Erdogan and his mercenaries
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s militarised foreign policy is vexing many across the Middle East, the Mediterranean and beyond.
He has taken his country on a warpath in Syria with the Turkish Army’s incursion in the country increasingly shifting into a showdown against Syrian forces and their Russian allies. His bellicose policies in the Eastern Mediterranean have alienated not just Cyprus, Greece and France but the rest of the European Union.
“Against a regime that no longer sees any limits to its action, there needs to be a moment when it is told to stop,” said Marc Pierini, a foreign policy expert who served as the European Union’s ambassador to Turkey.
Alluding to French President Emmanuel Macron’s opposition to Erdogan’s policies in the Mediterranean and Libya, Pierini said: “Politically, it is easy to do and this is what is being done in Paris. On the ground, it is infinitely more complicated but Ankara only understands the language of force.”
In Libya, the language of military force used by Turkey has translated into the dispatching of mercenaries from Syria. “Turkey, which has long trained and funded opposition fighters in Syria and relaxed its borders so foreign fighters joined [the Islamic State], has in recent months been airlifting hundreds of them over to a new theatre of war in Libya,” the Associated Press (AP) reported.
Syrian militants affiliated with groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are being sent by Turkey to fight on behalf of the UN-supported government in Libya, said two Libyan militia leaders and a Syrian war monitor.
Even Libyan militia leaders affiliated with the Islamist-backed Fayez al-Sarraj government in Tripoli are speaking up. Two of their commanders told the AP that Turkey had sent more than 4,000 foreign fighters to Tripoli and that “dozens” of them are “extremist-affiliated.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights determined that Erdogan has sent no fewer than 4,700 Syrian mercenaries to fight for Sarraj and that among them there are at least 130 former Islamic State or al-Qaeda fighters.
The dangerous mix of mercenaries and jihadists is triggering serious concerns in Libya — even in Sarraj’s camp. Wariness is also legitimately expressed by Libya’s neighbours and by Europeans across the sea.
Nicholas Heras, a Syria expert at the Institute for the Study of War think-tank, said Ankara is using Libya to exert influence in the Mediterranean. “However, the Turks do not want to risk significant casualties to their own forces when the Turkish military has built a proxy force of Syrian fighters that can reinforce the Libyan fighters,” he said.
By his recourse to mercenaries, Erdogan may be sparing the lives of Turkish soldiers but he is putting peace and security in the Mediterranean in serious jeopardy.