The U.S. must rein in Erdoğan’s war-mongering

Proclaiming “zero problems with neighbours”, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu heralded a new era of Turkish foreign policy in 2013. However, Davutoğlu and other stalwarts of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were eventually side-lined as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan consolidated his dictatorship.

With Turkey’s economy collapsing, Erdoğan is fuelling regional conflicts in order to distract Turks from his economic mismanagement. Instead of helping Turkey, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has turned a blind eye to Turkey’s economic strife, democratic deficit, and nefarious role in the region.

Today, Turkey is engaged in multiple armed conflicts.

Turkey invaded northern and eastern Syria, killing hundreds in the Syrian Defence Forces, America’s ally against Islamic State (ISIS). Kurds, Armenians and Syriac Christians were targeted. Hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes in Afrin and communities east of the Euphrates River.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, Yezidis in Sinjar and Christians in Zakho were victimised by Turkey’s bombing and occupation. Yezidis, who barely survived a genocide by ISIS, now face persecution from Turkey’s jihadist proxies. Forced conversion to Islam, rape of women and girls, arbitrary arrest, torture, and ethnic cleansing are routine.

Turkish warships are plying the eastern Mediterranean to disrupt an agreement between Egypt and Greece on an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which will produce natural gas with Israel as a major beneficiary.

Mock dogfights regularly occur between Greek and Turkish war planes, as Erdoğan questions the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that established Turkey’s current borders. Seizing islets in Greek territorial waters would be a major provocation and causus belli between NATO allies.

Turkey recently encouraged Azerbaijan to launch cross-border attacks against Armenia. With drones and missiles from Turkey, Azerbaijan is threatening to renew the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkey has also intervened in Libya, where tribal and regional factions are in desperate need of reconciliation. There is real risk of conflict escalation between Turkey and Egypt, who support different sides in Libya’s civil war.  

While all these front-line states are at-risk from Turkey’s aggression, Libya is a laboratory for Turkey’s malign foreign policy. During the first months of 2020, Turkey deployed up to 3,800 Syrian mercenaries to Libya. These mercenaries from the National Syrian Army, some allegedly drawn from al-Qaeda and ISIS remnants, are notorious for war crimes. They have beheaded opponents, raped women and girls, tortured and killed opponents. They are the dregs – the worst of the worst.

Their deployment to Libya swung the tide in favour of the Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Turkey’s actions are fuelled by geo-strategic and economic interests. Libya is an oil-rich country with energy assets coveted by foreign powers. Backing Farraj gives Erdoğan influence over Libya’s energy sector.

Since 2011, when Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was ousted, Libya has been at war with itself. Libya has been divided for years between Farraj’s GNA and the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar. Backed by Russia and the Gulf States, the LNA’s forces were on the verge of seizing Tripoli when Turkey and its mercenaries intervened. Having turned the tide, the GNA now vows to capture Sirte, the gateway to Libya’s oil fields, and the al-Jufra air base.

Egypt, which backs the LNA, has pledged to defend Sirte. To this end, the Egyptian parliament authorised the deployment of troops "to defend Egyptian national security against criminal armed militias and foreign terrorist elements". Recent developments pit Turkey against Russia and the United Arab Emirates. Tensions could boil over into a full blown war without a ceasefire and international mediation.

These are times when countries look to the United States for leadership. However, the Trump administration does not have a Libya policy. Its ambivalence and lack of leadership has opened the space for ill-intended and self-serving powers to intervene. It is understandable that the United States wants to avoid another entanglement in the Middle East. But America’s neglect of Libya is another example of a situation gone awry when the United States abrogates its leadership role

In each of the violent conflicts where Turkey is involved, the Trump administration has failed to lead.

Trump gave Erdoğan a green light to invade and occupy northeast Syria, betraying the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which lost 11,000 fighters killed and 24, 000 wounded fighting ISIS.

U.S. officials barely said a word when Turkey invaded Iraqi Kurdistan, threatening American troops and oil companies. 

And as Turkey provokes Greece and Cyprus, there is serious concern whether the Trump administration would enforce Article 5 of the North Atlantic Charter in the event of a clash between treaty allies.

None of these problems are intractable if the United States uses diplomatic leverage to address them. Regarding Libya, the U.S. should call for a ceasefire and humanitarian access while endorsing a United Nations-led mediation.

U.S. national interests are served by upholding sovereignty and international humanitarian law. Trump’s fawning over Erdoğan is inexplicable. Erdoğan is a serial war-monger who will continue his aggression until a punitive reprisal from the U.S.

Much damage has been done. However, it is not too late to stabilise these conflicts. If Trump is unable or unwilling to do, his successor must.

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