Turkish troops are landing in Libya with the mission of trying to ensure the survival of the government headed by Prime Minister Al Sarraj, besieged in Tripoli by the faction headed by General Khalifa Haftar, weakly supported by Italy, that now controls the rest of the country. Thus does Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan intend to make the Sarraj government his puppet. This would bolster their November 2019 claim to sovereignty over the part of the Eastern Mediterranean through which the Eastmed pipeline is to deliver that region’s oil and gas bounty to Europe.
In the short term, Turkey is asserting sovereignty over a major source of Europe’s energy. In the long run, Erdoğan is trying to re-assert Turkish sovereignty over Libya, which its Ottoman Empire ruled until 1912.
As NATO Europe remains frozen in fear and impotence, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt signed an agreement on January 2 to coordinate political-military opposition to what Turkey is doing. Since Turkey is backing its diplomacy with force, the signatories have little choice but to take up the military challenge.
As of today, even though Russia is the prime beneficiary of the competing pipeline, Turkstream, Russia seems to be the only power that might restrain Turkey. Russia’s interest in fomenting Turkey’s ever-greater alienation from Europe and NATO is also clear.
Nevertheless, Russia has no interest in the Ottoman Empire’s renewal, and is highly unlikely to enjoy the prospect of conflict between its new clients in Egypt and Israel on one side and Turkey on the other. Nor is Putin interested in impoverishing Europe. Hence, as Vladimir Putin meets with Erdoğan on January 8, it would not be surprising were Putin to exert some braking action on Erdoğan.
What is any of this to America? While nothing that is happening in the Mediterranean rises to the level of crisis or demands action, Americans should realize that we are no less happy than is Russia with the prospect of war in the Mediterranean and no friendlier to the rebirth of the Ottoman Empire. But the current U.S. policy of well-nigh reflexive support for “Turkey, our NATO ally” is encouraging Erdoğan, or at least is not restraining him.
In short, the time is long past for us to set aside the hopes that have blinded our policy toward Turkey during this century.
Understanding attachment to those hopes is easy enough. The Turkish Straits have been strategically important since recorded history. Turkey itself straddles Europe and Asia, and shares in the civilizations of both. Its rivers water the middle East. During the Cold War, Turkey was our steadfast, powerful ally. Its armed forces and its elites are strongly pro-American. It hosts a major U.S. air base, as well as intelligence assets.
But, increasingly ever since the rise of Erdoğan and his Islamist party, Turkey has acted as an enemy of America and has been a loose cannon in the region. Only Erdoğan’s incompetence has prevented him from doing more serious harm to his own country as well as to others. His regime is truly irredeemable.
Erdoğan’s Islamism is of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood variety. This has led him into proxy wars with Saudi Arabia and Jordan, among others, to a blood feud with Egypt, and to outright war against Syria’s Alawite regime. That included the support that enabled ISIS to become a major problem for much of the world.
Turkey’s proxies have fought with and against Shia Iran. Defying the clearest imperative of Turkish geopolitics, Erdoğan has aligned his country with Russia. He makes war on a Kurdish minority that is on a demographic path to power. Having been financed by Qatar, he is running out of money. Meanwhile, he has committed acts of war against Israel and done all in his power to harm America and its interests.
Erdoğan’s deployment of troops in Libya is a stretch and a threat. At best, these troops by themselves may only be intended to maintain the pretense of sovereignty over Libya, and hence Erdoğan’s pretense over the Eastern Mediterranean. There is virtually no chance of Russia helping Turkey stage in Libya the reconquest it helped Assad wage in Syria, or of helping him fight Israel and Egypt at sea.
How then can Erdoğan uphold his pretenses in the Mediterranean?
Odds are, he hopes everyone else’s desire to avoid trouble will lead to a general negotiation in which Turkey will receive some part of the proceeds from the Eastmed pipeline as well as recognition of a special interest in Libya.
In such broad-based negotiations, the United States could not avoid becoming involved, if only because of the U.S. desire to avoid trouble between countries with nearly all of which it is formally allied. Indeed, Erdoğan may well count on the U.S. exerting some influence on Israel, Egypt, and Italy lest the Turks continue to threaten.
Rather, however, the best course for the United States and Russia is to recognize that their common interest in peace in the Mediterranean requires parallel measures to restrain Erdoğan.