Turkey’s authoritarian leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, likes to tout his country as a regional superpower with an imperial legacy stretching over centuries and over continents. In fact, modern Turkey is something altogether different. Its military dominance has been confined to its immediate neighborhood, and consists mainly of fighting Kurdish militant groups in northern Syria and Iraq and in making claims over maritime rights around Cyprus. So much for an imperial legacy then.
But the Turkish parliament’s approval to deploy combat troops to Libya is a major departure, and it bears careful monitoring. If it happens, it could be a game-changer that confirms Turkey possesses not only significant military capacity, but also a strong appetite for taking risks beyond its own region.
Yes, Turkey already has sent forces to Qatar and Somalia. But dispatching combat troops to Libya is a much more audacious step. Unlike Libya, Qatar is neither a war zone nor a failed state engulfed in a bloody civil war. And in Somalia, the Turkish mission is limited to training troops.
The decision to directly and unilaterally intervene in the Libyan civil war with its own combat troops places Turkey in uncharted waters. One must ask why. In fact, it is a high-risk strategy that can only be understood in light of Erdogan’s search for leverage in Syria against Russia and in the Eastern Mediterranean against Cyprus, Israel, Greece and Egypt.
Some may discern a certain level of mission creep in Turkey’s Libya adventure. In the last couple of years, Turkey sent drones and armored vehicles to boost the defense of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli under the leadership of Fayez Al Sarraj. Established in 2015 through an international process endorsed both by the United Nations and the United States, the GNA has a hold over only a small part of the country. The rival faction of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, now encroaching on Tripoli, is supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, France and Russia.
Turkey’s military calculations in Libya are harder to discern than its obvious commercial interests. That oil-rich Libya is an important market for Turkish companies is beyond dispute. The country is a place where Turkish contractors won lucrative infrastructure contracts during Muammar Qaddafi’s rule. There is no doubt Erdogan has an eye on the reconstruction of Libya, combined with a share of oil deals.
On the other hand, the military dimension of Erdogan’s gambit looks like strategic overreach. Libya is 2,000 kilometers away from the Turkish mainland and Ankara has no vital national security interests there. There is, however, a certain geopolitical rationale to Erdogan’s thinking. If he plays his cards right, Turkey can turn Libya into significant strategic leverage in the larger game of Eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbons.
Turkey’s diplomatic and military engagements in Libya have come about as Ankara has been increasingly isolated by all the major actors in the Eastern Mediterranean. The discovery of large natural gas fields increased the geostrategic importance of this region, where Cyprus, Egypt and Israel are engaged in heavy exploration activities in their own territorial waters.
The main problem for Erdogan is the fact that the Turkish part of Cyprus, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, is not recognized by the international community. The Greek part of the island, the Republic of Cyprus, is the only recognized authority that can claim sovereignty over territorial waters and thus in establishing exclusive economic zones (EEZ) for gas exploration and pipeline infrastructure building.
Not surprisingly, Greece, Cyprus and Israel are doing their best to sideline Turkey and have just signed an agreement that lays the groundwork for gas pipelines that will connect offshore fields with Europe.
In the context of Turkey’s increasing marginalization in the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya matters greatly for Ankara’s claim over natural gas exploration. This is why in November Ankara signed an agreement with the GNA that demarcated new maritime boundaries between the two countries, which deeply angered Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. Greece immediately expelled the Libyan ambassador, claiming that the Ankara-Tripoli agreement violated the territorial waters of the Greek island of Crete and its EEZ.
But perhaps more important than all these factors related to hydrocarbons, Libya matters for Erdogan because he urgently needs some military leverage against Russia in Syria’s Idlib province, where Turkey is once again facing the prospect of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees massing at its borders. Russia and Syria have recently started bombing Idlib, the last stronghold of Islamist resistance to the Assad regime. Simply put, Erdogan is desperate to avoid another massive wave of refugees coming to Turkey, joining the almost four million Syrians already in the country.
While Ankara and Moscow have forged increasingly close military ties in recent years, Turkey and Russia back opposing sides in the Libyan conflict, just as they do in the long-running civil war in Syria. In Libya, Russia has a presence on the ground with hundreds of personnel from the Wagner private security group. It is clear that Moscow sees Libya as a potential zone of influence.
The January 2 vote in the Turkish parliament that approved the Libya deployment came ahead of a planned visit to Turkey on January 9 by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. No one will be surprised if Erdogan asks Putin to stop bombing Idlib in return for some joint rethinking about mutual positions in Libya. A strengthened hand in Libya will certainly help Erdogan’s negotiating position. From this perspective, sending combat troops to Libya serves Turkey’s national security and economic interests in a place much closer at home. But whether this high-risk strategy will pay off remains to be seen.
Omer Taspinar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.