While Idlib burns, Turkey pushes Syrians to fight its war in Libya
How Turkey achieves its goals is by offering a few of its solders to train Tripoli's forces and send the same Syrian rebels Turkey was recently using to fight Kurds in eastern Syria.
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Turkey is pushing a new “road map” for Libya, focusing on a conflict 1,000 km from Ankara, while a few kilometers from Turkey’s border refugees are being driven from their homes in Idlib by a Moscow-backed Syrian offensive. It is part of the Turkey’s new policy of sending Syrian rebels to fight in Libya so that Ankara can receive rights to exclusive energy exploration off the coast of North Africa. In exchange the Syrian regime appears to have received a free hand to bomb Syrian rebels in Idlib into submission.On Tuesday Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan was on an Africa tour that has seen him travel to Algeria and then Gambia to discuss Turkey’s growing footprint in Africa and his desire to take over the Libyan conflict. Libya is in the midst of an none-year civil war. One side is led by Khalifa Haftar, an aging general who controls most of Libya. The other is run by the Tripoli-based embattled and weak government that claims UN backing. Haftar is backed by Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Turkey recently signed a deal with Tripoli and has been sending drones, armored vehicles and now paying Syrian rebels to fight as mercenaries in Libya, in exchange for the Tripoli government giving Turkey a deal in the Mediterranean. Turkey wants to get rights to an exclusive economic zone that overlaps with Greek and Cyprus claims in the Mediterranean.How Turkey achieves its goals is by offering a few of its solders to train Tripoli's forces and send the same Syrian rebels Turkey was recently using to fight Kurds in eastern Syria. Since 2017 Turkey has hijacked the Syrian rebel cause and used them to fight its wars, while working with Russia to get S-400s and sell out the Syrian opposition to the Syrian regime in exchange for Russian military hardware and other bits and pieces of northern Syria. Turkey’s goal last year was to destroy the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces by forcing the US to withdraw from parts of northern Syria. Turkey argues that the SDF is linked to the Kurdish PKK which it calls terrorists and as such it wants the “terrorists” removed from its border. It wants to replace them with a mostly Sunni Arab Syrian buffer, but taking Syrian rebels from Idlib and refugees from Turkey and inserting them into formerly Kurdish-run areas like Afrin or Tel Abyad. That stokes Kurdish-Arab tensions and gives Ankara power.Having accomplished its task in Tel Abyad Turkey now wants to move Syrians to Libya, getting them further away from Idlib so that they will fight Haftar, while the Syrian regime bombs Idlib. The Syrian regime has acted in concert with Turkey’s agenda, attacking Idlib increasingly since the fall of 2019 and driving tens of thousands of Syrians from their homes. Around 2,000 Syrians are now in Libya.Turkey’s overall goal isn’t to win the war in Libya, but create another Syrian scenario where it uses Syrians to hold on to small parts of Libya to create a balance with the Egyptian-backed Haftar and brings Haftar to the peace table. Once an agreement or ceasefire can be worked out with Haftar then Turkey can declare victory and leave the Syrians in Libya to do whatever they like there. Accordingly Ankara has fed its pro-government media like Daily Sabah a narrative describing Haftar as a “putschist” and claiming that Erdogan is now involved in “truce talks in Moscow and Berlin.” Haftar is portrayed as violating the ceasefire that Turkey wants. Turkey claims that the war in Libya can’t be solved by military means, which roughly translates as: Turkey has sent forces to Libya so Haftar will not be able to take Tripoli. Since Haftar won’t take Tripoli now that Turkish forces are there, he will be encouraged to sign a deal, similar to the deal that Turkey and Russia signed over Idlib in September or the one Turkey and Russia signed over eastern Syria, partitioning parts of Libya to Turkish and Russian spheres of influence.Erdogan is putting miles under his belt to achieve the goal. He flew to Africa even as thousands were being displaced from Idlib, ignoring the crises close to home to get a piece of the much larger pie in Libya. The Africa trip is one of several recent Turkish initiatives with Algeria and Tunisia designed to show that Ankara now has major influence in North Africa. The larger context is that Ankara wants to balance Egypt. Erdogan’s AKP party is rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt has banned the Brotherhood after overthrowing the Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi in 2013. This means that the larger goal is a proxy war between the Saudi-UAE-Egypt entente and the Turkey-Qatar-Hamas-Brotherhood alliance system. The war is afoot in Libya to see which grand alliance will win. As such each must send proxies and arms.Turkey’s goal is also a gamble for European support. Turkey uses Syrian refugees to threaten Europe and has asked Germany to sign on for its plans to continue taking over places like Afrin where Kurds have been ethnically cleansed. Turkey uses the same threats regarding Libya, arguing that if Tripoli falls then extremists might flow to Europe. Europe, fearful of refugees and right wing populism, is willing to keep paying Turkey to keep the refugees away. The only problem for Turkey now is Greece and Cyprus. Greece has a role in the EU and NATO and Greece is angry over Turkey laying claim to waters off Libya and frustrating its own gas pipeline ideas. Turkey says its drill ships will go where they please and has sent drones to Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus to enforce its power at sea. Turkey calls this the “blue mortherland” strategy to resurrect the power of Ottoman times. Greece hopes it can work with Egypt and the Gulf to stop the slide towards more Turkish domination of the seas.AdvertisementNow Russia may swoop in as it has in Syria to find a compromise. Russia has energy interests in Turkey via the TurkStream pipeline and the S-400 deal. Russia wants a Turkish ally and it wants Turkey to work with Iran in the Astana process for Libya. Together Turkey and Russia can partition spheres of influence in Libya and Turkey can give up some bits of Idlib where it has a dozen observation points. Allowing the Syrian regime to crush the Syrians in Idlib aids Turkey by making the Syrians more dependent on Ankara’s good will and enables Ankara to funnel them to Afrin, Tel Abyad and even to Libya. Recent videos of the poor Syrians who went to fight in Libya show them waving money around and drinking tea with Ak-47s saying they don’t know why they are in Libya but they are being paid and they have little else to do. After having channeled the same Syrian rebels to fight Kurds, the next logical step was to get them as far away from home as possible so that they won’t see the slow strangulation of Idlib that is taking place.
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