The fighting and the humanitarian tragedy in Yemen remind older generations of Turks of a beautiful but sad folk song, “Yemen türküsü”[i], mourning the loss of thousands of Turkish soldiers in this far away part of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Its goes;
There are no clouds on air, why is this smog?
There are no deceased in neighborhood, why is this outcry?
Mum, I haven’t died yet, why is this groan?
This is Yemen, its rose is grass
Those who go there do not return, I wonder why?
They did not return because there was no way that the Ottoman Empire, in steady decline for centuries, could hold on to Yemen. It was a lost cause. As a matter of fact, the end of the First World War also marked the end of the Empire and the beginning of the Turkish War of Independence under the leadership of Atatürk. The demise of the Empire was a foregone conclusion but the book titled “Ataturk: The Rebirth of a Nation” by Lord Patrick Kinross was still to be written.
Almost a decade ago, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) brushed aside what it called until then its “strategic partnership” with the Assad regime in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ten years on, we are home to four million Syrian refugees, we have spent more than 40 billion dollars to accommodate them and we have paved the way for the PYD/YPG to emerge as a force in the battle against the Islamic State. We are at odds with Washington over their support to the YPG, at odds with Moscow over Idlib and at odds with all regional countries because “we stand by our noble principles”. In brief, our Syria policy has been a total failure.
Turkey has its biggest overseas military base in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. Today, a giant explosion killed at least nearly a hundred people among them two Turks.
And now, we seem ready to embark on a third adventure, this time to support the Brotherhood in Libya. It is more than likely to prove another disappointment.
On November 27, Libya’s internationally recognized government and Turkey signed an agreement on the delimitation of maritime jurisdiction areas in the Mediterranean. Then came the agreement for Ankara to provide military support, including arms and possibly troops, to hold off an offensive by General Khalifa Haftar who already controls most of Libya’s oil facilities as well as swaths of territory in the country’s east and south. He is now seeking to take Tripoli. Yes, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s administration is recognized by the UN as Libya’s legitimate government. The question is for how long?
Haftar enjoys the backing of Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia. And, our only “ally” in Washington President Trump also appears to move towards the General. Earlier in the year, he was thinking of declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. He later changed his mind, but the intention is there.
Whatever the merits of the maritime jurisdiction agreement signed with the Sarraj government, Turkey’s getting more deeply involved in the Libyan war by sending troops to Libya under any pretext would only lead to another foreign and security policy problem. We already face one our southern borders and it is more than enough. Moreover, Libya is across the Mediterranean. Turkey is in dire economic straits. Our incursions in Syria have placed a heavy burden on our defense budget. Turkey does not have the military capability to sustain military operations either by sea or by air to help JDP’s Muslim Brotherhood allies in Libya. If Sarraj’s Government of National Accord is the internationally recognized administration of Libya, why aren’t others rushing in to help him?
In brief, we don’t need new losses to lament like our soldiers who perished in the distant Yemen a century ago.
Regardless of a string of foreign policy failures, the JDP leadership has been successful in using foreign policy for domestic ends and effectively deterred the opposition from raising objections to what it presents as situations calling for patriotic unity. Rallying once again behind the government for greater involvement in Libya will not be a display of patriotism. On the contrary, calling for the restoration of our democracy, the rebuilding of ties with major powers, traditional allies and regional countries and thus breaking Ankara’s vicious circle of diplomatic isolation are the dictate of patriotism. Who governs Syria and Libya is primarily a problem for the peoples of the two countries.
In the First World War we Turks fought valiantly in Gallipoli to change the course not only of the war but also history. Among the secret arrangements carving up the Ottoman Empire was the Sykes-Picot-Sazonov agreement which left İstanbul, the Bosporus and more to Czarist Russia. With the abdication of the Czar and the Bolshevik Revolution those plans turned into a dead letter. But had the British and the French been able to win the Battle of Gallipoli and reach Russia, the picture on the eastern front could have changed dramatically and Czarist rule might have survived.
Later, when the Ottoman Sultan surrendered the country to the victors of the First World War, we Turks did not emigrate to foreign lands by the millions but united behind Atatürk in our War of Independence. The peoples of Syria and Libya can at least try to achieve internal peace after so much bloodshed and external meddling. That is their patriotic duty, not ours. And, we and others should limit our involvement to helping them achieve just that, nothing more nothing less.
Ali Tuygan, Ambassador (Ret’d) and former Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The article is also published on his blog.