The incumbent and next President of Turkey is undoubtedly a controversial figure, both at home and abroad.
The barrage of criticisms and consternation bordering dismay if not plain disgust showed by western (mostly but not only) pundits and commentators is indeed complex to explain. Those intent in a media crusade against the electoral success of the “Sultan” or the “the despot of Istanbul”, blaming Erdogan for practically all evils, do so by ignoring a simple fact: Erdogan was re-elected by the Turkish people and with quite a clear majority.
Whatever one can think of Recep Tayyip Erdogan cannot and should not be based on gut reactions to his policies and his very complex and articulated personality, but on the plain evidence provided by a cold analysis of facts. Beside having won regular free and fair elections one could focus Erdogan’s foreign policy, which most Western observers and various neighboring governments consider aggressive and bellicose. It is easy to see behind this judgement a sense of loss and genuine nostalgia for a Turkey tamely sitting on the sideline of the international chessboard, inward looking and full of inferiority complexes that pushed its timid elites to knock at the doors of the European Union begging to be let in. Erdogan inherited pretty much such a country as Prime Minister in 2003, and transformed it into a proud and assertive regional power. And it is as such that a correct analysis of Turkish foreign policy should be seen. After the explosion of the so-called Arab Springs in 2011, Turkey made a systematic and serious effort to support those Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, that had chosen to play according to the rules of a republican democracy.
When the military coup d’état took place in Egypt in July 2013, the support for the regularly elected government of President Morsi brought Erdogan to take a strong stand on behalf of democracy against the new Egyptian ruler General Al Sisi. This almost took the two countries to break their diplomatic relations. It is this relationship with Egypt that made Erdogan a pariah among most MENA states, not his anti-democracy stands.
The same can be said of the presumably illegal and ignorantly aggressive Turkish policy in Libya.
In a combination of complex regional interests, Egypt and the UAE, supported by France, joined forces in Libya with the primary purpose of toppling the Muslim Brotherhood and securing the western border of Egypt. Khalifa Haftar, a former Gheddafi’s general, was the perfect candidate to execute this plan. France joined out of its ambition to exercise primary influence in the new Libya and guarantee the control over important natural resource of the southern province of Fezzan.
With such a strong regional and international support, Haftar in April 2019 unleashed his militias and mercenaries against the capital city of Tripoli in an attempt to grab absolute power over the whole country, the reaction was stunning. There was practically no reaction neither from the western countries nor from the other members of the UN Security Council. The only exception of relevance was Italy. This Southern European country sided openly for the legitimate government of Tripoli. Nevertheless, even the Italians did nothing during the 18 months-long siege of the city and the massacre of its civilian under aerial and terrestrial bombings carried out by Egyptians and Emiratis air forces and Russian-supported mercenary units.
The intervention of Russia on the side of Haftar and the shipment of thousands of mercenaries hired and trained by a Moscow contractors’ company, Wagner, led by an intimate friend of the Russian dictator, seemed to be the definitive asset to allow Haftar to obtain his long-sought victory. The head of the UN legitimated government in Tripoli, Fayez al-Serraj, called all European powers and the US for help against the eventuality of the entry in the capital of Haftar and the Russians. No one replied positively. While the population of Tripoli was dying, the international diplomats were hanging in conferences around the world, repeating as a mantra that “there was only a diplomatic solution possible”. This is the time when Turkey came directly into play.
Erdogan did not buy the mainstream position, and sent his army, which consisted of Turkish Army trainers, drones and warships, and a few thousands pro-Turkish Syrian fighters, in support of the Tripoli population. The Turks routed the troops of Haftar back all the way to the central city of Sirte and stopped only when it became clear that pressing on could have meant engaging the Russians directly. Erdogan decided against that option. The fact that the Turks did precisely what the Europeans, or at least the Italians, should have done did not prevent these states from attacking the Turkish move and accuse them of imperialism (the “neo-Ottoman” master plan). The signing of a Maritime agreement on the redefinition of territorial waters with the Libyan government in 2020 was also contested, condemned and rejected. The coastal countries of Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus all coalesced in trying to isolate Turkey, which did not allow them to do so or be intimidated by them. Then the more than legitimate Turkish reaction was labeled as “aggressive”.
Italy had and still has to a certain extent a central pivotal role to play for the development of Libya. If Italy had decided to intervene directly on behalf of the UN legitimated government of Fayez al-Serraj it could have, in case of a successful operation, continued to play this primary role, but it decided not to act. Therefore, the question is now whether Italy should keep on standing among those countries which antagonize Turkish policy in the Mediterranean and thus marginalize its possibilities to influence the political and economic development of its former colony or , to the contrary, support Turkish capability to use its armed forces by influencing their utilization in the purpose of pacifying the country, creating a new army and allow the empowerment of a new government of National Unity to rebuild the institutional and physical infrastructures of a new stable and hopefully more open and pluralistic Libya.
The new presidential mandate that Turkish voters have granted will allow Erdogan to continue on the same path non just in Libya but elsewhere. Turkish foreign policy will certainly irk some of its neighbors and even some of its NATO allies, but should be evaluated by the EU and Italy on the basis of practical goals, immediate consequences and longer term effects. Any form of criticism of domestic choices made in Ankara may well be legitimate, but cannot prevent Turkey from pursuing its interests abroad and should not stop the Europeans, or Italy in particular, from seeking opportunities for cooperation based on a significant convergence of interests.