By Abdullah Bozkurt
February 27, 2015
The latest casualty of the wrong choices in foreign policy by the political Islamist government in Turkey, as part of a long list of failures stemming from ideological blindness and an adversarial anti-Arab establishment policy, is the rupture in ties with the Libyan interim and internationally recognized government led by Abdullah al-Thinni.
With the cabinet decision by the Libyan government this week, all contracts with Turkish firms that have historically maintained a strong presence in the oil-rich Arab nation have been abruptly severed. Prime Minister al-Thinni placed the blame squarely on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the chief political Islamist who calls Iran his second home. Al-Thinni said in a recent interview with the Asharq al-Awsat daily, “Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's stance is clear.”
“What is coming from Turkey has a negative impact on the security and stability of Libya,” he added, describing Turkey's position towards Libya as incorrect. He signaled that his government would be forced to take measures against it. “At the end of the day, Turkey will lose because Libya can deal with any other country and Turkish firms are the ones that will lose their investments in Libya,” he underlined. The cabinet decision that barred Turkish firms from Libya shows the nation followed through on al-Thinni's warnings.
As a result, Libya, a country that has been historically loved by Turks across the board, is added to the list of Arab nations with which the Turkish government has significant difficulties. Egypt, the heavyweight in the Arab world, sits on top of that list because the Erdoğan regime stubbornly refuses to recognize the administration of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as "legitimate" and keeps slamming the country's leader in all platforms, domestic and international, for domestic political consumption Ankara plundered its hard-earned goodwill in the Gulf States with the exception of Qatar because of favoritism towards the Muslim Brotherhood and its staunch opposition to Egypt. In Palestine, Ankara deeply engaged with Hamas at the expense of the President Mahmoud Abbas government just to curry favor with the parochial political Islamist base in Turkey.
Despite the fact that the Turkish government tried to downplay the importance of the Libyan government's decision to expel Turkish firms, saying that Turkish companies had already downsized and that the al-Thinni government has control of only the eastern parts of Libya, the decision bears significance not only in economic terms but also in political and diplomatic clout. Turkey has never had troubles with Libya even in difficult times and managed to maintain good ties with all parties there. The main reason for this stability is the absence of a politically motivated and religiously flavoured ideological position that has been driving Turkish policy in its ties with Libya since 2011. By taking sides, Turkey is doing a great disservice to the unity of Libya and losing its reputation and credibility as an honest broker.
Turkish companies have had $29 billion worth of contracts and completed 565 projects in Libya since the 1970s, according to data from the Turkish Contractors Association (TMB). Although many Turkish companies left Libya because of ensuing internal conflicts and wars, some remained and continued their operations. Many Turkish companies have outstanding payments owed to them by the Libyan government for completed jobs that were valued at $4.5 billion. They also face the risk of losing the fixed capital investment they have made such as $7 billion of technical equipment and heavy machinery that were brought to Libya. The Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) already incurred huge losses when it abandoned its oil exploration and production works in the Murzuq Basin in Libya's Fizan province, the North African country's largest field.
Turkey's mediation efforts last year started off on the wrong foot and produced a failure. Instead of tapping a respectable, skilled and well-recognized figure as special envoy to Libya, Erdoğan's designation of Emrullah İşler, former deputy prime minister and a senior political Islamist figure, also sent the wrong signals to the interim government in Libya. İşler, supposedly an expert on Arab politics, is one of the few ideologues in the Turkish government who really complicated matters in its ties with Egypt by issuing very harsh remarks against Sisi. He was sidelined in Tunisia because of his ideological zealotry and is unofficially considered persona non grata in many Gulf capitals.
İşler came under criticism in October of last year when he said on Twitter that the brutal terrorist organization Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is more humane because at least it does not torture its victims. İşler's publicized meeting with Libya's self-declared prime minister, Omar al-Hassi, whose Tripoli government controls large provinces such as Benghazi and Misrata, last year created more troubles for Turkey.
Citing security and flight permission, Turkey's special envoy to Libya skipped the meeting with al-Thinni on the same tour, which fueled accusations that Turkey interferes in Libya's domestic affairs by supporting a rival administration, backed by Islamists. When the visit made it into the press, embarrassing the Turkish government, İşler later tried to make it up by visiting al-Thinni on the second tour, but the damage was already done.
In January, independent lawmaker İdris Bal submitted an inquiry motion to Parliament asking Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu whether his government has any knowledge of the activities of various Turkish nationals who recruit Libyan fighters for ISIL in exchange for money and commissions. The motion, citing unidentified Libyan sources, stated that the Libyan government was apparently disturbed by the activities of these Turkish nationals whom it was alleged had ties with the Turkish government. These headhunters were offering a $2,000 monthly salary for each fighter who joined ISIL and the al-Qaeda network while getting a commission themselves of $10,000 for each successful recruitment.
The motion claimed that the Libyan government has submitted a case file documenting this entire recruitment network with names and supporting evidence to the Turkish government through the Foreign Ministry and intelligence channels. That was the reason why the Libyan government decided to expel Turkish nationals from Libya earlier this year, prompting the Turkish government to issue an emergency call on their own nationals to leave Libya, according to the motion. The Davutoğlu government has not yet responded to the motion.
The revelations, if true, are shocking for students of Turkish foreign policy because a regime change and arming factions in other countries have never been a policy that was pursued by any Turkish government in republican history. For the first time, Turks are confronted with the notion of a regime change objective not only in Syria -- which is publicly stated – but also in other countries ranging from Egypt to Libya with a more obscured and clandestine policy that was often hidden from public view.
There are two reasons for this: One is that political Islamists have never ruled Turkey with so much power consolidated in their hands. Their ideological zealotry motivates them to see their Islamist brethren thrive in Arab and other Muslim nations at the expense of established regimes. The second factor is the latent influence of pro-Iranian figures in the current Justice and Development (AKP) government who steer and shape policies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region according to the blueprint provided by their masterminds in Iran from whom they drew tactical and ideological support. Beşir Atalay, the ruling party's spokesman and former deputy prime minister, reportedly the top pro-Iranian figure in Turkey, is entrusted with the MENA portfolio and is managing Turkish government initiatives in this region.
After all, Iranians know best how to invest in proxies in a bid to create leverage for themselves while destabilizing host regimes. They have been paying Afghan refugees to fight on the side of the Syrian regime against the opposition over the past couple of years. According to UN records, in the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah, Somali fighters were offered by Iran the following incentives to join Hezbollah: $2,000 for families of individual fighters to use while the fighters were in Lebanon; in the event that a fighter was killed, between $25,000 and $30,000 would be given to the fighter's family; and on return to Somalia from fighting in Lebanon, a fighter would receive “hero money” of $100 per month for an unspecified period of time.
The impact of political Islamist ideology and Iranian penetration in the current Turkish government has really taken a toll on Turkish foreign policy, resulting in the isolation of this great country in the Middle East and North Africa. This has become a grave national security risk for the viability and survivability of the Turkish nation.