The Middle East affairs columnist at The Independent, Ahmed Aboudouh, wrote yesterday that Turkey's moves in Libya and the region are "risking a major Mediterranean conflict". Turkish President Erdogan is "upping the ante" in Libya, including through sending drones, armoured vehicles, special forces and even commando units, to "create a single strategic deadlock" between two ongoing conflicts - the one in Libya and the fight for natural resources in the Eastern Med.
The author further claims that Erdogan is doing this to distract from his worsening political status at home, as Turkey's Syria incursion falters - and has chosen Libya as the theatre. Erodgan's announcement about a beefed-up defence agreement, including the possibility of sending troops, along with the shared maritime border with the GNA, is meant to do just this.
It is on this point that we will only partially agree with Aboudouh. As we pointed out in a previous commentary on Turkey's motivations in Libya, Turkey is seeking to establish itself regionally, to challenge Europe, balance Russian ambitions, and win lucrative construction and energy contracts. Thus, Aboudouh's point is correct but only part of the picture. Where the author is spot-on however, is by pointing out that in doing so, Erdogan has "infuriated most of his neighbours" in the process.
Haftar's renewed push on Tripoli came in reaction to this GNA agreement with Ankara. Perhaps, sensing Turkey might tip the scales, Haftar felt his window of opportunity to take Tripoli was closing fast. Perhaps Russia's recent increase in support had enough of an effect. That is, Russia upped its support, maybe ahead of a UN push to end the conflict... Turkey and GNA respond with a defence pact.... and now Haftar backed by UAE, Egypt and others makes his big (and final?) push for Tripoli. No doubt Egypt's sending tanks (on lease no less) to Libya, and conducting naval manoeuvres are messages to Turkey.
The last five years, Aboudouh continues, saw Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt make major gas discoveries in the neighbourhood, leading the group to form the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, of which, Turkey was excluded. This move, in some ways, is Erdogan's form of payback to his regional rivals. However, Erdogan's redrawing of economic zone boundaries, that ignore Crete, as well as his glossing over of Cyprus' sovereignty, are truly creative. Aboudouh also claims they violate the Tripoli government's legitimacy too. Greece has filed a complaint at the UN, and the EU is protesting.
The biggest blunder Erdogan might make, according to Aboudouh, is if he decides to establish a military base in Libya. Given the relatively short distance between the two, its not clear why Turkey needs this. It is here we have to agree, at least in part, with Aboudouh. He points out, astutely, that domestic political opposition to Erdogan is growing and fast, as former senior political figures are forming new parties to challenge Erdogan and the AKP. Thus, Erdogan seems to be using a well known playbook to divert popular opinion - get involved in a foreign conflict. That is partly why he invaded Syria. However, in Syria, Erdogan was able to find an understanding with Russia, and much of the region is less invested. Syria is also conveniently on Turkey's border. It will be much harder to convince the Turkish voter that sending troops to Libya is worth the trouble, especially when so many in the region are directly opposed.
Aboudouh goes on to claim that Erdogan might even be seeking to take advantage of Washington's rivalry with Moscow, as Russia cements its presence in Libya for the day after, to have control of oil infrastructure. Since Haftar does not seem to have international support, Turkey will be the legitimate international power that can bring order to Libya, and gain Western legitimacy in being a counter-balance to Russia.
Aboudouh does not think Turkey is bluffing, even if this move is folly, and calls on Egypt and Greece to stand strong in the face of Erdogan's gamble, and avoid getting dragged into the major conflict he might be seeking.
If Aboudouh's assessment is correct, and this entire move is intended to bolster Erdogan's status at home, and help shore up his claims to Mediterranean energy stores, this is doubly so. The international community must present a coherent front to bring an end to the fighting in Libya. The GNA seems to lack the power or legitimacy to do so, especially if it becomes a Turkish puppet. But so does Haftar, even if he has more regional legitimacy. Its time the international powers, especially the US, Europe and the Arab countries, block the various foreign powers from further interference, and agree on a consensus figure that can unite and effectively govern.