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.