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After Libya, will Turkey defeat the UAE in Yemen?

June 19, 2020 at 11:00 am

A man holds flags of Turkey and Libya in Tripoli on 10 January 2020 [Hazem Turkia/Anadolu Agency]

Turkey achieved a strategic success in breaking the year-long siege on the Libyan capital, Tripoli. With Turkish support, the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) pushed back the forces of renegade Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and regained full control of the city two weeks ago. A campaign is currently underway to take the city of Sirte from Haftar, who is supported by the UAE, Egypt, France and Russia.

Ankara’s involvement in the Libyan war was a gamble which appears to have paid off. It serves to justify the so-called Blue Homeland policy, aimed at establishing Turkish hegemony in the eastern Mediterranean through exploiting the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) agreed between Ankara and Tripoli.

The recent events in Libya are undoubtedly a result of Turkey’s parliament agreeing at the start of the year to send troops in support of the GNA, despite the reluctance of the main opposition party. Significantly, Turkish support on the ground has largely come in the form of up to 10,000 Syrian mercenaries brought in from Idlib. Yet it has been the use of armed drones that has been so fundamental to the strategic gains made by the GNA, which successfully destroyed numerous UAE-supplied Russian Pantsir S-1 systems. This game-changing modern warfare has also served Turkey with some degree of tactical success in Syria’s Idlib province.

Most of the attention that Turkey’s military interventions are attracting tend to be focussed on Libya, Syria and the occasional air strike in the Iraqi Kurdistan region against terrorist PKK targets. What has gone largely unnoticed is Turkey’s growing involvement in Yemen, although it is still debatable what it entails and whether it is in its national interests and can yield strategic results in the long term.

READ: How Haftar squandered his near secure victory, and why

According to Turkey’s Foreign Ministry website, the country has “deeply rooted historical and cultural ties with Yemen”, which was once a province of the Ottoman Caliphate, although it fought fiercely and successfully for its independence well before the decline of the empire.

In the five-year war in Yemen, Ankara has supported the UN-recognised government in exile in Saudi Arabia. Almost from the outset of the conflict, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed support for the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention, although as the war dragged on it became clear that the coalition was failing while also contributing to what is described by the UN as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Erdogan has also accused Iran, which is allied with the Houthi-led “rebel” government of seeking to dominate the region. In 2018, after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s Consulate in Istanbul, Erdogan adjusted his stance in light of the changing realities and called for “an inclusive political solution” as the only way for a lasting peace in Yemen.

Turkey’s TRT World has previously discussed the country’s influence in Yemen and acknowledged Ankara’s geostrategic interests in the Red Sea and Bab Al-Mandeb Strait, as well as Turkey’s potential to be a key player in Yemen’s future.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R), Turkey's Minister of Finance and Treasury, Berat Albayrak (2R), Head of the Turkish Intelligence Organization Hakan Fidan (3R) and Turkish Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin meet with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (L) during their official visit, on 17 June 2020 in Tripoli, Libya. [Fatih Aktaş - Anadolu Agency]

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R), Turkey’s Minister of Finance and Treasury, Berat Albayrak (2R), Head of the Turkish Intelligence Organization Hakan Fidan (3R) and Turkish Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin meet with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (L) during their official visit, on 17 June 2020 in Tripoli, Libya.
[Fatih Aktaş – Anadolu Agency]

The Emirati-financed Arab Weekly, meanwhile, has been particularly vicious over the past three months, with articles accusing Turkey of building up its presence in Yemen, specifically in support of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al-Islah Party. The allegations against Ankara include Egypt’s growing concerns such as Turkish “interference” under the guise of humanitarian aid operating in three southern coastal regions and a joint “Qatar-Turkish plot” to establish a militia recruitment camp in the Shabwa province.

It is quite possible that these allegations contain half-truths or exaggerations and, according to Assistant Professor at Kings College London Dr Andreas Krieg, are a smokescreen to divert attention from the rise of the UAE-backed separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the eventual fall of the Yemeni government-in-exile under President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

READ: Disputes over energy are not the only crisis in the eastern Mediterranean

In the paradoxical world of Middle East alliances, Saudi Arabia is hostile to the Brotherhood and, along with the UAE, financed the military coup which overthrew Egypt’s first civilian President Mohamed Morsi who was affiliated to the movement, and yet actively supports Al-Islah militia which function as Hadi’s main fighting force on the ground against the Houthi-aligned Yemeni army.

Turkey may well extend limited assistance to Al-Islah, but it is unlikely that the party will jeopardise its support from the Saudis. After five years of a costly war, though, the Saudis may find themselves unable to continue funding its mercenaries in Yemen who have thus far failed to undermine Houthi-domination of the north and the capital Sanaa. Interestingly, some Islah supporters have recently taken to using an online hashtag campaign asking Turkey to intervene in Yemen. Earlier this year the Yemeni government had to deny allegations that it had signed an agreement with Turkey to manage its ports and transport infrastructure.

Nevertheless, the Saudis appear to take Turkey’s involvement seriously. Reports last week said that the coalition prevented a Turkish cargo plane carrying aid from landing in the southern port city of Aden. Even so, in light of the ongoing conflict between Saudi-backed Al-Islah and UAE-supported STC forces in the south, if fears of Turkey’s growing involvement are credible then it would be an ominous development for the UAE and its allied militias.

The UAE has long been accused of attempting to annex the Yemeni island of Socotra to secure what it perceives to be its geopolitical interests in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. It already has military and naval bases in Djibouti, Eritrea and Somaliland.

Turkey, of course, has its largest overseas military base located in the Somali capital Mogadishu as well as its largest embassy. Logistically speaking, therefore, it is plausible that it could be preparing for a “Libya-like” operation in Yemen, also against UAE-backed forces.

As we have seen in Libya, Turkey has taken drone warfare to another level as have, to be fair, the Houthis in Yemen. Perhaps as a precursor to future operations, a Turkish-made Karayel drone was downed by the Houthis over Hudaydah province in December. The experience gained in Libya and Syria could be a game-changer for UAE gains, which would no doubt be welcomed by Riyadh.

At the same time, Turkey’s complex relationship with Houthi-allied Iran would also have to be considered. Iran recently voiced support for the Turkish-backed Libyan government, whilst Ankara has expressed its opposition to US sanctions on Tehran. There has also been rare military cooperation between the two against the Kurdish PKK in Iraq, which has been condemned by the UAE.

The war in Libya is by no means over and, given the divisive issue of military intervention overseas and the serious risk of military overstretch, Ankara might have to postpone an inevitable confrontation by proxy with the UAE in Yemen. Potential conflicts with Greece, Egypt and Israel in the eastern Mediterranean over energy resources are much closer to home and may well demand most or all of Turkey’s attention in the months ahead.

READ: Libya faces same counter-revolution that killed Egypt’s Morsi, official says

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.