Ankara and Moscow—trying to avoid a proxy war with each other—are enhancing their efforts to find common ground in Libya, albeit both sides are completely aware that the road in front of them is likely to be extremely bumpy. If everything goes right during the planned visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Turkey on January 8, a new joint initiative, very likely inspired by the Astana model implemented in Syria, is expected to be announced by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian guest. The two leaders will also inaugurate the strategic TurkStream natural gas pipeline that will carry Russian gas to Europe via Turkey.
Turkey’s Point-Of-View On Libya
Ankara is supporting the UN-recognized Fayez al-Sarraj administration known as the Government of National Accord (GNA). It is based in the capital Tripoli. In November, Turkey signed two Memorandums of Understanding with the GNA. The first one is on maritime boundaries of countries in the eastern Mediterranean region. It establishes a borderline between Turkey and Libya that made them maritime neighbors and enormously benefits the two parties’ strategic interests including offshore gas interests. The move created a huge reaction especially from Athens since with the deal, Ankara and Tripoli claim a large part of Greeks’ and Greek Cypriots’ assumed maritime rights. The other deal is on security and military cooperation, which provides Ankara with the legal base to support the GNA.
Moscow on the other hand, is also maintaining contacts with the other parties, and is mainly backing Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar whose LNA military forces control the eastern part of Libya and have started an offensive to capture Tripoli. Russia has reportedly installed private military contractors to help as well. Turkey has announced its readiness to dispatch some form of military forces, while Haftar’s supporters claim that there are already Turkish special forces on the ground.
Intense Bargaining Continues Between Erdogan And Putin
A tentative agreement describing a commitment “not to fight each other and facilitate an immediate cease-fire in Libya” was apparently achieved during recent telephone conversations between Erdogan and Putin on Dec. 11 and Dec. 17. It was further improved at the negotiations of a high-level Turkish delegation consisting of the Deputy Foreign Minister and top defense, intelligence and national security officials in Moscow on December 24. The negotiations reportedly also included consideration and discussion of the latest situation in Idlib and lasted three days between the Russian and Turkish officials with sometimes intense bargaining.
Ankara is trying to reach a new ceasefire after the heavy offensive of the Russian and Syrian regime forces in Idlib, to prevent mass migration which it says it cannot sustain on top of its already large numbers of Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey. Moscow, on the other hand, is using the fighting in Idlib as a bargaining chip in order to get concessions on Libya, according to some speculation. Yet despite the huge conflict of interests, the contacts between the parties are continuing around the clock thanks to the understanding created by the Astana process.
An Astana-Style Peace Process Could Create Synergy On Libya
The Astana peace process launched by Moscow, Ankara and Teheran, aimed to end the Syrian conflict in January 2017 paved the way for collaboration between the three parties even though they had competing and sometimes conflicting interests. Even though it has been a rough process with lots of ups and downs and the conditions in Libya are much different from Syria, “the Astana spirit” could once again create synergy between Ankara and Moscow.
In Syria, the common interest between the parties was and is the territorial integrity of Syria. In Libya on the other hand, a shared interest could be to promote Russian and Turkish interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and create a joint strategy that will benefit all parties.
According to Russian sources, although Moscow sees Ankara’s rising power in the East Med as a positive development it has other priorities it wants to pursue order to promote a multi-polar international system (meaning lessening Western influence) in the region. Moscow’s multi-polar priorities include: protecting the territorial integrity of Libya, putting an end to the civil war through the resumption of peace talks between the fighting parties and most importantly the elimination of the radical Islamic elements fighting in Libya on behalf of the GNA which Moscow sees as terrorists backed by Ankara. In return, Moscow would support Ankara’s aspirations in the East Med. This could be a winning Astana-style formula to bring the disputatious sides together.
Creating De-escalization Zones Is Also On The Table
Creating de-escalation zones, just like in Syria, under the responsibility of Ankara starting with Libya’s strategic Misrata region is also on the table. Moscow is reportedly welcoming such an option and Ankara is evaluating it. Since Moscow will be able to stop Haftar’s attack on Tripoli and Ankara can restrain the GNA and its supporters, a ceasefire seems achievable if Ankara will not dispatch Turkish troops as Erdogan vows. Erdogan, during his surprise visit to Tunisia on Dec.25, called for an immediate declaration of a ceasefire in Libya while repeating his pledge to send Turkish troops to support the GNA.
Erdogan Sees Sending Turkish Troops To Libya As Vital
The Erdogan administration sees sending troops to Libya as inevitable and necessary in order to tip the balance of power in favor of the GNA despite the objections of the opposition. The opposition parties argue that such a move would drag Turkey into Libya’s civil war.
Yet according to the assessment of defence analyst Can Kasapoglu of the Turkish think-tank EDAM, “bulky conventional formations of the Turkish Armed Forces operating in the Libyan territory” should not be expected, “nor the Turkish Air Force operating from GNA bases.” Therefore, according to Kasapoglu, “Ankara is likely to pursue a dual-track roadmap in Libya. In the short run, Turkey is likely to dispatch a capable military advisory mission and to boost arms transfers to the GNA. In the long run, Ankara will probably encourage private military compounds to be set up and used for expeditionary roles in high-risk territories and training activities for friendly forces.” He concludes that “although defending the GNA serves Ankara’s strategic interests, doing so in an open-ended conflict could lead to an unfavorable trajectory.” Meanwhile, the relations between Ankara and Moscow, and especially Putin’s forthcoming visit remain key factors to monitor.
Putin And Erdogan Can Work Together
In an article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Libyan expert Emadeddin Badi underlined that Russia and Turkey are filling the vacuum created by the inaction of the US and Europe in Libya. Therefore, Putin can gain tremendous influence on the ground and appear as a power broker if he becomes involved. Erdogan on the other hand by “pursuing his ongoing and direct negotiations with Putin will ultimately undermine the political efforts of all other Haftar supporters,” according to Badi.
Badi concludes that “ideologically and operationally, both Putin and Erdogan have pre-existing areas of cooperation that could be leveraged in Libya, making this rapprochement all the more plausible. Much like Russia’s control over Haftar’s political legitimacy, the GNA’s destiny is in Turkey’s hands, with all other players gradually losing relevance.” Yet even Badi foresees that an Ankara-Moscow rapprochement could create temporary calm or provide short-term stability, as he notes that “it will not be enough to temper the interference of other players, nor will it bring Libyans to the table.”
Upcoming Berlin Conference Will Focus On Libya
Both Putin and Erdogan announced their eagerness to work with Western parties to stop the bloodshed in Libya and their support for the German peace initiative. A Libya Conference is expected to be held in January in Berlin. Although Ankara is invited to the conference, the harsh Western reactions to the deals it has signed with Libya and the prolonged isolation of Turkey in the Mediterranean by Greece, Greek Cypriots, Israel and Egypt with backing from the US and EU are likely to push Ankara further into the arms of Russia. Astana style cooperation in Libya between the two parties would only accelerate such a move by Turkey away from the West.