by Ayman Ahmed (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 48, No. 12, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1441)
The Turkish parliament’s approval to deploy troops to Libya in support of the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) will most likely push Ankara toward greater confrontation with the Saudi regime and closer cooperation with Iran and Russia. Preliminary steps of this policy are already visible as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin called for ceasefire on January 8 to end the conflict in Libya.
Turkey’s decision to get directly involved in the North African country has two angles: ideological and geopolitical. Ideologically, AKP ruled Turkey sees itself as a protector of Sunni Islamic movements with an Ikhwani bent. Ankara views these movements as reliable partners to expand its influence in the Arabic-speaking world. This is driven by the ambition to revive its Ottoman era influence. Turkey’s alliance with the Ikhwan-minded Islamic organizations should be seen as natural; both share a similar methodological and creedal basis. The fact that GNA is recognized as a legitimate government of Libya provides Turkey with much-needed political and legal legitimacy to be present in Libya and act at the request of the internationally recognized government. Turkey’s future actions in Libya are politically and legally safeguarded.
The chaos in Libya that is entirely of Western making has propelled Ikhwan-minded Islamic groups into power. While these groups exercise only limited control over what once was the Libyan state, it is the only place in the Arab world where an Islamic group is part of the government and has executive powers, even though such powers are limited. Another difference is that the Ikhwan affiliated branch of the Islamic organization once known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) is made up of militants like ‘Abd al-Hakim Bilhaj. The Libyan Islamic organizations that are part of the GNA are more combat oriented than other affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood in other Arab countries. The core of its leadership went through the Afghan jihad against the Soviets, but did not drift too much toward the Wahhabi ideology and methodology as it happened to some in Algeria.
This reality is one of the reasons why Russia has also given its backing to the CIA’s warlord in Libya, Khalifah Haftar. Undoubtedly, Moscow is not happy to see an Islamic movement in power, particularly in a Sunni Muslim country, as it sees it as a potential supporter of Muslim separatists within its borders. Nevertheless, Russia and Turkey need each other in many areas on the global stage and will not allow Libya to become a deal breaker between the two powerful regional states. Thus, both Russia and Turkey might enlist Iran as some sort of a middleman in Libya.
Iran being a predominantly Shi‘i Muslim country, does not pose a “threat” to the Turkish or Russian vision for Libya. Unfortunately, due to the rising tide of sectarianism in the Muslim world, Iran has limited potential to influence events in Libya. Thus, Moscow and Ankara could bring Tehran to the table on Libyan matters to upset the West and use it as a mediator to have a mature disagreement on interests in Libya.
Turkey’s direct involvement significantly upsets Washington’s regional designs since its main proxy, the Saudi regime, will no longer go unchallenged in the Sunni part of the Muslim world. One of the primary political strategies of the US in the Muslim world is to make sure that Saudi Arabia is seen as some sort of protector of Sunni Islam. While this is no longer feasible, due to the moral and political corruption of the Saudi regime that is evident to most Muslims, Washington would be happy if no other Sunni Muslim state fulfils this role either. As long as Sunni Muslim countries remain without authentic leadership, Washington can live with that.
Ankara’s ability to act determinedly to protect its interests is a positive game-spoiler; even though Turkey is under NATO’s influence, it has parted from the master-slave type relationship with it. Turkey’s biggest soft-power asset is that it is seen by the Muslim street as the last seat of the khilafah, which creates a certain emotional and psychological bond with Turkey. The fact that the founder of the first Saudi state, ‘Abdullah bin Sa‘ud was executed in Istanbul in 1818, gives this bond an anti-Saudi basis right from the start. Until this very day, the Turkish society views the Saudi regime as one of the primary backstabbers that contributed to the collapse of the Ottoman Sultanate, thus, the end of Muslim days of glory.
Overall, Turkey can take decisive action against the CIA-backed warlord Haftar with very little backlash. No matter how much the Western politicians prop-up Haftar as some sort of a serious player and a strongman capable of uniting Libya, public opinion in the Muslim world and beyond sees him as a pariah. Even if Turkey chooses not to go after Haftar’s militia with full force, it is now a given that the Saudi-Israeli-US favorite in Libya is not going to rule the country and hand it over to the West. It is unthinkable to imagine that the Turkish army will allow Haftar to seize Tripoli.
Turkish intervention when examined against the backdrop of Iranian strikes against US military bases in Iraq, should be viewed as an emerging paradigm shift in the Muslim world. Several years ago, it would have been unthinkable to imagine Turkey confronting Washington’s geopolitical designs head on. Thus, Turkish intervention in Libya will have wider regional ramifications.
If Turkey plays its cards correctly, Libya can be a launchpad to destabilize the NATO installed regime in Egypt. For Ankara to be taken seriously as the new “Ottoman power” it has to restore its influence in Cairo, not as an 18th-century seat of the Caliphate, but as a modern-day regional Muslim power.