Since the Libyan civil war erupted in 2014, the involvement of external actors has been no secret. Yet in late 2019 and early 2020, the conflict has dangerously regionalized and internationalized further. On January 2, Turkey’s parliament voted to deploy its military forces to Libya to help the weak Government of National Accord (GNA) survive amid General Khalifa Haftar’s campaign to topple it while capturing Tripoli.
Three days later, on January 5, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the deployment had commenced. “There will be an operation center [in Libya]. There will be a Turkish lieutenant general leading, and they will be managing the situation over there. [Turkish soldiers] are gradually moving there right now… The goal of the Turkish Armed Forces is not to fight, but to ensure a cease-fire in Libya.”
In anticipation of the Turkish military’s arrival, Haftar delivered an address in which he stated: “We accept the challenge and declared jihad and a call to arms.” The eastern commander called on “all Libyans” to arm themselves in order “to defend our land and our honor.” In Benghazi and other parts of eastern Libya, where the Haftar-allied House of Representative (HoR) is based, Haftar supporters have come out to the streets to protest Ankara’s “invasion” of Libya.
By accusing Turkey of seeking to “regain control of Libya”, Haftar’s rhetoric raises Arab alarm about Ankara’s alleged “neo-Ottoman” agenda in the Maghreb.
By accusing Turkey of seeking to “regain control of Libya”, Haftar’s rhetoric raises Arab alarm about Ankara’s alleged “neo-Ottoman” agenda in the Maghreb. In the Arab region, Haftar and his Libyan supporters are not alone in viewing Turkey’s foreign policy as a grave threat.
This factor has contributed greatly to the strong backing that Haftar has received from the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These Arab powers see Ankara’s agenda not only in Libya—but also in Iraq, Syria, and Qatar—as evidence of Turkish expansionism. All three states have concluded that Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) is Libya’s only realistic bulwark against political Islam and “neo-Ottomanism”.
Could Turkey’s foreign policy be considered “neo-Ottoman” or not? To be sure, the Ottoman Empire is not going to return to existence. Imagining the Turkish Republic expanding its borders into the Balkans, Levant, Maghreb, and Arabian Peninsula so that Ankara can govern land once ruled by the Ottoman state is simply unrealistic.
However, there is no doubt that many Turks—from ‘average citizens’ to the highest-ranking government officials—believe that they have natural influence to assert in cities and land that once belonged to provinces of the Ottoman Empire. A popular narrative in Turkey is that in Gaza, Syria, Yemen, etc. there would be less misery today if the Ottoman Empire were still around to govern these Arab lands.
Although the Ottoman Empire is not about to be re-created, the Turkish leadership’s use of symbolism and rhetoric contributes to Arab perceptions of this alleged “neo-Ottoman” threat. When speaking to the Turkish public about the Libyan crisis, Erdogan mentions that Kemal Mustafa Ataturk fought in the North African country shortly before the Ottoman Empire fell. Additionally, some of the Sunni Islamist/jihadist militias in northern Syria that Ankara has sponsored throughout the Syrian conflict have names of former Ottoman Sultans.
Furthermore, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield in Syria on the 500-year anniversary of the entrance into Aleppo of Selim I (aka Yavuz Sultan Selim) in August 1516, a fact that many were keen to observe at the time.
And last but not least, by giving Doha greater reason to stand strong against the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) blockade in 2017, Turkish forces in Qatar made a major difference in the Gulf crisis’ outcome while also heightening fears in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh of alleged “neo-Ottomanism” ambitions into the Arabian Peninsula.
The Arab League had a meeting in Egypt’s capital on December 31 which resulted in the pan-Arab organization passing a resolution emphasizing the need to stand against foreign (meaning Turkish) interference in Libya.
As the Cairo-Abu Dhabi-Riyadh axis’ fear of Turkey’s ambitious foreign policy grows, Libya is quickly becoming ground zero in their efforts to counter Ankara’s alleged “neo-Ottoman” designs for the Arab region. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE’s efforts to unite Arab governments against Turkey’s Libyan policy were on full display in Cairo on December 31. The Arab League had a meeting in Egypt’s capital that day which resulted in the pan-Arab organization passing a resolution emphasizing the need to stand against foreign (Turkish) interference in Libya. The passage of the resolution indicated that Haftar had strong support from a significant number of Arab governments, which also includes Jordan and Sudan’s military leaders.
Yet not all Arab states are aligned with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE against Turkey, or at least not fully. One important actor is Algeria. As experts such as Jalel Harchaoui have observed, Haftar’s supporters have been concerned about Algiers backing the GNA. Such worries are not unfounded given Algeria’s opposition to Haftar’s “Operation to Liberate Tripoli” campaign that began in April 2019 and the direct Emirati military intervention in Libya starting almost five years earlier. This is not to say that Algiers supports Turkish military intervention in Libya. In fact, the opposite is true; but Algeria is more concerned about the UAE’s military operations in Libya than Turkey’s.
On January 6, Algeria’s new President Abdelmadjid Tebboune had a meeting with Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the GNA, and emphasized that Tripoli is a “red line no one should cross.” The Algerian president also called on the UN Security Council and the greater international community to work for peace in Libya while stressing Algiers’ principle of “finding a political solution to protect the unity of the Libyan people and the territorial integrity of the country without foreign intervention.”
Sudan is torn between a military-run “deep state” that supports Haftar and a civilian-led leadership in Khartoum that backs the GNA. In fact, Sudanese fighters have entered Libya to fight on the sides of both the UN-recognized government in Tripoli and the LNA. Since Haftar’s westward offensive was launched last year, Sudanese mercenaries have helped him capture Tripoli and made a significant difference on the ground.
Tunisia, as the analyst Sami Hamdi put it, is playing the “perfect middle ground.” The Tunisian government refuses to back Haftar, but while it recognizes the GNA as Libya’s legitimate government, it refuses to allow Ankara to use Tunisian territory for Turkey’s military intervention in Libya. Morocco has mostly maintained neutrality in the Libyan civil war even as it is leaning toward the GNA. Morocco’s leadership has recently condemned foreign interventions in Libya, albeit without specifically calling out any powers.
Ankara will continue to sell its narrative that supporting the GNA is about coming to the defense of an Arab country’s internationally-recognized government.
Inevitably, tensions between Ankara and those Arab states, which see Turkey as an expansionist power that sponsors “terrorism” in the region, are set to heighten in 2020 as Libya’s crisis exacerbates. Ankara will continue to sell its narrative that supporting the GNA is about coming to the defense of an Arab country’s internationally-recognized government. Turkey, according to this narrative, is helping Libyans protect their country from Haftar, whom many believe is intent on replicating Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s autocratic regime in Tripoli. Yet the view held by Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and Riyadh is that Turkey is exploiting problems between Arabs in order to expand its own influence at the expense of Arab unity and interests.
How these Arab states decide to respond to Turkey’s deployment of forces to Libya will be extremely important and will heavily impact Ankara’s military campaign in the divided North African country. A successful Turkish campaign in Libya could add to regional perceptions of Turkey as a powerful player in the Middle East and North Africa while also creating a long-term pro-Turkish political order in Tripoli.
A safe bet is that the Egyptian, Emirati, and Saudi governments will play their cards as best they can to prevent this from being an outcome. The geopolitical stakes are high as Libya’s nearly six-year-old civil war rages on.
Sadly, given the degree to which violence in Libya has escalated since April 2019, one could be forgiven for assuming that there is no hope for a diplomatic breakthrough, which can bring peace back to the country. Yet, the recently announced Turkish/Russian calls for a ceasefire between Libya’s two sides can open a door for mediation and compromise in order to end this civil war with a political, rather than military, solution.