Unravelling the Neo-Ottoman Dreams of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
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Unravelling the Neo-Ottoman Dreams of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

By Dr. Nanda Kishor and Poornima Balasubramanian

Unravelling the Neo-Ottoman Dreams of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Image Attribute: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan meets with Libya's internationally recognized Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Istanbul, Turkey on November 27, 2019, / Source: Turkish Presidential Press Office

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan famously stated in his speech in 2016 at the commemoration event in the 78th anniversary of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s passing to eternity that ‘the world is bigger than 5.’ Similarly, Turkey is bigger than Turkey. In other words, we cannot be confined to 780 thousand square kilometers because our physical boundaries are different from the boundaries of our hearts. Our brothers in Mosul, Kirkuk, Hasakah, Aleppo, Homs, Misrata, Skopje, Crimea, and the Caucasus might be outside our physical boundaries, but they are all inside the boundaries of our heart. They are in the middle of our hearts.” Perhaps, the reality of the statement is felt across West Asia and North Africa (the Middle East and North Africa) with Erdogan’s recent adventure in Libya. Erdogan has been pushing for a greater role for Turkey in the region and beyond. This further got manifested recently with the authorization by the Parliament of Turkey to send troops to support the UN-backed Fayez al-Serraj government in Libya, which has been challenged by General Khalifa Haftar, for over a month. 325 MPs of Parliament of Turkey voted in favor of the motion which included Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) and Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (MHP) whereas 184 against Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP), the Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP), and İyi Partis (IP, Conservative Good Party).

The Trigger

On November 27, 2019, Erdoğan and Serraj signed a maritime agreement on the delimitation of boundaries between Libya and Turkey. This has come directly in conflict with the interest of Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel which already have established Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) for oil and gas exploration. Turkey’s motivation in the Libyan crisis is largely driven by its geopolitical and resource interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. Haftar is a strong leader and has been so long successful in inching closer to taking over Tripoli. Haftar’s tryst with Libyan politics traces back to the late 1960s since he was a part of the coup that was driven by Muammar Gaddafi to bring to the end, the rule of King Idris in Libya. The fall-out between Haftar and Gaddafi brewed when the latter denied any acquaintance to his erstwhile comrade. Subsequently, he seems to have connived with the United States’ intelligence that was instrumental in toppling Gaddafi’s dictatorship in Libya in 2011. After a gap of three years, Haftar took the next feat of having the Islamist militant groups that targeted government officials and infrastructure in eastern Libya, especially Benghazi, crushed. The success in this mission won widespread support for Haftar among the masses in Eastern Libya. Since then, the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by him has sought to discharge the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) that is represented by Serraj, accusing it of ineffectiveness, corruption, and terrorism.

Haftar’s threat to GNA credible?

Haftar has been heavily backed by a number of regional as well as extra-regional countries. Initially, the US played a major role in Libya during the Arab Spring and Gadaffi’s fall in 2011 which provided an impetus to Haftar’s political ambitions. But of late, it seems to be dissatisfied by the state of affairs as Haftar and his Army have been gravitating towards the Russian militia. The US keeps changing its stance and speaks of no external interference in Libya, though it has had its fair share in contributing to the recent upheavals in the North African. Russia, however close to Turkey and being a part of the emerging alliance in West Asia, is against jihadist terrorism and has been supporting Haftar with the Wagner group of private military, equipped with armed drones. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, and Jordan see a common enemy in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, a strong ally of the GNA, which Haftar’s Army has been successfully fighting for a few years. Meanwhile, on the other side, Turkey ardently backs Serraj’s GNA and has also dropped Turkish boots on the ground in Libya to confront the efforts of the LNA against the established Libyan government. Qatar has been standing with Turkey and the GNA, encouraging the Muslim Brotherhood that its Arab rivals seek to dismantle. Algeria, Libya’s neighbor in the west has condemned any foreign intervention in the region, especially after the course the crisis has been taking since the arrival of Turkish troops along with the Syrian rebel fighters funded by Ankara.

Deciphering the Emerging Geopolitics and the neo-Ottoman Dream

The emerging geopolitics of the region is the most interesting one. If Turkey and Qatar are wanting to see Libya in the hands of Serraj, all the other powers would begin to overtly support a regime change in favor of Haftar, if Turkey persists over its decision to keep its troops in Libya. Otherwise, the slogan of all the external powers has been to not entertain any foreign power intervention in Libya. Erdogan seems to be unleashing Turkey’s Ottoman dreams of having Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica by holding control over Serraj’s regime and the natural resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. Scholars opine that this external expansionist behavior of Erdogan is also closely linked to his losses in the local elections in Istanbul and Ankara. Erdogan’s action towards Syria and his ambitions in the region is a well-known factor. He has used every crisis in the region to create ad-hoc alliances and get the best out of the scenario. This has been observed when he blackmailed the European Union of illegal migrants entering Europe. The EU paid US$ 6 billion to ensure that Turkey detained migrants entering its territory. Due to the US’ presence and its hegemonic behavior in the region, Russia would want to have a greater partnership with Turkey and Iran to strike a balance of power. Unfortunately, in this crisis, Russia has been balancing between the stability of Assad’s government and interests in Syria and sustaining a new partnership with Turkey. The failure of the talks and signing the ceasefire agreement in Russia between the GNA and LNA on 13 January 2010 is going to further complicate the crisis. Qatar has been unleashing itself against Saudi Arabia and UAE in every possible forum and this is yet another opportunity for it to side with Turkey to irritate the GCC giants. Iran has been struggling to overcome the killing of Qasem Soleimani which came as a rude shock, yet its interest to protect Shiite Assad’s regime in Syria may bring it in conflict with Turkey overplaying in the region. The new coalition in the form of Turkey-Iran-Russia will get strained if the crisis persists. This is good news for the United States to see three important powers present in the region having issues with each other on an issue of great significance. Multiple stakeholders in the issue will probably lead to another great game and a power tussle among major powers. This will lead to further deterioration of the scenario. What really matters is the way the US, Russia, EU, GCC members pursue this crisis apart from the neighboring countries of Libya. Erdogan has very little to invest in the game. He, in one or the other way, would further gain from the crisis. His wild neo-Ottoman fantasy has to be managed to see that it would not be at the cost of peace and stability of West Asia and North Africa.

About the Author:  

Dr. Nanda Kishor (ORCID ID: 0000-0002-2024-100X) teaches Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka, India. 

Poornima Balasubramanian (ORCID ID: 0000-0001-6051-5813) is a postgraduate research scholar of the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka, India. Research interests include Indian Foreign Policy and Indian National Security, Geopolitics of West Asia (Middle East), especially Israel.

Cite this Article

Kishor, N., Balasubramanian, P., "Unravelling the Neo-Ottoman Dreams of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan", IndraStra Global Vol. 06, Issue No: 01 (2020), 0033; https://www.indrastra.com/2020/01/Unravelling-Neo-Ottoman-Dreams-of-Erdogan-006-01-2020-0033.html, ISSN 2381-3652

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.