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Turkey’s regional intrusions expose fractures in intra-Arab ties

Jul 07,2020 - Last updated at Jul 07,2020

Turkish troops and Ankara backed militias are active in three Arab countries; Libya, Syria and Iraq. This is a geopolitical reality that the Arab world, as well as the international community, must acknowledge and react to. In fact, Turkey’s territorial, political and economic ambitions in these countries and beyond are advertised by top Turkish leaders including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey now has military bases in Qatar, Libya, Somalia, Northern Cyprus, Syria and Iraq; and not all with the consent of legitimate governments.

Turkey’s involvement in Libya is the latest implementation of a policy to redefine Ankara’s regional role as envisioned by Erdogan. Last week, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and Chief of General Staff Yasar Guler paid a visit Tripoli and held talks with political and military leaders of the UN backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

According to news reports, Turkey and the GNA signed an undisclosed joint military and security agreement that seeks to legitimise and deepen Ankara’s military presence in western Libya. But it was Akar’s statements during his visit that raised eyebrows. “I want you to know that we are with you today and tomorrow, and will do whatever it requires for our Libyan brothers under the instructions of our president,” he was quoted as saying. He added that Turkey has a 500-year-old common history with the region and will stay here forever! Moreover, he added that there will never be a solution in the region that excludes Turkey.

Earlier this year Erdogan and head of the GNA, Fayez Al Sarraj, signed a maritime demarcation agreement that was rejected by Greece and Egypt. It was the latest in attempts by Turkey to extend its maritime boundaries in the gas-rich Eastern Mediterranean. Turkish companies now have the right to drill for gas and oil off Libyan shores and in disputed waters close to Egypt, Greece and Cyprus.

Turkey has reportedly airlifted close to 15,000 Syrian mercenaries to western Libya to help thwart a major attack by the Libyan National Army (LNA) headed by Gen. Khalifa Haftar. Last month, Turkish backed GNA militias were able to push back Haftar’s forces and capture the strategic Al Watiya military base. But GNA forces were stopped at the outskirts of Sirte; gateway to the oil crescent which is still under Haftar’s control.

In reaction, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi warned that Sirte and Jufra military base constitute a red line for Egypt and hinted that Egyptian forces were ready to step in. Haftar is backed by Egypt, the UAE, Russia and France. Russia has mercenaries of its own in Eastern Libya and is said to have dispatched warplanes to Jufra.

On Sunday, there were reports that Al-Watiya military base was struck by unknown aircraft and Ankara admitted that some of its air defence systems were destroyed. The LNA claimed responsibility. While tensions escalate on the ground, a war of words has been ongoing between Ankara and Paris over each other’s role in Libya. Last week French President Emmanuel Macron labeled Turkey’s intervention in Libya “criminal” while attacking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s for backing Russian mercenaries in Eastern Libya.

Macron’s frustration with Turkey has cast a dark shadow over NATO which he described as “brain dead” for failing to rein in Ankara’s territorial ambitions and for lack of US leadership. 

The French-Turkish spat came close to confrontation when Paris accused a Turkish warship of targeting a French frigate in the Mediterranean on June10.

The nine-year-old Libyan civil war broke out when NATO intervened militarily to support a popular uprising against the rule of Muammar Qadhafi, who was later killed by rebels. Since then tribes have been fighting each other for control of one of Africa’s richest countries in oil reserves. As a result, Haftar was able to capture most of Eastern Libya while the unelected GNA controlled the west. An elected legislative assembly, headed by Agilah Saleh, in Tubrok refused to recognise the GNA.

With the UN failing to implement previous agreements and understandings, the last of which was reached in Berlin last January, it became clear that both sides believe that a military option was the only way forward. But now with the internationalisation of the conflict an impasse has taken place; one that would last for a long time. This has given Turkey the opportunity to implement its own agenda in Libya; one that has nothing to do with ending the conflict and reuniting the country.

Whether in Libya, Syria or Iraq, Turkey’s military adventures have exposed the fragility of a polarised Arab region. The same can be said of Iran, which too is seeking to extend its influence across the Arab world. It is disturbing that Arab countries have taken sides rather than work together to stop foreign intervention in their internal affairs. It is feared that this violation of Arab countries will lead to further fractures in intra-Arab ties paving the way for long-term foreign domination.


Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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