Turkey's latest blockbuster: Drone wars in the Sahel

Yörük Işık writes: In Syria, Turkey got caught between Russia and America. We are in danger of repeating this mistake in Libya, or worse: finding ourselves opposing both powers at the same time.

Yörük Işık

Turkey's actions in Syria have the makings of a tragedy. Close to a decade after the beginning of Syria's civil war, our policies have made Russia a Mediterranean power and we now find ourselves obliged to support the Russian position of restoring the territorial integrity of Syria and the Syrian government. But why were there to begin with? What have we achieved? Lives lost, the economy damaged, more than four million refugees across Turkey, Russia now our southern neighbor, Syria a Russian client state, a strained NATO and the looming threat of U.S. sanctions. 

Now comes the sequel, just like a bad Hollywood reboot. The setting has moved from the Levant to the Sahel, with the minor plot twist that, in Libya, Ankara attempts to preserve Sarraj’s administration in Tripoli, while it sought to bring down the Assad regime in Syria.

Libya’s civil war has become an international crisis. Russia, the U.S., the UAE, Egypt, Turkey, and to a lesser extent, France and Italy are involved in it. While Turkey backs the UN-recognized government in Tripoli, Russia, Egypt and the UAE support the Tobruk-based government led by Field Marshal Haftar. By nature of being devout Muslims, the Turkish government continues to believe it has an insider's knowledge of the Middle East. But the past decade has proved this assumption to be false. All the inroads Turkey made in the Arab world using soft power have been marred and Russia's return to the Middle East caught Ankara off guard. 

Even prior to the 2011 uprisings, the Libyan state has long lacked transparent and sustainable institutions. A plethora of local disputes and tribal feuds has lingered throughout the country for decades. For 42 years, the autocratic regime of Muammar Qaddafi staved off most eruptions of anarchical violence using a combination of calculated tribal interference and brutal suppression. This internal balance crumbled in February 2011, as social demonstrations turned into a military conflict between pro-Qaddafi forces and rebels. A month later, the United States gathered a wide-ranging coalition of countries and organized a UN-backed military intervention in Libya against Qaddafi. Early on in that campaign, disagreements surfaced within the anti-Qaddafi group — especially among the Gulf States — over the political structure of post-Qaddafi Libya. This discord in the international coalition frustrated the Libyan rebels. By 2014, fault lines had deepened and the country descended into civil war.

Though it goes largely unmentioned in Turkish domestic political discussions, after the miscalculated attacks of Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshal Haftar against the Tripoli government, Turkey appears to have doubled down on its Libya policy by arming the Government of National Accord (GNA) and other tribal forces, and by sending some of its best equipment: Turkish-manufactured Kirpi mine-resistant ambush-protected MRAPs (produced by BMC, a joint Turkish-Qatari private venture) and Bayraktar armed drones (produced by Baykar Makina). Meanwhile, Russian private mercenaries are deployed on the ground to fight all of these groups.  

Also the UAE has supplied Haftar’s forces with Chinese-made drones. This has led to a rather surreal situation. While Libyans are fighting a civil war on the ground, other countries are using drones to fight in support of their chosen Libyan groups. Due to the variety and number of drones being used, it is the world’s first drone war — and Turkey is part of it.

Turkey’s interest in Libya is not selfless. Ankara sees the survival of the Sarraj government as vital to protecting its rights to natural resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. The key to that is the designation of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). Turkey is currently at loggerheads with all other parties that claim rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, including Israel, Egypt and Cyprus. Under pressure from them, Lebanon cannot sign an agreement with Turkey. Because of the way the EEZs are determined, Turkey hopes to sign a maritime demarcation agreement with the Libyan government in order to bolster its legal arguments to claim rights to the Eastern Mediterranean.

But just like in the Syrian conflict, a confrontation with Russia looms on the horizon. Even if Turkey avoids that, its engagement in Libya already looks problematic. It appears that Libya is behind on payments to Turkey for defense expenditures. And Libya’s Ambassador to Ankara, Abdurrazag Mukhtar Ahmed Abduqader, who is seen as a friend, is leaving his post after 8 years. Is this a voluntary departure or was he pushed out? Finally, Twitter accounts indicate that Turkish drone flights have stopped or been seriously slowed during the past two weeks. Is there a political shift in Tripoli, or pressure on Tripoli from outside? Whatever it is, it looks like there is a new problem between Ankara and Tripoli.

In Syria, Turkey got caught between Russia and America. We are in danger of repeating this mistake in Libya, or worse: finding ourselves opposing both powers at the same time.


Yörük Işık is an international consultant based in Istanbul, where he runs his foreign policy social media project Bosphorus Observer analyzing military movements on the Turkish Straits. After working in the European Parliament, he spent 17 years in Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, managing various governance projects. Mr. Işık studied international relations and Russian foreign policy at the Universities of Kansas, Amsterdam, and Helsinki.