Turkey, Libya, and the Struggle for the Mediterranean
JNS.org – Since it came to power in 2002, and especially under the leadership of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP Party, which has ruled Turkey for nearly 20 years, has become increasingly preoccupied with Turkey’s Ottoman past.
At its zenith, the Ottoman Empire covered much more territory than the present-day Republic of Turkey. It stretched from Algiers in the west across North Africa and the Middle East to Iraq in the east. The Ottomans seized Jerusalem in 1517. The Ottoman patrimony also covered territories from southern Poland in the north to Aden at the tip of Arabia in the south, including the holy cities of Islam, namely Mecca and Medina.
Yet the Ottoman Empire steadily contracted over the centuries as it lost successive battles with European powers. It lost Crimea to the Russian Empire. For a time, Egypt fell to the French. The Mediterranean Sea stopped being an Ottoman lake as European navies began defeating Ottoman fleets.
The Ottoman Empire was finally dissolved after the World War I, and its sultanate disbanded. With the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, it formally surrendered its sovereignty over Middle Eastern territories to the south of Anatolia. In the years that followed, the Republic of Turkey strictly adhered to its treaty obligations.
In the last two decades, however, there have been growing indications that certain parts of the AKP leadership have reservations, even resentment, about the territorial divisions of the last century. Leaked US State Department cables from 2004 and 2005 quoted these new voices as saying that Turkey needed “to take back Andalusia [Spain] and avenge the defeat at the siege of Vienna in 1683.”
Of course the Turks are not about to launch a land invasion of Eastern Europe, but their leadership may have other ways of promoting their traditional interests, which they believe are threatened by their old Western rivals.
In October 2009, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu spoke in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he laid out the goals of Turkish foreign policy. He declared: “Like in the 16th century, which saw the rise of the Ottoman Balkans as the center of world politics, we will make the Balkans, the Caucuses, and the Middle East, together with Turkey, the center of world politics in the future. This is the objective of Turkish foreign policy.”
A new opportunity for restoring what are viewed as former Ottoman territorial claims has recently arisen with the Turkish-Libyan maritime agreements concluded on November 27, 2019. Following the Arab Spring, Libya split into several subdivisions, including the Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, under the leadership of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and the Libyan National Army (LNA), based in Tobruk, under General Khalifa Haftar.
Each Libyan ruler is backed by a different network of international partners: Haftar’s partners in Tobruk include Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, France, and Russia. US officials have met with Haftar and argued that his forces control 80 percent of the country. This past April, US President Donald Trump spoke with Haftar by phone.
Prime Minister Sarraj in Tripoli works with Turkey, Qatar, Italy, and the United Nations. Sarraj also has links with the Muslim Brotherhood and has met with their representatives. Turkey has been supplying weapons, including drones, as well as training to Sarraj’s forces.
Last month, with Turkish support, Sarraj created an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for Libya, extending 200 nautical miles into the Mediterranean Sea, in accordance with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Libya’s EEZ touches the EEZ of Turkey, making their maritime borders contiguous in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. These agreements do not establish sovereignty over the Mediterranean seabed, but they do help define the rights of Mediterranean states to exploit hydrocarbon resources.
Nonetheless, the new agreements were celebrated in Turkey. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reported that the editor of the mouthpiece of the AKP wrote an opinion column on the Libyan agreement entitled “Barbaros is Back,” referring to the Ottoman admiral who secured the Mediterranean for the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.
The Libyan move was opposed by many states; Egypt registered its objections to the United Nations Security Council. In private conversations, reported in the press, Israeli leaders called the Libyan-Turkish deal illegal. Erdogan has announced his intent to dispatch Turkish forces to Libya to protect the Sarraj government in Tripoli.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned last July that Syrian militants from Idlib were already infiltrating Libya and could be used in a number of conflict zones. He did not identify which jihadist group was coming to Libya, but two days after Putin spoke, a Libyan Islamic State cell reaffirmed its allegiance to the organization. Clearly, the struggle for Libya has all the potential to draw in multiple powers who have a direct stake in its outcome.
America has always viewed developments along the southern flank of NATO as being critical for its security. That was the case during the Cold War, and there is no reason to believe that this position has changed.
Dore Gold is the former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and the current president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. A version of this article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.