How Turkey's Libya Foray Can Backfire, and the Israeli Dilemma

Ankara's moves into Libya risk triggering clash with Russia, undermining its foothold in the region, but this isn't the only possible scenario

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan salutes vessels in the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul, May 29, 2020.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan salutes vessels in the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul, May 29, 2020.Credit: Presidential Press Service via AP

“Mavi Vatan” isn’t a slogan meant to entice tourists to return to Turkey’s beautiful beaches. The phrase, which means “Blue Homeland,” refers to a Turkish doctrine that was in place until 2006. It was revived last year when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan displayed a map of Turkey’s strategic expansion across three seas.

Erdogan was speaking of the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black seas. But Turkey’s aspirations evidently go beyond that; it’s now also eyeing the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea.

It’s in this context that the current hot war in Libya must be viewed. Turkey, in conjunction with Qatar, has opened a military front there in support of the recognized government led by Fayez Sarraj. They are facing off against separatist leader Khalifa Hifter, who is supported by Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and France.


This is an ambitious front that puts Turkey on a possible collision course with Russia. It could also drag NATO, of which Turkey is a member, into an unnecessary campaign if no mutually acceptable diplomatic solution is found soon.

The U.S. government, which has so far made do with observing developments in Libya from the sidelines, recently “discovered” what has long been known – that Russian Sukhoi-24 and MiG-29 fighter jets are flying from Syria’s Khmeimim airbase to Libya as part of the military aid Russia is giving Hifter. Against them, Turkey has deployed sophisticated drones, ground forces and thousands of militiamen brought in from Syria’s Idlib district to fight alongside Libya’s weak, unskilled army.

Turkey’s involvement has succeeded in halting the advance of Hifter’s Libyan National Army and prevented him from capturing either the capital, Tripoli, or the Watya airbase to its south. But the war is still at its height.

These local defeats haven’t undermined the separatist general’s desire to become Libya’s recognized leader. He’s convinced that with help from Russia, Egypt and the UAE, he’ll be able to defeat the recognized government and force Turkey to reconsider its involvement in the country.

A proxy war is apparently developing in Libya between two blocs of countries. Yet armed conflict between Turkey and Russia and a consequent undermining of Turkey’s foothold in the country isn’t the only possible scenario. Indeed, at the moment, it’s the less likely scenario, because despite their disagreements, Moscow and Ankara have powerful common interests that put their relationship on a strong footing.

Russia seeks to expand its influence in any region or country from which America is retreating, gain control of Libya’s oil and gas fields and build additional outposts for itself on the Mediterranean Sea alongside the ones it already has in Syria. Turkey also seeks energy sources, and like Russia, it wants to expand its influence in the Arab Middle East, where many countries regard it as an enemy, or at least as suspect. But these collections of interests don’t necessarily contradict each other.

Just as in Syria, the two countries can cooperate in Libya in a way that would enable each of them to realize its interests. Russia has therefore begun exploring the possibility of starting a dialogue between Hifter and his political supporters in eastern Libya, on one hand, and Libya’s recognized government on the other.

Members of Libya's internationally recognised government flash victory signs after taking control of Watiya airbase, southwest of Tripoli, Libya May 18, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Hazem Ahmed

Turkey hasn’t ruled out this idea, since its status and military power in Libya would leave it with considerable influence over any unity government that might emerge. Russia would similarly retain a grip on the reins via its influence over Hifter and his supporters.

This web of interests in Libya isn’t disconnected from the war in Syria, where Moscow and Ankara are walking on tiptoes to avoid conflict with each other.

There, they jointly maintain a de-escalation zone in Idlib even as Russia exerts heavy pressure on Turkey to remove all armed militias from the province, as it promised to do around 18 months ago. And Turkey is continuing its war against the Kurds in northern Syria even as Russia seeks to involve them in efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to Syria’s civil war.

They might develop a similar relationship in Libya, which would allow them to manage the country’s conflict jointly but indirectly.

A member of Libyan National Army (LNA) commanded by Khalifa Haftar, points his gun to the image of Turkey's Erdogan hanged on a Turkish military vehicle, January 28, 2020.  Credit: REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

At a time when oil and gas prices are at rock-bottom levels, expensive drilling operations aren’t at the top of Ankara’s priority list. What’s important to it is the “Blue Homeland,” the ambition to build Turkey up and turn it into a regional power, which would compel every other power – Russia, America and the European Union – not only to take its interests into account, but to view it as an essential partner.

This trend was evident in the huge budget it has earmarked for military spending – building an air force that will rest on domestic production; building sophisticated naval vessels, including submarines and fast missile ships; significantly expanding its drone fleet, which is active in Libya and Syria, among other places; building military bases in Qatar, Somalia and Sudan; and huge war games by the Turkish fleet in the Black Sea. It was also evident in the agreement Turkey signed with Libya last November that demarcated their exclusive economic zones and forged a military alliance.

Israel’s dilemma

The agreement was meant to grant Turkey legitimacy (which in reality remains disputed) to drill for oil and gas in a vast maritime area which, aside from its economic importance, creates a geographic buffer between the Mediterranean’s other gas and oil producers – including Cyprus, Egypt, Lebanon and Israel – and continental Europe. Thus should any of these countries seek to sell oil or gas to Europe, it would either have to pass through “Turkish” territory, which would mean reaching agreements with Ankara, or build an expensive bypass.

Granted, this move outraged the European Union, and Egypt has already launched talks on forming an anti-Turkey coalition that would include Cyprus, Greece and its Arab allies. But Israel has so far kept mum.

Israel didn’t even sign the joint statement drafted by Egypt, France, Greece, Cyprus and the UAE voicing opposition to the Turkish-Libyan agreement. And according to Turkish media reports, it’s considering increasing its cooperation with Ankara to ensure that the gas Israeli companies are producing in the Mediterranean can be transported to Europe.

These Israeli-Turkish ties could confront Jerusalem with a dilemma. Should it go along with its allies – Egypt, Greece and Cyprus – or adopt an independent policy that could undermine its cooperation with them?

Regardless of whether or not Turkey ever produces oil or gas from the exclusive economic zone its agreement with Libya gave it, it has already achieved its diplomatic goal – becoming a key player in the Mediterranean. The question facing Erdogan now is how to convert this diplomatic achievement into domestic political capital at a time when Turkey is facing one of the worst economic crises it has ever known.