On December 10, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he could deploy troops in Libya if the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli (which Turkey supports) requested it. Erdoğan's talks with GNA's head, Fayez al-Sarraj, who is fighting a war against the Libyan National Army (LNA) of General Khalifa Haftar, produced two ostensibly strategic agreements: a memorandum of understanding on providing the GNA with arms, military training and personnel; and a maritime agreement delineating exclusive economic zones in the Mediterranean waters.
Greece and Egypt protested immediately while the European Council unequivocally condemned the controversial accords. Meanwhile, the deals apparently escalated a proxy competition between Turkey's old (Greece) and new (Egypt and the United Arab Emirates) rivals.
With the al-Sarraj handshake, Erdoğan is apparently aiming to:
- minimize Turkey's isolation in the Mediterranean, one which has gradually worsened since 2010, following one diplomatic crisis after another with Israel;
- counter strategic cooperation between Cyprus, Greece, Egypt and Israel, including joint diplomatic, energy and military initiatives;
- cut into the emerging Cypriot-Greek-Egyptian-Israeli maritime bloc;
- push back against Arab (Egyptian and UAE) pressure on al-Sarraj;
- fill the European vacuum in Libya; and
- emerge as a deal-breaker in the Mediterranean rather than a deal-maker.
All that ambition requires military hardware as well as diplomatic software. Since 2011, a year after the Mavi Marmara incident ruptured relations with Israel, Turkey has been investing billions of dollars in naval technologies, in an apparent effort to build up the hardware it would one day require.
In the eight years since then, Turkey has built four Ada-class corvettes; two Landing Ship Tank (LST) vessels; eight fast Landing Craft Tank (LCT) vessels; 16 military patrol ships; two deep-sea rescue ships; one submarine rescue ship; and four assault boats.
The jewel in the naval treasury box is a $1 billion Landing Platform Dock (LPD), now being built under license from Spain's Navantia shipyards, to be operational in 2021. The TCG Anadolu, Turkey's first amphibious assault ship, will carry a battalion-sized unit of 1,200 troops and personnel, eight utility helicopters and three unmanned aerial vehicles; it also will transport 150 vehicles, including battle tanks. It also may be able to deploy short takeoff and vertical landing STOVL F-35 fighter jets. Turkey will be the third operator in the world of this ship type, after Spain and Australia.
Erdoğan's naval ambitions, however, are not limited just to an emerging fleet of conventional vessels. In 2016, he said that the LPD program would hopefully be the first step toward producing a "most elite" aircraft carrier. He also said he "sees it as a major deficiency that we still do not have a nuclear vessel."
On December 22, Turkey's first Type 214 class submarine, the TCG Piri Reis, hit the seas with a ceremony attended by Erdoğan. "Today," he said, "we gathered here for the docking of Piri Reis. As of 2020, a submarine will go into service each year. By 2027, all six of our submarines will be at our seas for service."
Unsurprisingly the docking ceremony reminded Erdoğan of his Libyan gambit: "We will evaluate every opportunity in land, sea and air. If needed, we will increase military support in Libya."
Libya is a risky proxy war theater for Turkey. Its deals with the al-Sarraj government over troop deployment and maritime borders will become null and void if the civil war ends with Gen. Haftar's victory. The chief of staff of the LNA, Farag Al-Mahdawi, announced that his forces would sink any Turkish ship approaching the Libyan coast. "I have an order; as soon as the Turkish research vessels arrive, I will have a solution. I will sink them myself," Al-Mahdawi warned, noting that the order was coming from Haftar.
The Mediterranean chess game pits Turkey against Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and Israel.
On December 21, Haftar's forces seized a Grenada-flagged ship with Turkish crew aboard, on the suspicion that it was carrying arms. The ship was later released.
The Mediterranean chess game leaves Turkey in alliance with the breakaway Turkish Cypriot statelet and one of the warring factions in Libya, versus a strategic grouping of Greece, Cyprus, Egypt (and the UAE), Israel, and the other warring Libyan group.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based political analyst and writing fellow at the Middle East Forum.