Erdogan Confirms First Turkish Soldiers Killed in Libya

President of Turkey and leader of Justice and Development (AK) Party Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the party's group meeting at Grand National Assembly of Turkey in Ankara, on February 5, 2020. (Photo by Adem ALTAN / AFP) (Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images)
ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that two Turkish soldiers have been killed in Libya, where Turkish forces were deployed to support the Government of National Accord (GNA) against the forces of the Libyan National Army (LNA) under Gen. Khalifa Haftar.

“We have two martyrs there in Libya,” Erdogan said at a press conference on Tuesday. He did not identify the “martyrs” or explain how they died.

Three days earlier, Erdogan boasted that Turkish forces killed over a hundred of Haftar’s fighters at the cost of “a few martyrs.” He did not elaborate on when or where this battle might have occurred.

The Associated Press cited LNA claims that up to 16 Turkish soldiers have been killed in Libya since Haftar began his siege of Tripoli last April. Erdogan has grown visibly angry at reporters who imply there have been casualties not acknowledged by his government, accusing them of spreading “fake news” on behalf of his political opponents.

Erdogan also defended Turkey’s much-criticized decision to send Syrian opposition fighters allied with Ankara to fight in Libya.

“Those going from Syria, from the Syrian National Army there have a common goal. They are there within the framework of these common goals,” he said. “Our brothers who are with us in Syria see being there with us as an honor.”

The Turkish opposition responded angrily to Erdogan’s concession that “a few martyrs” have been lost, accusing Erdogan of getting Turkey into a Libyan “quagmire” hard on the heels of putting Turkish soldiers at risk in Syria. Erdogan issued an ultimatum to the Syrian government on Wednesday that could be a prelude to all-out war.

“We will not take the slightest step back in Idlib,” Erdogan said of the Syrian province where Turkish forces are confronting Syrian troops and their Russian backers. “We will push the regime beyond the borders that we have determined, and we will ensure the return of the people to their homes. We are committed to this issue and we will risk all kinds of sacrifices.”

“I’ve said this many times, the hair of our soldiers is more valuable than not only Syria but also Libya,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition CHP party, said on Tuesday.

The BBC on Tuesday judged the Libyan intervention as a “costly war bad for Erdogan,” noting that the Turkish public tends to rally around nationalist causes but has a history of turning quickly sour on foreign adventures when casualties mount. 

The opposition accuses Erdogan of concealing deaths in Libya for precisely this reason. Erdogan presented the Libyan intervention as vital to protecting Turkish maritime interests in the Mediterranean and claims Turkish soldiers deployed to Libya are primarily acting as trainers and advisers to GNA troops. 

The GNA signed a deal for maritime borders with Turkey that threatens to upend the Mediterranean. Greece and Cyprus denounced the deal as invalid, the United States warned it was unnecessarily “provocative,” and Erdogan’s domestic critics wonder why he only sent a purportedly tiny force of “advisers” to secure such an important agreement, especially since Haftar’s LNA currently controls Libya’s coastal regions and the adjacent waters.

Some opposition Turkish papers cited unconfirmed reports that one of the soldiers killed in Libya was a colonel. An editorial highly critical of Erdogan in the Evrensel newspaper found the president’s talk of “martyrdom” an ominous display of the “jihadist, pro-conquest mentality behind [his] new-Ottoman policies.” Erdogan’s critics worry that his grandiose plans for Libya will soon oblige him to send a much larger force of Turkish troops and/or Syrian fighters to engage in more aggressive operations against Haftar.

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