ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended his country’s policies in Libya and warned of greater outflow of refugees to European shores if crises in North Africa and the Middle East are not brought under control.
“If calm is not established as soon as possible, the atmosphere of chaos in Libya will affect all the Mediterranean basin,” Erdogan told German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a televised speech January 24 in Istanbul.
His warning came as European countries voiced concern that crises in Syria and Libya could send more refugees to their borders. EU member Greece said it is expecting approximately 100,000 refugees crossing from Turkey this year. Last year, the UN refugee agency in Greece registered nearly 60,000 arrivals by boat. An additional 15,000 migrants entered Greece over the land border with Turkey.
Housing 3.6 million Syrian refugees, Turkey said it can’t take in more. However, an escalation of fighting in the Syrian province of Idlib has sent an estimated 350,000 displaced people to the closed border with Turkey. Turkish aid groups have begun building more than 10,000 houses in Idlib to shelter the growing numbers of people displaced by fighting.
Merkel told Erdogan she was in favour of continuing European financial help for Turkey after the so-called refugee deal between Turkey and the European Union from 2016 runs out. She pledged German support for the construction of shelters for internally displaced people in Idlib. Merkel gave no figures of the expected payments.
The future of the refugee deal that promised Ankara $6.6 billion in financial support in exchange for a pledge to stop the flow of refugees to Europe was one of the main issues during Merkel’s visit.
Most of the money has been allocated, the European Union said, making talks over additional financial help necessary if the deal is to survive. Erdogan also wants EU help to establish a “safe zone” in north-eastern Syria and to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees there but Merkel said she wanted to make sure that the UN refugee agency signed off on the plan.
As for Libya, Erdogan called for greater pressure on military strongman Khalifa Haftar, who is waging an offensive against the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, which is supported by Turkey.
“We hope the international community will not make the mistakes it made in Syria,” he said, adding that the success of a peace plan adopted by an international conference led by Merkel January 19 in Berlin “depends on its implementation on the ground.”
Erdogan reminded Merkel that wars in the Middle East and North Africa can shake countries in Europe as they did in 2015, when hundreds of thousands of Syrians arrived in EU countries.
“The incidents in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya have once again demonstrated that the region we live in has a shared destiny,” the Turkish leader said.
“The clashes waging on in Syria for the past nine years have affected not only neighbouring countries, such as ours, but also the whole of Europe, Germany in particular.” Likewise, the “chaos in Libya” could spread to the entire Mediterranean.
“Our primary objective is to put an end to this crisis, in which more than 2,400 people have died, more than 7,500 people have been wounded and more than 300,000 Libyans have been displaced. To achieve this objective, we work in cooperation with Germany, a friend and ally of ours.”
Erdogan said Turkey would stick to its support for the GNA and was still sending military instructors to Libya to train GNA forces. Reports also pointed to Ankara dispatching hundreds of pro-Turkish mercenaries and militants from Syria to Libya.
During a news conference with Merkel, Erdogan accused Haftar of failing to honour his verbal commitments to stop the fighting in Libya. “He accepted [the ceasefire] but he didn’t sign,” Erdogan said.
Merkel disagreed, saying that all participants of the Berlin conference had accepted a 55-point peace plan. She said Haftar was to name five representatives of his side for a military commission with the GNA under UN auspices.
Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey Programme at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think-tank, said by e-mail that one of Erdogan’s goals was to use the Turkish role in Libya in a dispute with Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt over natural gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. Erdogan signed a controversial maritime agreement with the GNA that expands Turkey’s territorial claims in the region.
“His political and military support for the GNA aims to preserve not only his Libyan proxies but also the maritime deal he signed with them to challenge the Egyptian, Greek and Cypriot maritime and energy cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Erdemir said.
“The Turkish president also hopes that his posturing in Libya will give him some leverage over the European Union and Russia, given the former’s concerns about new refugee flows from North Africa and the latter’s brokerage role in Syria.”
Erdemir said that the Turkish strategy was unlikely to succeed.
“Ultimately, Erdogan’s belligerent posturing is likely to deepen Ankara’s isolation, exacerbating the very problems the Turkish president is trying to ameliorate.”
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
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