Challenging Turkey’s NATO loyalty through Libya

Challenging Turkey’s NATO loyalty through Libya

It is surprising to see how Turkey’s presence in Africa and growing role in the Middle East is met by questions like “What is Turkey doing in Africa?” For those asking this question, the British, French or Belgian presence on the continent is a given. Are they justifying this presence by the European colonial past? If that is enough justification, do they have to be reminded of the 500 years of Ottoman rule on the continent?

There is a new kid in town and the big boys are not happy with the newcomer as they see their position challenged. Looking from the angle of diplomacy, one can simply explain the anxiety toward Turkey with this line. But if a colonial or imperial past is required to justify the presence, a better line for Turkey should be “the kid is back in town.”

The metaphor for the new kid in town would better apply to China, as its presence over the course of the past two decades has gone far beyond that of Turkey’s. It is not easy to criticize an economic superpower like China. And in addition, Chinese rulers are communists, not Islamists.

When you frame Turkey’s presence in Africa, as a policy endorsed by a leadership defined increasingly as anti-democratic and Islamist, you can easily win the European public. And add to that “Neo-Ottoman aspirations;” it's a double win. Actually there is increasing allergy in the West to imperial pasts, as thousands have been demonstrating in European cities against their states' colonial sins.

Still, the word “Ottoman” has a very negative connotation for Europeans. As a result, those unhappy with Turkey’s policy could use Turkey’s ruling elites’ religious ideology or neo-Ottomanism to justify criticism. This might sell.

But there is another argument that is being used that is proving harder to sell, even though it still keeps coming up. It is based on questioning Turkey’s loyalty as a NATO member, with its policies presented as if Ankara is going against the alliance’s interests.

Lately, Turkey’s policies in Libya are being presented as a threat to NATO interests. But just as in the Syrian case, so far it is Turkey’s military intervention that has curbed Russian influence in Libya.

Turkey’s transparent policy vs France’s double game

While French President Emmanuel Macron has accused Turkey of playing a dangerous game in Libya, Turkey’s policies in Libya are much more transparent in comparison to France’s double game in the country. 

Turkey says it is offering assistance to the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli, while it is an open secret that the warlord Khalifa Haftar challenging Tripoli is being supported by Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France. Yet all have opted to remain in the shadows while Turkey is openly and transparently challenging Russia in Libya.

A high-level delegation consisting of Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavuşoğlu, Finance Minister Berat Albayrak and the Head of Turkish intelligence went to Tripoli in mid-June. That was followed by Defense Minister Hulusi Akar’s visit in early July. This is clearly being done in order to avoid being portrayed as a player in dirty games in Libya through proxy powers. Even though reports that Turkey has sent Syrian mercenaries to Libya have not been denied, Turkey’s policies still looks less cynical than those of Haftar’s Russian, Arab and European supporters who prefer shadow boxing.

At any rate, I wonder in which sense the Turkish defense minister’s interview with the BBC in Libya in front of a downed Russian plane and helicopter have damaged NATO’s interests? This was followed by a visit to Ukraine where Akar has repeated that Turkey will never accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Before these visits, two U.S. military bomber planes flying over the Black Sea in late May were refueled by Turkish tanker planes. This was part of a training exercise that involved Ukrainian warplanes. One would like to think that the Turkish role in these exercises over the Black Sea must have been met with more unease in military headquarters in Moscow than in Paris or Brussels.

I have written similar articles and feel distressed at having to repeat myself. Yet it is incomprehensible how some of our Western colleagues keep repeating the same arguments questioning Turkey’s NATO loyalty. Take the French claim that its military vessel was harassed by Turkish vessels near Libya, which is categorically denied by Ankara. Western colleagues keep writing about the claims without trying to find out who is saying the truth.

The Turkish media, which is generally accepted to be unfree by the Western media, might have its hands tied in terms of putting pressure on the government to provide evidence to its arguments against French claims. The Western media, however, has its hands free to push Paris to provide evidence. Still, had the French had unequivocal evidence, they would have leaked it a long time ago. It’s all bizarre, as the French would say…

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