Over the past three months, Haftar has received reinforcements from Russia in his bid to take Tripoli. Advanced weapons and mercenaries from the Wagner Group have turned the tide in Haftar’s favour after what was increasingly looking like a stalemate. The GNA in Tripoli, increasingly desperate, signed a defence cooperation with Turkey, appealing to Erdogan as the EU looks on and the US remains apathetic.
Once again, as in Syria, Turkey looks set to line up against Russia in another major conflict of significantly complex proportions. With both powers reluctant to engage in an all-out conflict, discussions have taken place seeking a solution that guarantees the interests of both nations.
Yesterday, a Turkish delegation visited Moscow to discuss Idlib. However, it is impossible to believe that Libya was not discussed in the same meeting. The next day, Turkish president Receb Tayyeb Erdogan conducted a surprise visit to Tunisia alongside his Defence and Foreign ministers, as well as his intelligence chief to discuss the ongoing situation in Libya. Prior to this, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced he would consider the possibility of mediation.
Erdogan has since announced that a bill will be put to the Turkish Parliament and voted on in early January. Turkey’s build up to the prospect of military intervention is reminiscent of Operation Peace Spring, Olive Branch, and Euphrates Shield in Syria where a steady Turkish build-up preceded intervention in a bid by Erdogan to demonstrate that he was serious and that other nations should take his concerns seriously.
As negotiations continue over Libya between Ankara and Moscow, it is worth setting out the nature of the negotiations, what is at stake, what each party is seeking, the power cards they can use against one another, and the common ground that might lead to agreement.
What do the parties want?
Turkey’s interest is not Libya itself. Unlike the UAE or Egypt, Turkey’s involvement in Libya is not ideological. Instead, it is rooted in geopolitical realities that have put Turkey in a difficult situation. A glance at an influence map of the Mediterranean points to a maritime chokehold forming on Turkey that has alarmed Ankara. A combination of Egyptian, Greek, Cypriot, and Israeli antagonism added to UAE maritime expansionism suggests a dire state (from Turkey’s perspective) with regards to influence in the Mediterranean.
To date, Turkey has supported Tripoli’s government with enough to defend itself, but not enough to expand. In other words, Ankara has so far provided a lifeline for Serraj to ensure that he is powerful enough to sit at the negotiating table but not powerful enough to begin a military campaign that might turn public opinion against him and Turkey. There are two main reasons for this, with the most important being that Turkey does not want to be dragged into an open conflict that carries substantial risks. The other reason is that Turkey remains concerned that Serraj is unable to impose himself on the militias currently in Tripoli who remain disunited and prone to clashing with one another.
Turkey does not seek to empower the GNA so that it can exert authority over Libya. Turkey seeks to prevent the UAE and Egypt from installing an ally in Tripoli who will complete the maritime stronghold on Turkey’s interests. It therefore favours mediation between the parties that will come to an agreement that dilutes Haftar’s power. Moreover, with Misrata and Zintan agreeing to fight alongside Serraj after years of undermining him, Turkey believes that the imminent threat Haftar poses will act as a catalyst for genuine negotiations that sees more fruitful outcomes than those that have emerged from the politically charged, and one-sided, conferences of Paris, Berlin, and Palermo.
In Syria, Russia has showcased advanced weaponry and displayed its military and diplomatic prowess by outdoing the EU, the US, and the Arab states, to rescue Bashar al-Assad and shift the orbit of negotiations from Geneva to Astana.
With US influence in decline as a result of a hawkish and transactional foreign policy that has not spared even US allies, Russia has capitalised on disgruntlement towards Washington by warming to traditional allies including Turkey.
With its influence expanding in the region, Russia is once again using the conflict in Libya to showcase its military capabilities and exert itself against a European Union paralysed by division, and a US mired in impeachment proceedings and bogged down by upcoming elections.
Russia’s support for Haftar however should not be mistaken for a genuine desire within Moscow to see the Libyan warlord installed as leader of Libya. Russia is well aware that the influence of the UAE and Egypt is more likely to encourage Haftar to turn to Washington than Moscow.
Russia instead seeks to be the key power broker as it continues to enhance its image as an alternative superpower. It wants the Libyan parties to turn to it as the broker of peace instead of turning to Europe or the US.
What are the power cards they can use?
- Turkey is serious. Russia is well aware that Erdogan is prepared to act unilaterally when he feels that Turkey’s interests are compromised. In Syria, he sent his forces into the North to attack armed Kurdish groups PKK and YPG after having his concerns over the security of his border ignored for years by Europe and the US. Given the current situation in the Mediterranean where Turkish interests are under an immediate threat, Russia understands that Erdogan is prepared to act unilaterally again, pitting his forces head-on against Russia-backed Haftar.
- Idlib: Turkey continues to back anti-Assad forces much to the chagrin of Damascus and annoyance of Moscow. Regime advance into the province of Idlib has been slow and costly. Turkey may well offer concessions on this front in exchange for Libya. Turkey already has its safe zone in the North and has little interest in expanding further into Syria.
- Russia’s desire for warm relations: The rapprochement and subsequent warming of relations between Ankara and Moscow has been a major coup for Putin. To seduce a NATO ally and wreak havoc within the much-hated alliance (from Moscow’s perspective) is a remarkable achievement. These relations have seen Russia sell S-400 missiles and Erdogan defy the US and Europe on key security issues. Russia is unlikely to want to scupper these relations for the sake of Libya where it does not care who the winner is.
- Libya’s neighbours Algeria and Tunisia are increasingly concerned over Haftar’s antics. They believe that the UAE, which has sought to interfere in Tunisia’s internal politics over the years, is agitated at the prospect of a Haftar victory but remains paralysed by domestic political instability that has prevented it from playing an important role. Algeria likewise deeply resent the UAE’s involvement in their regional politics and have been mulling for some time over a suitable way to counter what it perceives to be a growing threat. As a historical ally of Russia, Moscow will not be keen to alienate Algiers which is in the midst of re-aligning its traditional alliances as a result of a domestic revolution that toppled Bouteflika’s regime.
- Incirlik: Erdogan has suggested that he is willing to consider closing the Incirlik military base. This would greatly hinder US operations in the Mediterranean and loosen Washington’s grip on its allies in the region who will be forced to consider new alignments, alliances, and state of relations in order to adapt to the possibility that there will be no US bailout in the event of a Russian or Turkish assertion of power. Erdogan is unlikely to further antagonise the US provided they do not impose sanctions or further alienate an increasingly concerned Turkish administration.
- Putin is aware that Erdogan is trying to put out fires. Turkey’s Syria policy has been hindered and forced to re-orient as a result of the Kurdish separatist threat. Where once it considered how to expand its influence, it is now trying to insulate itself from the ongoing chaos. Likewise, in Libya, Putin believes that Erdogan is on the back foot as anti-Turkey sentiment continues to emanate in the Mediterranean from Cairo, Athens, Nicosia, and Tel Aviv. He is aware that the chokehold being formed is of serious concern to Ankara and could actually benefit Moscow if enough stability can be established in Syria to begin using the military base in Tartus to commence a power grab in the Mediterranean.
- Turkey may offer concessions on Idlib. However, Assad’s forces are making gains in Idlib despite Turkish support for those trying to defend it. Putin will not be entirely swayed by any offers of concessions on Idlib as he will believe that with enough time, and as things stand, the city will eventually be taken anyway.
- Turkey’s support will only enable the GNA to fend off Haftar’s attack on Tripoli. However, they will not be able to retake Libya. In other words, Russia will not find itself having lost out because it backed Haftar once upon a time.
- Turkey finds itself isolated in Libya. The US are apathetic. Libya is sceptical. France, UAE, and Egypt back Haftar. Greece and Southern Cyprus want Turkey’s influence reined in. Erdogan needs an ally to temper the public backlash and Moscow is the only prime candidate to be this ally.
What are the common interests that might lead to agreement?
Neither Russia nor Turkey want to see Haftar seize Tripoli. Neither Russia nor Turkey want to regress on the newfound relations between the two nations. Both Russia and Turkey are benefitting from a US mired in domestic issues, and a paralyzed EU. Both Turkey and Russia agree on the need for mediation in Libya. Both Turkey and Russia agree that it is to their benefit to become the new power brokers in Libya.
However, Turkey has more to lose than Russia. So Russia will seek to squeeze every possible gain out of Erdogan before it agrees to any mediation.