Ambassador W. Robert Pearson, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey (2000-2003) and director general of the U.S. Foreign Service (2002-2006), spoke to Middle East Forum Radio host Gregg Roman on June 10 about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s “imperial ambitions” in Libya.
With bases now in Somalia on the Red Sea and Qatar on the Persian Gulf, Turkey’s expanding intervention in Libya makes it the only country “building a military presence on every important waterway in the Middle East.”
Libya has recently witnessed a “dramatic new change,” where the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli is “driving east along oil fields that have been out of their control for years.” Bolstered by Turkey’s deployment of Syrian mercenaries and drone technology, the GNA has “essentially demolished [General Khalifa] Haftar’s attempts to gain national power by conquering the government in Tripoli.”
According to Pearson, the war in Libya is fueled by both strategic and ideological conflict:
At one level it’s a great power game – Turkey, Russia, Europe, the United States. And at another level, it’s an ideological game, because Egypt [and the] UAE back the opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, and Qatar, a strong ally of the government in Tripoli, and Turkey, are proponents of the Muslim Brotherhood theology. So, it’s a Middle Eastern conflict over ideology at one level and a great power conflict over resources at another.
Although guided by Erdoǧan’s overarching goal of controlling the energy resources of the Eastern Mediterranean, the “final straw” that precipitated Turkey’s increasing intervention against the Russian-backed forces of Gen Haftar this year was Moscow’s refusal to grant concessions to Turkey in Syria.
Despite Turkey’s recent advances in Libya, Pearson is concerned less by the prospect that Erdoǧan will achieve ultimate victory than by the likelihood that he will go “too far” in provoking Moscow. The Turks have traditionally “not been … very successful in their foreign policy forays,” he noted, and could end up “actually enhancing a Russian presence” there, “something we Americans certainly do not support or want.”
Pearson said the US and Europe, which have been “passive players with Libya, the Eastern Med, [and] Turkey’s ambitions,” must “get back at the [negotiating] table and assert some influence” in the arena. “If we don’t exert some influence in Libya, it may turn out to be the same sort of mess we have seen in Afghanistan.”
Just as Turkey loudly asserts its independence from US foreign policy, “we ought to turn that into an asset and make ourselves an independent actor with respect to Turkey.” We should “make it clear to Turkey on the question of control of economic resources and its aggressive political campaigns in the Middle East … [that] we oppose them,” while finding ways “to use [the US-Turkish] relationship against the Russians.”
Pearson advocated convening a NATO or EU coalition to stress three points. First, “there has to be a negotiated settlement in Libya;” second, there must be “no prominent Russian presence in Libya – full stop;” and third, “the Eastern Med and control of economic resources have to be negotiated fairly.”
Curbing Erdoǧan’s ambitions in Libya and the Mediterranean is complicated by the fact that the Turkish leader has used foreign adventurism to rally political support at home in the face of a severe economic crisis. With rising inflation, “unemployment of approximately 25 or 30% under the age of 25,” and “over $300 billion in dollar-denominated debt,” Turkey is in dire need of “structural reform to improve its productive capability,” said Pearson. But such reform is unlikely given the fact that “there’s a great deal of corruption, and [Erdoǧan] can’t afford to allow somebody else to straighten out his economy.”
For Erdoǧan, appealing to Turkish nationalism is a politically useful way to manage public discontent. Most Turks are “very proud of the prestige of their country and its power outside its borders,” according to Pearson, and there is “a lot of support for a kind of grand Turkey, a ‘new Turkey’ as everyone calls it, playing a big role in the Middle East and in the world.” But adventurism abroad is not without political risks. “If you are involved in a war, you have to win or you lose national prestige.”
Marilyn Stern is the producer of Middle East Forum Radio.