Turkish majority opposes Erdogan’s Libyan policies

A new poll suggests Erdogan’s arguments on Libya have failed to convince Turkish voters.
Tuesday 07/01/2020
Another war? Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and a Turkish Army serviceman during a visit to border units in Turkey’s Hatay province. (AFP)
Another war? Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and a Turkish Army serviceman during a visit to border units in Turkey’s Hatay province. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Turkish citizens are showing reluctance to follow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s aggressive policies in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Erdogan said the country was sending military units to Libya, where Ankara is supporting the embattled UN-recognised government in Tripoli. Speaking January 5 with the CNN-Turk news channel, Erdogan said Turkish soldiers were “already going gradually” to Libya to help the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Fayez al-Sarraj. He said Turkish forces were tasked with “coordination” at a command centre.

Days after ordering the troop deployment, Erdogan issued a ceasefire call for Libya with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a step much more in line with public sentiment in Turkey.

In a rare show of solidarity with the government, the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s main opposition group, welcomed the appeal, saying the move differed from the “use of force” employed by the Erdogan administration in other times.

The GNA, which has the support of militant groups and armed militias, in December requested Turkish support to thwart an offensive by the Libyan National Army, led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Haftar is backed by Turkey’s regional rivals, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while the UN-backed government has the support of Ankara and its ally Qatar.

Turkey’s parliament authorised deployment of troops to Libya in a vote January 2, following a separate deal on sending military experts and weapons signed into law in December. “Our aim is to keep the legitimate government [in Libya] on its feet,” Erdogan said. He called Haftar a “putschist.”

However, new poll results suggest Erdogan’s arguments had failed to convince Turkish voters. Most Turks questioned said they supported the country’s military intervention in neighbouring Syria because they saw the actions as steps to counter threats to national security but many appear to view the deployment in Libya differently.

The survey by the MetroPoll firm stated that 49.7% of respondents said they were against sending Turkish soldiers to Libya while 37.7% said they support the government’s plan. The figures suggest that the troop deployment is not backed by all supporters of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its right-wing partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Polls say the AKP and MHP combined have about 50% of voters behind them.

A poll by the firm Research Istanbul and published January 10 in the Cumhuriyet newspaper suggested an even bigger reluctance. It said 58% or respondents said they rejected the idea of sending Turkish troops to Libya, while 34% expressed support for deployment. Research Istanbul Director Can Selcuki told the newspaper the results were not surprising because ordinary Turks could not see any benefits of the military action for their daily lives.

Opposition politicians warned that the Libya deployment could end in disaster for Turkey. CHP Lawmaker Unal Celikoz called the parliamentary bill giving Erdogan the right to send troops to Libya a potential “catastrophe.”

“The government is about to put Turkey into great danger with this decision,” Celikoz said during parliamentary debate January 2.

Erdogan’s critics pointed to reports that the Turkish government was sending Syrian militants to Libya and promised Turkish passports as a reward.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow in the Middle East Programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, said on Twitter that sources inside Turkey-backed Syrian factions told her “that in exchange for fighting in Libya, fighters are being promised Turkish citizenship after 6 months of deployment.”

“Multiple commanders in the factions received Turkish citizenship and passports over the past month,” Tsurkov tweeted.

Abdullatif Sener, a former Erdogan aide who is now a CHP lawmaker, commented that the government was giving “a lot of money and Turkish citizenship to people who are not right in the head.”

Erdogan fuelled speculation about dispatching of Syrian rebels by telling CNN-Turk that Turkey would not be deploying its own combat forces to Libya.

“Right now, we will have different units serving as a combatant force,” he said, without detailing who the fighters would be and where they would come from. Senior Turkish military personnel would coordinate the “fighting force,” Erdogan explained, sharing their experience and information to support Tripoli.

Reports stated that Turkey is dispatching members of pro-Turkish militias in Syria and mercenary elements to fight in Libya. Sources with the Free Syrian Army told Reuters that an undetermined number of fighters had signed up on “an individual basis” to work as “bodyguards” for a Turkish “security company” in Libya.

The Turkish plans also triggered criticism from Europe. Britain, France, Germany and Italy put out a statement January 7 calling for an end to fighting and “continuing outside interference.” EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrell said the Turkish decision to intervene in Libya was “something that we reject and which increases our worries about the situation in Libya.”

EU Council President Charles Michel was to meet with Erdogan January 11 in Istanbul.