Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not at his best right now. Many in his Justice and Development Party can’t digest the party’s defeat in the Istanbul mayoral election, even among those who until recently could be counted as his supporters.
This marks the beginning of Erdogan’s worst nightmare — the start of his personal decline. It goes against his ambitions and he will resist it with all his might.
At home, however, Erdogan has very little margin for political adventurism, so he has chosen to play outside Turkey to regain some of his former lustre.
Then again, it could be that one of the main reasons behind his Libyan adventure is him being squeezed in Syria. His support of the Islamist militias that rule Tripoli and are fighting against the Libyan National Army might be ideological first and foremost so he can justify to his party and the Turkish people his intervention in a distant country, should his action be challenged legally.
Erdogan could argue that he is defending Turkey’s interests but he often confuses those interests with his own doctrinal leanings, which forbid him from abandoning his doctrinal brothers’ armed groups because they seem to be fighting in defence of their ideological line, while, in fact, they are trying to prevent the return of a united Libya for fear of losing the privileges and benefits that they are enjoying under the Government of National Accord (GNA).
This government might have the legitimacy of international recognition by its side but it is using the rogue armed militias to defend itself. This is clearly a weak and vulnerable government.
Erdogan wants to have a place in that party, using the Justice and Development Party’s relations with groups close to the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya. Those groups are isolated and besieged and naturally would welcome Turkish intervention as a feverishly sought lifeline that would enable them to prolong the war and force the international community to impose a settlement that guarantees them a sizeable portion of the Libyan pie.
The militias in Tripoli look at the GNA as a facade through which they can impose their conditions in negotiations. If Erdogan had chosen to stick Turkey’s nose in a conflict that is not in line with its interests, it must be because he had wanted to prove to the Turkish people that he was able to invest in the conflicts of others in the service of Turkey’s interests, not to mention the aura of glory and power that would surround Turkey’s head.
Indeed, Turkey has become such a regional power that it can project and impose its presence thousands of kilometres away from Turkish territory.
Erdogan wants to prove to his opponents and sceptics that, under his leadership, the new Turkey is the strongest. He has played that role whenever challenged by an internal crisis. He refurbished his public image many times by making up external crises he knew beforehand that he would win. This is how he politically survived internal crises.
The problem is that Erdogan’s little game sometimes terribly backfired. The crisis created by the downing of a Russian plane in November 2015 was perhaps his biggest defeat. He was also defeated in his legal struggle with the United States and he seems set to add another setback to his long record by undertaking this misadventure in Libya.
It was the NATO air strikes that ended the era of the Libyan regime of Muammar Qaddafi and Libya is now the focus of two rival countries — Italy and France. Both countries have strategic interests in Libya. Turkey has no similar interests.
Erdogan, trying to impose an ideological mask on the conflict in Libya, denies the reality of that conflict. This is a fact known to all the countries concerned with the Libyan question, starting with the United States, which supported the Libyan National Army’s attempt to liberate Tripoli.
This is where Erdogan seems to be cut off from the rest of the world. Because of his ignorance, Erdogan’s meddling in the Libyan war could lay the groundwork for another Turkish setback.