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Erdoğan's gamble in Libya could hinge on Putin's reaction

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (R) with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Photo: Murat Kula/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Turkey’s parliament on Thursday authorized President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to deploy troops to Libya, adding a new dimension to a proxy war that features foreign drones and Russian mercenaries.

The state of play: Libya has been plagued by war and instability since the overthrow of dictator Muammar Ghaddafi in 2011.

  • Turkey supports Libya's UN-recognized government, which is struggling to repel a months-long offensive on the capital, Tripoli, by rebel commander Khalifa Haftar.
  • Haftar's backers include the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Turkey has already provided armored vehicles and armed drones to the government in Tripoli. But sophisticated drones from the UAE and mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group threaten to tip the balance in Haftar’s favor.

  • The new measure, valid for one year, authorizes Erdoğan to respond to “all threats and security risks” endangering Turkey’s national interests. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said in a televised address that Turkish troops would provide "technical support and military training.”
  • President Trump urged caution in a call on Thursday with Erdoğan, warning that "foreign interference is complicating the situation” in Libya, according to the White House.

Soner Cagaptay, author of “Erdoğan’s Empire” and director of the Washington Institute's Turkish Research Program, says it will be difficult for Turkey to sustain a military presence in Libya without a green light from Vladimir Putin. Thus, a summit next week between Erdoğan and the Russian president will be crucial.

What to watch: Erdoğan showed in Syria that he's unwilling to risk direct confrontation with Russia and won't do so in Libya either, Cagaptay says.

  • But while Putin backs Haftar, he doesn't want to alienate Erdoğan and potentially prompt the Turkish leader to mend fences with Washington.
  • Thus, Cagaptay says, Erdoğan might see an opening for "a soft power-sharing agreement" in Libya.
  • “In the absence of U.S. leadership, given that the Europeans are bickering with each other — the Italians and French, for example — I think Turkey and Russia are going to emerge as the power brokers in Libya, as has also been the case in Syria.”

Erdoğan is motivated in part by enmity for regional rivals like Egypt, but there are strategic reasons for his intervention in Libya, Cagaptay says.

  • A victorious Haftar would rip up a recent Libya-Turkey maritime agreement, leaving Turkey potentially “boxed in” by its foes — Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt — in the Eastern Mediterranean.
  • The fall of the Tripoli government would also leave Erdoğan with just one close Middle Eastern ally — Qatar.

The big picture: Erdoğan, like Putin, has emphasized foreign policy as the economy sputters at home, framing Turkey as a great power in part because of its Ottoman past. Libya was for centuries part of the Ottoman Empire.

  • “Nations that were great powers once upon a time — Turkey, Russia, the United Kingdom — have a malleable sense of their heyday. And I think this comes with a proclivity to be inspired by leaders who can speak to the narrative of that heyday and embody it,” says Cagaptay.

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