Turkey’s balancing act key to Libya’s future
Turkey is getting involved in too many initiatives, all at the same time, covering Libya, Syria, Iraq, Qatar, Somalia, Yemen, and the Eastern Mediterranean. This article will focus only on the Libya-related issues.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan two weeks ago said that he had talked to US President Donald Trump and that a new era might be in the making. “We agreed on a number of issues,” he said, without elaborating. In view of Trump’s limited interest in Libyan affairs, the US side has not yet made any comment on this telephone conversation. Erdogan’s statement was followed on June 11 by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu saying that the US has to play a more active role in Libya. Turkey may have taken such an initiative as it thought it had gone too far in cooperating with Russia and its relations with the US had fallen too far behind the point where they should be.
In February, an attack by Syrian government forces in Idlib killed 33 Turkish soldiers. Turkey believes this attack could not have been carried out without Russia’s acquiescence, or at least its prior knowledge. This incident taught Turkey that its cooperation with Russia is confined by certain limits. More recently, Turkey had promised to withdraw extremist fighters in Idlib to the north of the M4 motorway. The deadline expired last Tuesday and Turkey has yet to fulfill its promise.
In Libya, Turkey and Russia have no cooperation at all, unlike their fluctuating cooperation in Syria. They are actually fighting on opposite sides in the Libyan conflict.
For all these reasons, Turkey was considering putting a slight brake on its relations with Moscow. James Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syria, facilitated this task. He extended verbal support for Turkey’s attacks on the Syrian government forces that are supported by Russia.
In this complicated atmosphere, Erdogan also turned to the US for cooperation in Libya, while taking into account the fact there are also limits to his cooperation with Washington. He is now trying to balance the roles of the two superpowers. Erdogan lowered the tone of his arrogant narrative addressed to the US. If Ankara skillfully manages the balancing act, this may create relative relief, because Turkey’s foreign policy agenda is laden with thorny issues with both superpowers.
Turkey’s foreign policy agenda is laden with thorny issues with both superpowers.
On the Russian front, a meeting that Erdogan and his Russian counterpart decided to hold at the level of foreign and defense ministers did not take place because Turkey was expecting to negotiate a road map for the Libyan crisis. But, in the preparatory meeting at the senior officials’ level, the Russian delegation came up with a cease-fire plan that was almost the same as the one proposed on June 6 by Egypt. Turkey’s rejection of the plan has to be construed as an unwillingness to stop the fighting when the Government of National Accord forces that it backs are gaining ground.
Erdogan also talked last week to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and they agreed to bolster the UN-backed peace process in Libya. But the Berlin framework is a double-edged sword. One edge helps Turkey to achieve a cease-fire, but the other requires all foreign countries to pull their forces out of the country and to stop supplying arms to the belligerents. This second condition hinders Turkey’s plans in Libya.
In yet another incident, Turkey has run into trouble with France off the Libyan coast. A French frigate, Courbet, approached in the Mediterranean a Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship, which was being escorted by two Turkish warships. The freighter refused to respond, but its Turkish escorts “lit up” the Courbet three times using its radar. In naval practice, “lighting up” is the final stage before firing at a target. The Turkish escort ships informed the Courbet that the Tanzanian ship’s cargo was medical equipment bound for Libya and the Courbet backed off. Ankara denied Paris’s allegation of the Courbet being “lit up” and asked France to produce any proof that it may have. Upon France’s initiative, the EU requested NATO to carry out the mission of checking cargo ships suspected of breaking the arms embargo on Libya, but Turkey blocked the EU attempt to secure NATO’s support. NATO negotiations were continuing at the time of writing.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, during a visit to his Turkish counterpart in Istanbul last week, told Cavusoglu that the Iranian and Turkish positions on the Libyan crisis were convergent. However, it is unclear whether this convergence covers the rumors of Turkey’s interest in establishing an air base at Al-Watiya military airport and a naval base at Misrata. Preliminary talks have been completed for the establishment of these two Turkish military bases in Libya.
We will have to wait and see whether Turkey will be able to fulfill its ambition of straddling every fence.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar