a winner," Martin said.