The various foreign powers involved in Libya's conflict met in Berlin Sunday (Jan 19) for the much awaited conference, intended to coordinate the international community's efforts to bring an end to the ongoing civil war in Libya.
The meeting was hosted by Germany, and attended by the leaders or senior representatives from Russia, Turkey, the UAE and Egypt – who most directly back the various sides, as well as France, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, Algeria who represented the Arab League, Congo representing the African Union, the European Union and the United Nations.
While there was much anticipation surrounding the meeting, it was not immediately clear what was achieved and what was meant to be achieved. We look at what happened in Berlin, what did not happen and what we can expect going forward.
Last week, and for the first time since intense fighting renewed in April, the GNA's al-Sarraj and LNA's Haftar agreed to an initial ceasefire, brokered by Russia and Turkey, although reports are rife that this was already broken. Already, Turkish troops and Syrian mercenaries continue to make their way to Tripoli, while Haftar supporters blocked oil export facilities in LNA held territory, effectively cutting Libyan government revenues in half as production halted to around 800,000 bpd.
What was on the table? What was achieved?
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who hosted the UN-backed summit, sought to get the powers involved on the same page, especially in regards to enforcing the UN arms embargo on Libya. One of the major criticisms levelled at Europe is that their lack of coordination and engagement in Libya has opened the door for Russia, Turkey and other regional actors to increase their influence. World powers indeed walked away from the conference after agreeing not to provide military support to either side and back a political solution. However, Merkel was “not under any illusion that this won’t be a difficult path”.
Egypt and the UAE, Haftar's main international backers, reportedly urged him to agree to the initial deal. The two countries also called for the UN to sanction any actor who violates the embargo. US secretary of state Pompeo met with the UAE foreign minister, to pressure the UAE to end its interference, while German Chancellor Merkel met with the crown prince.
The immediate result of the conference was getting the participating parties to sign on to a 55-point communique. It called "on all parties concerned to redouble their efforts for a sustained suspension of hostilities, de-escalation and a permanent ceasefire". This would build on to a fragile and somewhat broken cease fire process kicked off already a week ago by Russia and Turkey.
According to the agreement, obtained by CNN and AFP, the parties called upon the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on those violating the ceasefire arrangements, and called on UN member states to help enforce the terms. It also affirmed the states' commitment to refrain from interfering in the conflict, and on the warring parties to refrain from attacking Libya's oil facilities and energy infrastructure.
German Chancellor Merkel, announcing the outcome after hours of discussion, said the parties “"agreed on a comprehensive plan forward... all participants worked really constructively together.... we all agree that we should respect the arms embargo and that the arms embargo should be controlled more strongly than it has been in the past". Previously, Merkel had said getting everyone on board the embargo would be the priority of the summit. Merkel also called for a mechanism to ensure the fair distribution of oil revenues as part of the peace process.
Beyond committing to supporting the arms embargo and cease fire, the parties also committed to recognising the Libyan state oil firm NOC as the sole entity that can deal in Libyan crude oil.
The agreement further called for a demobilisation and disarming of militias, spurring talks to form a single government, establishing a group of economic experts to advise on development and preparing for free elections to endorse the new government. A commission would also be formed to track progress on these matters.
Analyst Wolfram Lacher pointed out that the “conference is trying to...get an agreement between the states meddling in Libya to stop their support of the warring parties...the problem is Western states are not ready to put pressure on Haftar's foreign supporters...so the promises...ring hollow”. The ICG's Claudia Gazzini added that the conference “could be a modest step forward.” Gazzini noted that the conference “was useful in showing that Europe... (is) more engaged on...Libya... and...more keen to liaise with regional powers directly involved in the conflict in order to pressure them to de-escalate”. She wonders whether this would be “sufficient to de-escalate the conflict,” and whether the foreign powers that back the conflict will adhere to their commitments. Gazzini stressed it was important to see “tangible changes” that can get the fragile process to move forward.
The communique's conclusions will be sent to the UN Security Council to adopt, however the agreement will in essence remain a “gentleman's agreement” without language that would impose sanctions on those who violate its commitments.
If the two sides agree, the next phase would be an inter-Libyan process to unite the country's split institutions and begin preparing for elections, not held since 2014. One of the main outcomes of the day was the agreement to establish a ceasefire mechanism, in which each side is to nominate 5 representatives who will meet in Geneva by months' end to work out the terms for a more permanent cease fire agreement.
However, analyst Tarek Megerisi of the European Council on Foreign Relations pointed out that “failure to make progress could undermine the process”. He added that if “its a very negative meeting.... we can probably expect a return to violence.”
International Monitoring Force
UK prime minister Boris Johnson raised the possibility of sending British and European forces to monitor the proposed ceasefire and uphold the arms embargo. The Italian and German defence ministers similarly expressed willingness to do so if there is a clear UN mandate to do so.
The language of the agreement did not specifically mention a peace monitoring force but did mention establishing technical committees to monitor the cease fire components.
Reactions from the Warring Libyan Parties
Fayez Al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar were in Berlin as well but were not a part of the talks, nor did they meet with each other. German FM Heiko Maas worked as an intermediary between the two.
GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha said the GNA would not consider a more permanent ceasefire agreement unless the LNA withdraws its fighters from Tripoli, dismantles its militias and ensures the departure of foreign mercenaries currently fighting on its side. Alternatively, Haftar demanded the GNA disband its militias and cancel the two agreements signed weeks ago with Turkey.
Reactions from Participants
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who attended the meeting, told reporters later he “cannot stress enough the summit’s conclusion that there is no military solution to the conflict”. Guterres questioned the motives of the various actors interfering in Libya, and noted that those who interfere to support the UN peace process are welcome to become involved. However those seeking to disrupt or support continued fighting “are not welcome”.
Russian President Putin expressed hope that “dialogue will continue and the conflict will be solved”. His foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who was also in Berlin, described the talks as “rather useful” and noted the progress the sides made since their meeting in Moscow the week before. However, Lavrov pointed out that it is "clear that it is not yet possible to establish a stable serious dialogue between them. The differences in approaches are too great."
Turkish President Erdogan accused the international community of backing Haftar and offering him impunity as he conducts “brutal attacks”, and ignoring the “actions of the putschist Haftar... which have been violating UNSC resolutions”.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who represented the US, called on the Libyan parties to “seize this opportunity”. The US has somewhat increased its limited role in Libya in recent months, out of concern for Russia's growing influence. Pompeo said that “all foreign forces should be out of Libya”. He added that "This is a region-wide conflict that is broadening and looking increasingly like Syria which is why the whole community the international community is getting together in Germany". Pompeo however said the US was moderating its expectations.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson offered to deploy British troops to monitor a potential ceasefire, if the parties agreed to it. Johnson noted "there is a case for us doing what we do very well, which is sending people, experts to monitor the ceasefire”. However, Johnson did not see the viability of reaching a cease fire at the moment. Johnson said “its time now to move on and bring Libya together under the UN”.
French President Emanuel Macron raised “acute concerns over the arrival of Syrian and foreign fighters” and called to end this.
German foreign minister Maas, who acted as a go-between for the two Libyan leaders, urged the participants to ensure “Libya doesn't become a second Syria” and described the conference as a “first step to peace for Libya
What the conference did not achieve
There are two main elements that were not achieved in Berlin. The first is any kind of binding document regarding the international participants. That is, although there was a call to sanction those who violated the arms embargo or those who helped break the ceasefire, there is no obligatory sanctions mechanism in place to uphold it.
Secondly, the conference did not achieve anything binding regarding the Libyan parties themselves. The agreement expects the two sides to establish a mechanism to continue the peace talks in the coming days (5+5). However the two parties must first either sign on to the Russian-Turkish document (which only Serraj did) or the Berlin document. Until then, it is more of a gentleman's agreement, according to Khaled Butou on Twitter, than any real agreement. Butou points out that there are currently no deadlines, timetable or sanctions if any party, international or local, is found to be violating its terms.
It is important to point out, as we have multiple times in recent days, that the major achievement of the Berlin meeting, as much as we can point to one, is getting the major international players in one place to discuss a way forward on Libya. Some of the actors' behaviour has been destructive (Turkey, Russia, Egypt, the UAE) while the Europeans, Americans, Arab League and African Union have been apathetic and uncoordinated. Therefore, pressuring some to fall in line and others to pick up their game can be seen as an achievement, at least to some extent.
Clearly the Berlin meeting, which comes on the heels of the Moscow meeting, is just a beginning and hopes should not be too high. However, one of the main obstacles to achieving a cease-fire and renewed political process has been increasing foreign involvement. Getting enough pressure from a united international community is crucial – pressure on the Libyan parties to return to the table, pressure on the main foreign backers to cease their military support, and pressure on the Europeans and Americans to increase their diplomatic involvement.
While Serraj and the GNA might be desperate for a cease fire, despite Turkey's entrance, Haftar might still feel like he has the upper hand at this point. The Europeans and the US, backed by the Arab League, will have to convince him that a political process is preferable to continued fighting. They will also need to pry Haftar from Russia's growing grip on the conflict. Getting Haftar to cooperate might be more difficult than expected. There are numerous reports of his stubbornness so far to cooperate with the diplomatic process.
The GNA's clear lack of authority and hold on power, combined with Haftar's unwillingness to cooperate might be a clear sign that the way forward politically will not be either the GNA or Haftar, rather a third figure that can work to unite all Libyans, with backing from the signatories of the Berlin agreement. Despite that everyone in the room might agree with this understanding, it was also obvious that nobody seemed to bring up such a possibility in their remarks. Nine years of conflict are more than enough. As we enter 2020, the European and international powers involved should be would be wise to think ahead at new and creative ways to bring an end to Libyan tragedy, and bring some much needed stability to the region.
The world, or at least the region, will collectively turn its eyes to Berlin this Sunday (Jan 19) as a collection of countries and international organisations meet to coordinate an end to the ongoing Libyan civil war.
Diplomats from European and Arab capitals are working to put together a "road map", to be presented and discussed at the UN-sponsored conference, which will include representatives from 14 countries.
The conference will seek to reach a coordinated international and regional effort on Libya's political, economic and military future, and get some momentum behind the efforts led so far by UN special envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame. The conference will include forming committees to help implement some of the decisions that will be reached, and will include representatives from the various participant countries. Among these are host German chancellor Merkel, Russian president Putin, Turkish president Erdogan, French president Macron, Egyptian president al-Sisi, British prime minister Johnson, Algerian president Tebboune, US secretary of state Pompeo, and representatives from the UAE, Tunisia, Italy, the UN, EU and African Union. GNA prime minister al-Sarraj and LNA chief Haftar are also expected to attend. Notably, Greece, which asked to be invited to the conference and is at odds with Turkey and now the GNA over the maritime border declaration, was not invited.
The meeting comes just a week after al-Sarraj and Haftar met in Moscow at the behest of Putin and Erdogan to kick off a cease fire.
According to a draft of the road map, obtained by Asharq al-Awsat, a committee will be formed comprised of 14 representatives of the Libyan parliament, 14 representatives of the state council and 14 various influential political figures. The committee will attempt to form a new government and prepare the country for elections. The road map reportedly also calls to nominate 10 military figures, 5 from each side, to dismantle the militias and unite the military.
Economically, the road map is said to address the correct management of Libya's energy resources and the role of the central bank. A committee of various representative countries might be formed to monitor the ceasefire.
This will not be the first time the international community has brought together the warring sides to try and end the conflict. It is important, therefore, to enter the conference with a realistic sense of what can be achieved and what must be achieved. While many will undoubtedly focus on maintaining the fragile and already cracking ceasefire, the international participants would be wise to focus on coordinating their efforts better in regard to this conflict. Even within the EU, there is too much division as to how the EU should be involved and which side it should back. The more unity and coordination that can be achieved, the more effective the various countries can be down the road. Pressuring the various countries that supply arms and mercenaries would be a good place to start.
It is too soon to expect more than a temporary and fragile ceasefire. However, as we approach the Berlin conference this Sunday, the various foreign powers should focus their efforts on coordinating and ensuring a unified strategy and policy regarding how to end this conflict.
Analyst Simon Schofield of the London based Human Security Centre warns that “Turkey’s tightrope could finally snap in Libya”.
Schofield describes Turkey’s strategy as Neo-Ottoman, aggressively pursing an expansionist foreign policy, including the benefits of a partnership with Russia while at the same time trying to reap the benefits of its NATO membership. However, this expansionism, flirtation with Russia and escalation in Libya could end up harming Turkey's position. It was also what led the Netherlands to suspend Turkey’s article 5 privileges. Although Netherlands prime minister Mark Rutte described Turkey as “one of the strongest NATO members” crucial to NATO “geopolitically" and "strategically”, Rutte’s coalition partners voted in favour of two anti-Turkey motions recently – the first calling to support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Kurdish Syria, and the other rejecting a Turkish invocation of article 5 so long as Turkey conducts operations against the SDF.
In response to Turkey’s military push into Rojava (Syria), Norway and the Netherlands also suspended arms exports to the fellow NATO member.
According to Schofield, rather than working with NATO, Turkey seems to prefer developing “limited partnerships of convenience” with Russia and Iran in Syria, Qatar in Libya, and Venezuela, as well as expanding its influence through connecting to and supporting Muslim Brotherhood governments and parties, and Jihadist groups, from Syria to Libya. Schofield explains all these as having “zero interest” in ending conflicts, and that they “thrive on chaos and destruction”.
However, in showing a preference for “transactional” relationships with rogue actors and only “paying lip service” to its official allies, Turkey is walking a “tightrope act” that could end badly, especially in Libya.
Turkey seems to have an ideological connection to the Muslim Brotherhood elements that make up the “crumbling” GNA. Turkey also has clear economic interests in Libya, and Turkey is dependent on the survival of the GNA to prop up its bold move to stake out the exclusive economic zone in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey’s claim to these energy reserves depends on the GNA’s survival, and so it announced its troops deployment, including bringing in Syrian militants.
However, as the LNA, backed by Russian mercenaries seized Sirte, and could make a move on Misrata, especially if the ceasefire talks break down, Turkish mercenaries could end up having to face off against Russian ones. Schofield wonders whether the Erdogan – Putin meeting in Ankara last week that led to the ceasefire push reflected more of a “gentleman’s agreement to divide the spoils” or Putin telling “Erdogan that he should back down”.
Schofield concludes that the manner in which events will unfold will depend on the nature of the Turkish-Russian relationship – and how quickly the cooperation will break down once interests diverge and Turkey finds itself increasingly alone in the region without real allies.
Schofield makes an important point - Turkey may soon find itself alone and vulnerable, having alienated its traditional allies and abandoned by its new "friends of convenience."
We will add a point that we have made before on this site: the GNA - in backing Turkey's Eastern-Med move and accepting (or asking?) for Turkish military support also seems to have alienated itself regionally. Essentially, the GNA may also be walking down a tightrope that could snap. As the major European and regional powers meet in Berlin this weekend to discuss their future involvement in Libya, this is a key point that should be raised. The GNA may be too beholden to a Turkey that has become a point of regional instability. At the same time, Haftar has also not shown himself to be a figure that can bring much needed stability.
The coming days and weeks will teach us a lot of an ambitious Turkey over-reached, and if a desperate GNA grasped at a tight-rope that is set to snap for help.
Was the Russian-Turkish Ceasefire Coordinated with the EU? Or was phase two of the plan to nudge out the Europeans just enacted?
This past Thursday, after a bilateral meeting in Ankara, Turkish President Erdogan and Russian President Putin surprisingly called for a ceasefire in Libya, to come into effect early Sunday morning. At the same time, Italian prime minister Conte, after holding meetings with both Serraj and Haftar in Rome, called for an EU-led cease fire.
So far, Sunday mid-day, despite a few reports of continued fighting, the sides have said hey would abide by the cease-fire. Even if it eventually breaks, this is the first time in nearly eight months that there has been positive movement toward a political solution.
A major question looms here however, was this Turkish – Russian move coordinated with the EU? Or alternatively, was this the second phase of a larger move to nudge out the Europeans for influence in resource-rich strategic Libya?
First, as we have alluded to multiple times, it never really made sense for Turkey to escalate its military involvement with Russia have previously chosen to back Haftar, given Russia’s dominant position in Syria which is far more important for Turkey. Therefore, it came as no surprise that shortly after the Turkish announcement that it was increasing its military backing for the GNA, we learned Putin would be going to Ankara to meet with Erdogan to discuss Libya, among other regional matters. And, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the two announced their push for a cease-fire shortly after.
However, this cease-fire, led by Turkey and Russia, makes no strategic sense for Europe. The various foreign powers involved in Libya are essentially competing for influence for the day-after. That is, when the fighting finally stops and a new government is formed, much will be had to gain for the dominant foreign power, in terms of energy and infrastructure contracts, and influence over a massive coast-line in the middle of the Mediterranean. For the Europeans, there is the added element of illegal migrants, something the Russians might want to use in the future to pressure Europe.
Turkey’s sudden escalation of commitment, which comes just a few months after Russia’s escalation in the form of mercenaries, does not seem to be accidental, and Italy and the EU’s renewed push for a cease-fire therefore does not seem to be coordinated.
In essence, this is the very Russian-Turkish move to edge out the Europeans (and Americans) for increased influence in Libya that we predicted Russia was building already weeks ago. The two are vying for influence and resources with European powers like France and Italy playing what seems to be a complex game of geopolitical chess, Russia and Turkey came to become among the main foreign powers backing the opposing sides of the conflict. With Turkey, this was easier, since the EU and international community only officially support the GA, but no other major power backs them militarily (save for Italy’s coast guard support to halt the flow of immigrants). In the case of the LNA, Russia’s backing, while influential, still pales in comparison to what the UAE and Egypt currently provide.
The timing also doesn’t make sense if this was a coordinated move. The EU certainly also wants a cease-fire, but must ensure it is central to the process. Only Germany’s role, which never seemed to be jockeying for a day-after position, makes sense here. Germany wishes to host the Berlin conference, and therefore it seems to matter little to Berlin who is more influential over the process.
The EU, together with the US, should be wary of a cease-fire process dominated by Turkey and Russia. The two seem far more interested in controlling Libya’s resources than they do in improving the situation on the ground and creating stability. Strengthening their regional position is also crucial to Turkey’s, and by extension Russia’s move to block Greece- Cyprus- Israel – Egypt from establishing the gas pipeline in the Eastern Mediterranean.
If this theory pans out, as we predicted some weeks ago, then surely it would make far more sense for the EU, especially at this time, to push for a neutral third-party to govern a united Libya, one not beholden to either side. This seems to be the only sure-fire way to make sure Turkey and Russia don’t take full control over Libya when the fighting eventually comes to a halt. Given the two countries’ past regional involvement, this would not bode well for Libyans, for the European continent or the region.
Turkish policy analyst Sinen Ulgen, currently at Carnegie, writes that “Erdogan is taking a big gamble in Libya” since Turkey’s military assistance to the GNA exposes it to new risks. Ankara’s aim, he claims, is to achieve a military stalemate and force a political settlement. The question, however, is will this plan work in a “crowded field” with Egypt, the UA and Russia operating in favor of the LNA.
Ulgen explains that Turkey is motivated by a desire to protect its bilateral agreement regarding maritime borders, which allow it to claim economic exploration rights near Crete and Cyprus. Turkey and Greece, he notes, have been in negotiations over resources for decades with no solution. Turkey’s support for Muslim Brotherhood allied regimes has led to a regional rift between it and Egypt and Israel, who are aligned with Greece over the natural resources against Turkey. Therefore, Turkey had to break its isolation and give its claims some legitimacy. The GNA’s quid-pro-quo, he claims, was the second agreement for increased military support.
However, according to Ulgen, Turkey’s military engagement is the price it pays for the failure of its regional politics, which could jeopardise Turkey’s long-term geopolitical interests. Turkey essentially has to major challenges. The first is that unlike in Syria, there is little domestic support for a military campaign in Libya – only 34% of Turks polled are in favour while 58% are opposed. Thus a protracted campaign with Turkish casualties could cost Erdogan dearly. Second, Turkey does not have the military capacity to operate far from home, and will have difficulty establishing supply routes with rival Egypt next door. It also won’t be able to establish air superiority in comparison to UAE and Egyptian air power, that are able to use nearby Egypt as a staging base. Turkish UAV’s are no match for this.
Turkey seems aware of these limitations and is therefore showing it is intent on sending non-combatant advisers along with Syrian mercenaries – who can be effective in combat against other mercenaries and militias.
To preempt an Egyptian and Emirati escalation, Turkey seems to be working with Russia to push for a cease-fire on January 12. However, time will tell if Cairo or Abu Dhabi cooperate, and they are more influential over Haftar than is Russia. For this strategy to succeed, Turkey will have to prove its commitment is credible and military capabilities effective enough.
Turkish military strategists doubt the Turkish military's force-projection capabilities after it pledged to send troops to Libya. That is, since Libya is 2000 km away, with Egypt and Greece, Turkey's regional rivals, situated en-route. Turkey could send a symbolic force or support troops with little problem, but would have difficulty sending serious combat forces with any kind of heavy weaponry.
However, Erdogan, at least so far, has spoken of sending a naval force to protect Tripoli, and establish a no-fly zone to protect the GNA from LNA air strikes. It seems that the GNA is expecting a full spectrum combat force of land, sea and air elements that can give it a stronger negotiating position when talks resume.
According to Turkish military experts who spoke with Al-Monitor, meeting the GNA’s expectations would require at least 6 F-16 fighter jets and an AWAC system, a frigate, two or three gunboats, a submarine or two, and a brigade size contingent of infantry, around 3000 troops, complete with armor, mechanized capabilities and indirect fire support elements.
In other words, according to Al Monitor, Libya is likely to be a major test of what Turkish military planners can actually deliver versus what Erdogan and the GNA might wish to deploy. Unlike Turkey’s presence in Syria, which borders Turkey, Libya’s very location poses a new challenge to Turkey, not to mention rivals Greece and Egypt being situated in between. Moreover, unlike Syria in which Turkey faces militant groups, Libya would have Turkey face off against Egyptian, UAE and Russian backed forces – a task far more complex. The US and EU powers may also seek to increase their involvement were Turkey to deploy combat troops.
According to Al-Monitor, Erdogan’s surprise visit to Tunisia recently was an attempt to shore up Tunisian (and separately also Algerian) support for Turkey’s efforts to back the Islamist-leaning GNA. Turkey’s access to Tunisian and Algerian air and naval space and bases could be crucial to help transfer troops. But, so far, Tunisia and Algeria seem inclined to stay neutral in this conflict, while the former has offered to serve as a mediator between the GNA and Haftar.
This means that Turkey would have to make it largely on its own in order to project force. Its tactical assets, the F-16’s, have a limited combat radius and would need to make fuelling stops en-route – something that would be near impossible at this point, with no friendly bases on the way and with GNA air bases that lack such capability of supporting NATO-standard aircraft while under attack by the LNA’s air capabilities. Turkey also lacks any real heavy bomber capability that can deliver heavy firepower over Libya as needed. How would Turkey take into account Russian air defence systems or Egyptian or Emirati jets currently in action? Turkey’s naval capabilities would also be limited, as Turkey is about a decade away from having an amphibious assault vessel.
In short, if Turkey seeks to deploy a meaningful and sizeable force, to impose a no fly zone or naval blockade and secure GNA controlled areas, it will have serious challenges and limitations. Erdogan might seek to wield serious regional military power, but his wishes might be significantly limited by Turkey’s actual capabilities.
Turkey looking to take a page out of Russia’s playbook- Is there a bigger play at hand?
Turkey is looking to increase its influence in the region and specifically in Libya, making itself a power broker in both. There are numerous reports that beyond the official agreement in place, which will lead to an increase in the flow of support troops and equipment (the GNA is reportedly clearing space for a landing strip in Tripoli as we write), Turkey plans to take a page out of the Russian playbook and send mercenaries and militias. Hundreds and possibly thousands of Islamist-leaning rebels from Syria are being recruited to do Turkey’s dirty-work on behalf of the GNA.
It seems almost strange, however, that the two sometimes rivals sometimes partners, who are cooperating in Syria, seem to be supporting the opposing sides in Libya. Surely, Moscow would be torpedoing this move if it didn’t fit a larger strategy.
So it would seem that Turkey’s move in Libya fits the Russian master plan somehow. Since it lost the Cold War, Russia is trying to regain its position and influence in the world, and especially the Middle East, its back-yard. With the US taking a self-diminished role, Moscow is able to do that, first in Syria, now in Libya.
How does Turkey fit into that strategy? Here, analyst Ahmed Aboudouh in The Independent claims that Russia is taking advantage of Turkey’s regional ambitions to further its own regional goals. That is, using “disruptive diplomacy” in the Eastern Mediterranean and in Libya. The Turkish move in the Eastern Mediterranean is meant to head off the Greek/ Cyprus/ Israeli/ Egyptian move regarding the gas pipeline to Europe. We have discussed this before. Turkey feels left out, perhaps rightfully so. Russia too, it seems, would have much to lose if this pipeline goes through, as it would break Europe’s dependence on Russian gas flows.
Therefore, the gas issue puts Turkey naturally on Russia’s side.
This all makes sense so far. However, in Libya, this still doesn’t make sense. Unless, we realize that perhaps Moscow isn’t backing Haftar’s LNA really, at least not in the same way Turkey backs the GNA. Sure, Russia has provided crucial mercenaries and capabilities to the LNA but regularly denies this, while maintaining connections to the GNA. Russia is not interested in back a specific side… only the winning side. Putin and Erdogan are set to meet this week and discuss Libya, among other things.
No, it seems Russia gains from controlling the conflict. So long as it is doing enough to gain leverage as the main foreign backer on one side, it plays into its strategy to control the other foreign backer helping the other side. Both countries are now the two dominant foreign powers, or soon will be, in Libya, with the main goal to ensure no western country or other regional power is more dominant in Libya. We have written enough about why Libya is strategically important to both countries.
As Turkey walks into a regional gamble regarding the Eastern Mediterranean, and another in Libya, this will surely drive the Europeans and Americans away from Turkey and push Turkey straight into Moscow’s open arms, even if it seems they will be at odds. They won’t, because Turkey’s aggressive and provocative moves play into Russia’s bigger strategy for the region.
Moscow and Ankara will benefit from an uptick in chaos, which they can likely better stomach than democratic rivals in Europe and Washington. Turkey may end up getting some gas, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. The point seems to be making Turkey and Russia into regionally dominant powers, with Turkey’s moves playing nicely into Russia’s strategy – both on gas and in Libya. Otherwise, none of this would make sense.
Its not too late for Europe or Washington to stop this, and put forth a plan, as Aboudouh suggests, to limit Russia and Turkey, both in the Mediterranean and in Libya. Surely, both parts of the Libyan crisis have much more to gain from cooperation with the West than with the newly emerging Moscow-Ankara axis. The only question is will they get their act together fast enough. That, in the meantime, doesn’t seem to be happening.
All attention has been focused recently on Turkey’s moves in the Mediterranean – namely preempting a Greek-Cypriot-Israeli-Egyptian agreement to construct a gas pipeline through Greece into Europe by staking out economic zones, and an enhanced military agreement to more assertively back the Tripoli-based GNA and possibly send troops to Libya. The agreements have been described as a “desperate bid” to reshape the region in Turkey’s favour by merging together two separate crises. On this we and others have written extensively over the past two weeks.
Turkey’s moves were clear and even clever, if not brazen. Repercussions were soon to follow. Already, in the days following the announcement, Greece expelled Libya’s ambassador to Athens, issued a complaint at the UN and coalesced the EU around its position and against Turkey. Mostly recently, the Greek parliament said it was recognising the Tobruk House of Representatives as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. Meanwhile, Egypt has similarly made its disapproval known, including by conducting naval exercises in the Mediterranean and announcing it was going to "loan" the LNA additional tanks. Similarly, Cyprus recently spoke with regional leaders, including the King of Jordan, regarding the situation and ensuring his support.
Basically, Turkey found itself isolated in the region. We can all guess how this will play out from Turkey’s end, and most commentators have focused on Turkey’s motives and options – is it bluffing? Will it back down and seek a diplomatic solution? Or is it Turkey vs. quite literally everyone else, including the Israelis who are allied with Greece, Egypt and Cyprus closely on this issue?
What few have written about is the GNA. It is clear, and almost doesn’t warrant mentioning, that the GNA is desperate for allies. The international community officially recognises Tripoli, but far more countries actively back the LNA than do the GNA. Moreover, since Russian mercenaries have joined the fighting in late summer, reportedly, the LNA seems to be closing in fast around Tripoli, Misrata and other major GNA militia strongholds. We should say that is highly likely that it was not the GNA that wanted these agreements, but Turkey taking advantage of the GNA’s desperation for allies to suck it into this questionable Mediterranean gambit.
However, what the GNA perhaps did not take into account was that the Turkish move has, in effect, isolated the GNA as well, and may even be leading to the GNA losing its much-prized international recognition, really its only asset in this conflict. Already this week, Greece’s Foreign Minister visited Benghazi, Haftar is set to visit Athens in coming days, and the Greek parliament said it was recognising the Tobruk government and not Tripoli.
Moreover, Greek media reports are talking about a Greek and Egyptian naval coalition to “protect Libya’s territorial waters and confront any ships carrying both weapons and Jihadists, as well as Turkish army troops from Turkey to Libya. LNA naval forces are already harassing Turkish naval vessels in Libyan waters
The Greek move to openly receive Haftar and recognise Tobruk could signal a sea shift in European policy to the Libyan crisis. This is a development well worth following. It may just be that in its desperation to hold on to its only real backer in this crisis, Turkey, the GNA got sucked into a regional power struggle in which it was never really involved but will definitely pay the price.
For its part, the GNA should carefully consider what will help it survive – calling on Turkish military support or keeping its international legitimacy and recognition – because it doesn’t seem realistic it can have both. Ahead of the upcoming Berlin Summit, the GNA should take advantage of this small window where it continues to maintain international recognition and reach a diplomatic solution with Tobruk and the LNA. Continued fighting with Turkish backing will lead to a loss of legitimacy, while continued fighting without Turkish backing is bordering on the impossible.
The Wall Street Journal suggests that after reaching a military agreement with Russia regarding northern Syria, Turkey seems to be working to convince Moscow to cooperate in a similar manner in Libya as well.
The Turkish government is set to host Russian President Putin in the coming weeks (January 8), in order to discuss Libya, Syria and other foreign policy matters. Both countries see Libya as a strategic prize and are seeking to project their influence on the country, which is strategically located and has vast oil reserves. It was also once, and would be again, a valuable arms consumer for the two exporters.
Despite the military agreement and possibility that Turkey will send forces, partly to counter the influence of Russian mercenaries fighting for the opposition LNA, Turkey is wary of slipping into a full proxy war against Russia, so claims the WSJ. Rather, Turkey is like to try to establish a coordination mechanism with Russia to avoid confrontation. This could be to ensure Russian forces avoid targeting Turkish personnel on the ground, and possibly even to get Russia to withdraw its mercenaries, which it denies having connection to.
The article suggests, drawing on various analysts, that Russia, for its part, might be tempted to try to "lure" the NATO member out of the Western orbit fully and into Russia's orbit. Turkey has had increasing tensions with the US and Europe in recent years, and recently received advanced Russian missile defence technologies, something which has upset the US.
Analyst Jalel Harchaeoi, a Libya expert, suggested that Erdogan's bluster in recent months over Libya is more posturing than anything, ahead of his meeting with Putin. At most, Turkey might send its own version of Wagner, SADAT International Defence Consultancy, a private defence contractor, that could allow Turkey to increase its involvement with some deniability, much as Russia is doing.
This is certainly an interesting development, if it pans out, and one the US, Europe and the Arab world must be cautious. Russia and Turkey have already succeeded in carving up Syria for their own interests, and to Syria's detriment. If they seek to do the same in Libya, this would only bring more instability, as much as if the two seriously fought a proxy war through the two parties in the ongoing conflict.
Either situation reflects a lack of commitment and urgency on the part of the international community with much at stake. A scenario in which Turkey and Russia continue driving the conflict could drive out less committed foreign actors, allowing the two powers to "divide the spoils" the day after, with Russia taking energy contracts and Turkey reconstruction, perhaps, and both taking advantage of Libya's position to leverage Europe. The US and European powers, together with the Arab world, must work to limit Russia and Turkey's growing involvement, and push all sides to reach a diplomatic solution.
The Middle East affairs columnist at The Independent, Ahmed Aboudouh, wrote yesterday that Turkey's moves in Libya and the region are "risking a major Mediterranean conflict". Turkish President Erdogan is "upping the ante" in Libya, including through sending drones, armoured vehicles, special forces and even commando units, to "create a single strategic deadlock" between two ongoing conflicts - the one in Libya and the fight for natural resources in the Eastern Med.
The author further claims that Erdogan is doing this to distract from his worsening political status at home, as Turkey's Syria incursion falters - and has chosen Libya as the theatre. Erodgan's announcement about a beefed-up defence agreement, including the possibility of sending troops, along with the shared maritime border with the GNA, is meant to do just this.
It is on this point that we will only partially agree with Aboudouh. As we pointed out in a previous commentary on Turkey's motivations in Libya, Turkey is seeking to establish itself regionally, to challenge Europe, balance Russian ambitions, and win lucrative construction and energy contracts. Thus, Aboudouh's point is correct but only part of the picture. Where the author is spot-on however, is by pointing out that in doing so, Erdogan has "infuriated most of his neighbours" in the process.
Haftar's renewed push on Tripoli came in reaction to this GNA agreement with Ankara. Perhaps, sensing Turkey might tip the scales, Haftar felt his window of opportunity to take Tripoli was closing fast. Perhaps Russia's recent increase in support had enough of an effect. That is, Russia upped its support, maybe ahead of a UN push to end the conflict... Turkey and GNA respond with a defence pact.... and now Haftar backed by UAE, Egypt and others makes his big (and final?) push for Tripoli. No doubt Egypt's sending tanks (on lease no less) to Libya, and conducting naval manoeuvres are messages to Turkey.
The last five years, Aboudouh continues, saw Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt make major gas discoveries in the neighbourhood, leading the group to form the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, of which, Turkey was excluded. This move, in some ways, is Erdogan's form of payback to his regional rivals. However, Erdogan's redrawing of economic zone boundaries, that ignore Crete, as well as his glossing over of Cyprus' sovereignty, are truly creative. Aboudouh also claims they violate the Tripoli government's legitimacy too. Greece has filed a complaint at the UN, and the EU is protesting.
The biggest blunder Erdogan might make, according to Aboudouh, is if he decides to establish a military base in Libya. Given the relatively short distance between the two, its not clear why Turkey needs this. It is here we have to agree, at least in part, with Aboudouh. He points out, astutely, that domestic political opposition to Erdogan is growing and fast, as former senior political figures are forming new parties to challenge Erdogan and the AKP. Thus, Erdogan seems to be using a well known playbook to divert popular opinion - get involved in a foreign conflict. That is partly why he invaded Syria. However, in Syria, Erdogan was able to find an understanding with Russia, and much of the region is less invested. Syria is also conveniently on Turkey's border. It will be much harder to convince the Turkish voter that sending troops to Libya is worth the trouble, especially when so many in the region are directly opposed.
Aboudouh goes on to claim that Erdogan might even be seeking to take advantage of Washington's rivalry with Moscow, as Russia cements its presence in Libya for the day after, to have control of oil infrastructure. Since Haftar does not seem to have international support, Turkey will be the legitimate international power that can bring order to Libya, and gain Western legitimacy in being a counter-balance to Russia.
Aboudouh does not think Turkey is bluffing, even if this move is folly, and calls on Egypt and Greece to stand strong in the face of Erdogan's gamble, and avoid getting dragged into the major conflict he might be seeking.
If Aboudouh's assessment is correct, and this entire move is intended to bolster Erdogan's status at home, and help shore up his claims to Mediterranean energy stores, this is doubly so. The international community must present a coherent front to bring an end to the fighting in Libya. The GNA seems to lack the power or legitimacy to do so, especially if it becomes a Turkish puppet. But so does Haftar, even if he has more regional legitimacy. Its time the international powers, especially the US, Europe and the Arab countries, block the various foreign powers from further interference, and agree on a consensus figure that can unite and effectively govern.