Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media before travelling to Berlin for a summit on Libya. Picture: Presidential Press Service/Pool Photo via AP
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa recently got onto the phone to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And not only that, Minister for International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor also lifted the handset and spoke to her Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu – also about the same issue. According to the Sunday Times they urged him to show restraint and not deploy any troops to the war-torn North African country.

The exact details of those two conversations are not known, but it can only be assumed that Libya is important, not only to South Africa, but also Africa as a whole. But why call Turkish leaders?

Well, it would not have gone unnoticed in Pretoria that Turkey recently signed a maritime accord with Libya’s UN backed Government of National Accord  (GNA) – a deal that is strongly opposed by Libya’s neighbor Egypt as well as Greece, Cyprus and Israel.

But while that has upset those four countries, what has probably come as a bigger surprise is a security treaty that immediately saw the GNA request Turkish military assistance, primarily to help them stave off an assault by the Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of General Khalifa Haftar.

Turkish media have reported that Ankara is planning to send allied Syrian fighters to Libya, offering them high salaries and Turkish citizenship. International media have reported that there are already about 35 Turkish military personnel in Libya.

It is well known that Ankara has been playing a very active military role in neighboring Syria by supporting the Free Syrian army and jihadist groups since the war started in 2011, and in the past two years its own forces have launched three military operations into Syria. They continue to maintain a presence there.

But why is Turkey looking further afield to a country on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea?

While the move may have caught many by surprise, the truth is that Turkey and the former Ottoman Empire have had a long involvement in what is today called Libya.

Libya was in fact the last portion the empire in Africa that the Ottomans gave up, having already lost control in the 1800s over its holdings in what are today Egypt and Algeria to the French and the British.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, fought against the Italians in Tripoli during the Italian-Turkish War in 1911/12.

Libya’s last King Idris al-Senussi and his father used to have strong relations with Turkey. King Idris was receiving medical treatment in Ankara when he was overthrown by Muammar Gadaffi in 1969. King Idris’ father Ahmed Sharif as-Senussi was among the spiritual leaders who actively supported Ataturk’s war of independence against Western powers shortly after World War I, and he convinced Anatolian Kurds to support the Ankara government.

After achieving Libya’s independence, King Idris Senussi appointed Turkish governor Sadullah Kologlu as the first Libyan Prime Minister. Kologlu was a governor in Turkey when King Idris requested him to have a role in Libyan government. 

Kologlu’s family were descendants of Ottoman Janissaries who conquered Libya in 16th century, and by some accounts about 1.5 million Libyans, prior to the country’s descent into civil war following the overthrow of Gaddafi, are of Turkish descent.

With that sort of history it should be no surprise that Turkey’s Islamist Erdogan, happily accepted the request from GNA leader, Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, to assist militarily.

Erdogan’s political master, former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan scheduled one of his first visits to Libya, but he paid the price by losing his seat as Turkey’s secular Army reacted to his visits to Islamic countries and finally deposed him.

But now, Erdogan has control over the military, especially since the failed coup of July 2016. Internal political opposition to stop him on his Libyan adventure is limited.

Although a recent survey shows that 65 percent of the Turkish public oppose an army deployment to Libya, many secular and nationalist Turkish politicians support Erdogan over the maritime deal with Libya.

While Turkey has announced a formal deal to render military assistance to the Libyan government, according to a 376-page UN report, Turkey has been selling arms to Libya since the civil war erupted. According to that report, a company belonging to the family of Erdogan’s son-in-law, Selcuk Bayraktar, shipped nearly 54 tonnes of parts to assemble sophisticated military drones to be used on Libyan battlefields.

* Mirza Aydin is a political analyst based in South Africa.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.