Colonial units from India, Africa and the Balkans were central to British, French and Ottoman empires respectively until the 20th century. The Ottoman Yayas, for instance, were used as auxiliary units during battles all over the world, and many of them didn’t even have to convert to Islam. They were usually granted vast land estates and generous financial rewards by the Ottoman Sultan in exchange for service in his military.
Now Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkey president, seeks to revive these imperial traits in the Middle East. Ethnic Turkmen Syrian rebel groups that have fought alongside Turkey in northern Syria are expected to be among Turkish troops and naval forces prepared to be sent to Libya to prop up the internationally recognised government in Tripoli.
Never mind that the fighters are Syrians and have no clue about Libya. And never mind that those fighters have nothing to do with what the Libyans are fighting each other for. The soon-to-be-deployed Sham Legion is made up of Islamists with direct links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
These mercenaries are not freedom fighters. Their ideological motivation and regional ambition is clear.
But while those same Syrian rebels are under a Russian-backed destructive military campaign in Syria, their deployment into Libya will fit directly into the Russian agenda in this North African tragedy.
Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has found itself playing catch-up to strong alliances in the west. But with Turkey increasingly turning its back on western Europe and the US, Moscow is looking politically stronger than it has for a long time.
Whether Turkey wants to admit or not, Russia is primed to use Ankara’s regional ambitions to its advantage. The discovery of large gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, around Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel, have left energy-poor Turkey worried, and Moscow knows it. The Russians are masters in the art of disruptive diplomacy and will have no qualms about using Erdogan’s regional ambitions to hinder western interest in this new energy hub.
Last week, US congress passed legislation to pave the way for bolstering security and energy partnerships with eastern Mediterranean countries, in a bid to undermine the Turkish-Russian efforts. As part of this, Donald Trump, the US president, has signed a law that will impose sanctions on any firm that helps Russia’s state-owned gas company Gazprom finish a pipeline into the European Union – ending in Germany – to much consternation from the EU and Russia.
Meanwhile, Israel, Greece and Cyprus are set to sign an agreement on 2 January for the construction of the EastMed natural gas pipeline to Europe. The new pipeline is expected to supply Europe with 10 per cent of its gas needs, which would potentially hamper Russian gas supplies, going to southern Europe through Turkey, and break European dependence on Moscow.
Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, understands that if the diplomatic scuffle over Israel and Greece ends with Turkey’s fully blocked access to the gas marathon, it will be a blow to Moscow. There is now a decisive and an unprecedented divide in the region, with Russia and Turkey on one side and the US, Israel, Greece and Cyprus on the other.
The US is confronting Russia’s interests, knowing it needs to maintain a significant stake over gas supplies into Europe. But Turkey seems determined to stand in the way, and to grant Russia a free foothold in the south of Europe.
If Washington really wants to understand Russia’s motives, they should look no further than Libya. The whole Libyan conflict, where General Khalifa Haftar is launching a military campaign to capture Tripoli, is all about the gas-rich eastern Mediterranean. Russia doesn’t particularly back Haftar in his bid to take the capital, there should be no more illusions around this. Russian officials met with the Libyan UN-recognised government’s chargé d’affaires in Moscow. At the same time, Russian mercenaries are fighting alongside Haftar’s Libyan National Army. And as we speak, Turkish officials are meeting with their Russian counterparts in Moscow to lay the case for future mutual interests in both Syrian and Libya.
The Russians, clearly with Turkey’s support, are upping the game, and trying to dominate both sides of the conflict in Libya, as part of the effort to knock the west out of the country. And so far, the Russian plan is coming up trumps. Now, Erdogan is going to send “air, ground and sea” military support, in addition to Syrian Turkmen mercenaries, to block Haftar’s ambitions, but also to boost Russia’s decisive role in the conflict.
The military support is part of a security agreement signed between the Tripoli government and Turkey, alongside another one to draw borderlines that almost don’t exist. Turkey is hundreds of miles away. In doing so, it will be encroaching over Cyprus and other Greek islands on the way.
Instead of reaching out to the central players in the region, Ankara is fixing the scope on imploding the nascent Gas Forum of cooperation between them, in so far as it excludes Turkey. This Turkish aggressive position resulted in the mobilisation of military and naval capabilities by regional powers never seen in the region before.
Turkey is looking to establish a military base either in Libya or Tunisia. In 2017, Ankara and Tunis signed a military cooperation agreement to train Tunisian soldiers and invest in the Tunisian defence. On Thursday, Erdogan paid a surprise visit to Tunisia to discuss “creating stability in Libya”.
Erdogan’s ambitions in North Africa fit unsurprisingly well with the rise of a new Islamist-dominated government in Tunisia, which in turn puts Tunisian officials to the test.
The Mediterranean stand-off is becoming increasingly subject to miscalculations with Turkey likely to escalate its military presence in Libya soon. This would set the whole eastern Mediterranean ablaze.
And while Turkey is wreaking havoc in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, Trump seems, as usual, miles behind. He seems to understand the US interests around the Mediterranean gas hub but looks completely blind to the fact that losing Libya (just like Syria before) to the Russians and the Turks will get him nowhere in the gas race.
Trump is busy appeasing Erdogan over the rambling events in Syria, and this needs to stop. His aides need to roll up their sleeves and bring forth a plan to stop Russia and Turkey from being in cahoots in the Mediterranean and pull Turkey back to the west before it is too late.
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