The National Interest: The problem with Turkey’s Proxy Militias isn’t just military – Analysis

National leaders are learning that relying on Turkish-backed forces comes at a serious political and diplomatic costs


Turkish-backed Arab militias are becoming an increasingly frequent presence in operational theaters, from Libya to Syria to Armenia. Whereas Turkish diplomats once claimed they were an ally in the fight against the Islamic State, the Turkish military and intelligence service has increasingly employed Islamic State veterans to further Turkey’s interests across the region.

The Rojava Information Center, which operates out of Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria, for example, has identified several dozen Islamic State veterans now working with Turkish-backed forces. These militias have engaged in ethnic cleansing, kidnapped women and girls, and otherwise sought to upset and change the social order. As they displace local Kurds and settle Arabs from elsewhere in Syria, they set the stage for decades of conflict and instability.

Libya, too, is now paying the price for its U.S.- and UN-recognized government inviting in Turkish-backed forces. On September 16, 2020, Libyan prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj surprised Libyans and the international community when he announced his intention to resign. “I declare my sincere desire to hand over my duties to the next executive authority no later than the end of October, in the hopes that the dialogue committee will complete its work and choose a new presidential council and prime minister to hand over responsibilities to and wish them success in doing so,” he said.

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Sarraj’s move came just months after he had signed a multibillion-dollar agreement with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan not only to privilege Turkish energy firms in Libya’s hydrocarbon market, but also to welcome Turkish support in his fight against Khalifa Haftar, a Qadhafi-era Libyan general who controls most of eastern Libya and enjoys the support of both Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The influx of Turkish equipment and Turkish proxy militias staffed in part by veterans of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda-linked groups helped save Sarraj after Haftar ordered his forces to march on Tripoli, but Sarraj soon learned the true cost of relying upon Turkish-backed mercenaries: Once Turkish proxies entered the battlespace, they refused to leave. Sarraj had simply replaced a domestic competitor with militiamen loyal to Erdoğan. Sarraj made an unannounced visit to Istanbul on October 4 to meet directly with Erdoğan to resolve the problem, but the damage was already done: Sarraj had effectively reduced Libya to a Turkish vassal 109 years after Ottoman control in Libya ended.

Read more: The National Interest