Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to turn the tide of the civil war in Libya, but the pushback from the Turkish electorate – and Russian President Vladimir Putin – is likely to restrain his military ambitions overseas.
Erdogan has a reputation for unexpected foreign policy moves, and backing them by the use of military force, as he has proved with his three cross-border operations into northern Syria, targeting Washington’s Syrian Kurdish partners in 2016, 2018, and 2019. The pretext of fighting the Syrian affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated as terrorist by Turkey, the US and the European Union, helped him mobilize widespread support from not only Turkey’s otherwise-polarized electorate, but also opposition parties.
Since Erdogan lacks a similar counterterrorism pretext in Libya, he has had a more difficult time to convince the Turkish public this time around. One opinion poll shows that 50 percent of Turkish citizens are against sending troops to Libya, whereas another one puts the figure as high as 58 percent. Even in Erdogan’s own Justice and Development Party (AKP), only 56 percent of voters support involving Turkey in another regional conflict.
The skeptical mood is also evident in the fact that two opposition parties, the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the nationalist Good Party (IYI), which both felt compelled to support the previous cross-border operations into Syria, voted against deploying troops to Libya, leading to 184 nays and 80 abstentions to Erdogan’s bill. Meral Aksener, IYI leader known for her nationalist credentials, called the troop deployment a “threat to our national security that would needlessly endanger the lives of our troops.”
While operations into Syria could be justified by its proximity to the Turkish territory, and the ostensible threats posed by non-state actors present there, the physical distance from Libya and the lack of any immediate threat make any military involvement less palatable for the Turkish electorate. The government’s talking point that Libya is crucial to defend the “Blue Homeland,” Turkey’s maximalist maritime ambitions in the Mediterranean, has failed to win voters over. The pushback from Libya’s neighbors Algeria and Tunisia, which have explicitly voiced their unwillingness to let Erdogan use their bases as launch pads for his plans, complicate things even further.
Add to that the rising tensions in the Middle East. Erdogan’s decision to open a new front in the Mediterranean, and spread Turkish forces thin between two challenging battlefields in Syria and Libya, erodes his support further. After announcing in a recent interview that Turkish soldiers were “already going gradually” to Libya, Erdogan has since changed the policy to include only advisory and training roles.
Given the resistance at home, Erdogan has decided to use mercenaries airlifted from Syria. The Turkish president is dispatching members of the Free Syrian Army he has utilized in his recent Syria operations, reportedly promising $1,500-a-month pay as well as fast track to Turkish citizenship. If Sunday’s ceasefire fails and the harsh realities of the Libyan battlefield force Erdogan to supplement his hired guns with Turkish combat forces, it will exacerbate the electoral backlash and his legitimacy deficit back in Turkey.
Russia, and its stakes in Libya, pose yet another challenge to Erdogan’s ambitions. The Turkish president received his Russian counterpart in Istanbul on January 8 to inaugurate the Turkstream natural gas pipeline, a major collaboration between the two allies that will link the two countries under the Black Sea. Outside the significant implications of Turkey’s increased economic dependency on Russia, Putin’s brief visit was all the more noteworthy due to Erdogan’s decision to bolster his military footprint in Libya. The pair held closed-door meetings on the sidelines of the ceremony to discuss Turkey’s recent decision to deploy troops to Libya, where Russia and Turkey back opposing blocs. Erdogan knows that some type of settlement with Putin is necessary to pursue his geopolitical ambitions, a lesson he learned the hard way in Syria.
The pair seemed to have come to an agreement, as the Russian and Turkish foreign ministers issued a joint statement that called for a ceasefire in Libya beginning midnight of January 12, adding that both sides sought a political settlement to the conflict. Erdogan, who first commended Monday’s peace talks in Moscow between Libya’s warring factions, then hurled threats at Haftar for abandoning the negotiations. Given the increasing backlash to his Libya adventurism back home, and ahead of the upcoming Berlin summit to end the strife in Libya, a Russian-brokered ceasefire deal could have provided Erdogan an off-ramp. This would have allowed the Turkish president to boast of his role as mediator in the conflict and provided him a seat at the table in any future international negotiations, while walking back from his move to deploy Turkish troops.
The Moscow talks show that 2020 will continue the trend of deepened cooperation between Erdogan and Putin. Turkey purchased the S-400 missile defense system from Russia last summer, much to the chagrin of the international community, as well as negotiated a ceasefire following Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria this past October. Their partnership in this new arena demonstrates that despite being on opposite sides of the fighting in Syria and Libya, the Turkish and Russian presidents have an uncanny ability to cut deals. However, it is unclear whether these bargains can hold, and thereby remedy Erdogan’s troubles at home and abroad.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @aykan_erdemir.
Brenna Knippen is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. She tweets @brenna_knippen.