Podcast: Turkey’s muscle-flexing lights Libyan fuse - Henri Barkey & Steven Cook

Two weeks ago off the Libyan coast, a Turkish frigate refused to allow a French warship to carry out its mandatory inspection as part of a United Nations arms embargo. Instead, the Turkish navy vessel pointed its prow toward the French ship in a clear act of maritime aggression. French President Emmanuel Macron said Ankara’s actions were intolerable and put European security at risk.

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to help the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) retake the energy hub of Sirte and other areas east of Tripoli, where Russia has been deploying additional aircraft in support of the besieged forces of General Khalifa Haftar. Days later, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi visited an airbase along the Libyan border and said an Egyptian military intervention would be legitimate if Turkey and allied GNA forces continued their operation to capture Sirte.

“It is extraordinary how much actual sabre-rattling is going on right now among the actors in Libya,” Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Ahval in a podcast. “The idea that Turkey and President Erdoğan would have a presence in Libya, in Egypt’s backyard, is deeply unnerving for the Egyptian government.”

A key reason Turkey feels free to be brazenly aggressive not just in Libya, but in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Aegean, around Cyprus and in Syria, is the absence of the world’s lone superpower, despite the U.S. embassy in Libya this week issuing a statement calling for a pause in military operations. 

“I don’t know if there is a Libya policy of the United States,” Henri J. Barkey, professor at LeHigh University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Ahval in a joint podcast with Cook.

“It’s not a priority, clearly,” he added, pointing out how the United States under President Donald Trump has pulled forces out of Syria and sought to curb America’s involvement in the Middle East. “The United States has lost all of its visible power, soft and hard, and actors in the region will do whatever they want, and really not care what Washington has to say.”

Europe has also been largely absent. Though Germany, Italy, and France have spoken out against Turkish aggressions and encouraged parties to move toward a political solution, European states have made few forceful moves to shape the situation in Libya, even as France has backed the United Arab Emirates’ support for Haftar.

Turkey’s Libya involvement began with a semi-secret intervention in 2018, which late last year developed into open intervention and a maritime borders deal with the GNA that is widely seen as illegal and provocative by Western powers.

Now, some are describing Turkey’s deepening involvement in Libya as nation-building, particularly after several Turkish ministers met with GNA leader Fayez al-Sarraj to finalise cooperation on security, investment, infrastructure and energy.

LeHigh University’s Barkey thought Ankara might be acting with urgency in Libya, Syria and across the region in part because, according to the latest polls, Trump is set to lose the upcoming U.S. presidential election to Senator Joseph Biden in November. “If Joe Biden were to win the presidency, you would see a major change in policy in Syria and the Middle East, and in regards to Turkey,” he said.

The Islamist aspects of Turkey’s Libya intervention, which is seen by many as an effort to prop up Muslim Brotherhood elements in Tripoli, are exaggerated, according to Barkey, who acknowledges that the Syrian fighters Turkey imported to fight for the GNA are all Islamist extremists.

“This is why the French are so upset,” he said. “You have 10-, 12-, 13,000 jihadist Syrians in Libya who potentially may start moving into Europe.”

Barkey pointed to the Turkish-controlled areas of Syria, to last week’s Turkish troop deployment to Iraq and its ongoing aggressions in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean, and said Ankara’s moves in Libya aligned with Erdoğan’s effort to paint himself as the master of the region.

“He always wanted to make Turkey into some kind of consequential power,” he said. “The Turks are showing that they can actually control the Mediterranean, that they are the most important military power in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

This highlights the extent to which Turkey has strengthened its military under the ruling Justice and Development Party, which has been in power since 2002. Barkey pointed to Turkey’s advanced drones and significantly expanded naval strength.

“You don’t create a navy overnight,” he said. “There’s been a great deal of planning in Turkey over the last decade in terms of building capacity.”

Cook, from the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed.

“The Turks have proven that they have a lot of military capacity and they have used it in innovative ways,” he said. “They have proven themselves capable when no one really thought they would be.”

The other significant military power opposing Turkey in Libya – as well as in Syria – is Russia. In Idlib province, and in the eastern part of Libya controlled by Haftar, Russia is the dominant airpower. Barkey wondered why Russian President Vladimir Putin had yet to take aggressive action against Turkey in either theatre, but thought it could happen soon.

“It’s quite possible that should GNA forces move toward Misrata and Sirte, suddenly the Russian aircraft will come into play and try to stop them,” he said, pointing out that Erdoğan would be the one to greenlight such an operation. “If he makes that decision, then I think all hell is going to break loose.”

Egypt has vowed to mobilise if GNA forces move aggressively east. Tensions between Turkey and Egypt have been high in recent years, as Erdoğan has sought to delegitimise the Sisi regime, which came to power after the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

Cook pointed out that Egypt has also been expanding its navy, has one of the region’s largest fighter jet fleets and, as Libya’s neighbour, could bring much larger troop numbers to bear than Turkey. He saw a real risk of conflict, despite several Libyan friends seeing Egypt as bluffing, and the fact that, besides peacekeeping missions, the Egyptian military had not deployed outside its countries borders for decades.

“I do think there is reason to be worried,” said Cook. “Libya is Egypt’s backyard and Turkey makes Egypt very, very nervous, given the history between these two governments... Even if both the Egyptian and Turkish governments are just beating their chests, there is a whole host of ways in which they could fall into conflict by miscalculation and error.”