Turkey’s strategy in Libya should be seen as a part of its wider African strategy, according to Turkish history professor Barin Kayaoglu. Libya is not the only place where Turkey is active. Kayaoglu recalls a plan concocted by Turkey’s foreign ministry regarding Africa in 1998 that drew little attention at the time, but seems to have been adopted by Erdogan and the AK Party since. It includes spreading Turkish influence throughout Africa by means of state building, security assistance, spreading Turkish commercial connections and infrastructure and an educational network.
One success of this is Turkey having become Somalia’s “big brother”, after it helped the country overcome famine in 2011 and assisted in the reconstruction effort. Turkey today maintains its largest foreign military base in Mogadishu where it trains a significant portion of Somalia’s national military. Turkey also maintains a Red Sea port in Sudan and is active in the UN’s anti-piracy efforts around the horn of Africa.
Turkish trade with Africa stands at around $20 billion today, only a small part of its roughly $400 billion in global trade, but a massive increase from a decade ago. However Turkey maintains 4 free trade agreements in Africa and is working on securing additional ones. Even its main rival, Egypt, is also its largest trade partner on the continent, showing that Turkey knows how to juggle trade and regional rivalries rather well. The AKP, according to Kayaoglu, seems content on its African strategy as a part of Turkish overall economic and diplomatic growth. Turkey has opened a dozen embassies on the continent and Turkish Airlines has flights to every major African city and every capital. Turkey is also taking advantage of highly educated English and French speaking African migrants, and is working to change immigration laws to allow them to integrate into and boost the Turkish economy.
In many ways, Kayaoglu points out, Turkey is taking a page out of China’s global expansion playbook, which itself now has over 40 bilateral free trade agreements in Africa. Despite the many challenges to this strategy, especially given the lack of proper financial infrastructure in Africa, Turkey is moving ahead with Africa, and its Libya efforts should be seen as a part of this.
We will add that Turkey also sees Libya as a part of its previous Ottoman-era holdings, adding an element of historical and nostalgic connection.
What does this mean for Libyans? What does this mean for other international and regional powers involved? It means that Turkey's cost-benefit analysis employed as it considers its moves related to Libya are fare more entrenched and complex than other actors, perhaps. If Turkey indeed views its long-term economic and foreign affairs future in the African continent, the Libyans themselves and the Western powers involved have to carefully consider Turkey's strengths and weaknesses. Where can Turkish potential be useful? How much can Turkey be pressured to reduce its military involvement.
Such a view opens up as many questions as it does answers that the other parties involved in Libya would be wise to take into consideration as they move forward.