Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Minster of Defense Sergei Shoigu were expected to meet their Turkish counterparts in Istanbul on June 14. In a surprising statement, on the day of the planned meeting, it was announced that the visit of the Russian Ministers would be postponed to a later date without any further details from either side. This unexpected development raised concerns around a potential escalation between the two sides, with regards to their proxy military operations abroad.
What Was the Agenda of the Meeting?
The Libyan and the Syrian conflicts were ostensibly at the top of the planned meeting’s agenda, and probably disagreements over those two issues have been the very reasons behind the cancellation.
In Syria, Idlib remains the last stronghold of the anti-government forces, with a solid presence of jihadist groups, some of which had previously established a modus vivendi with Turkey, in an anti-Assad consensus. At the moment, a coalition of al-Qaeda and former Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) subgroups is in the making. Al-Jihad Coordination, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, Hurras al-Din, al-Muqatileen al-Ansar Brigade, and Jabhat Ansar al-Din are also coordinating to bolster their operational capabilities.
This development puts even more pressure on Ankara, which has now been caught between the Kremlin-Damascus axis on the one hand, and the regional ambitions of the jihadist groups on the other. Turkey has tried to enhance its footprint in Idlib through fragile and opportunistic deals with anti-government forces, but the confrontation between Ankara and Moscow in early 2020 proved that the Turkish aspirations were unrealistic.
On the other hand, Turkey has managed to counterbalance the situation in Libya and turn the conflict in favor of Government of National Accord (GNA) leader Fayez al-Sarraj. Considering the latest military successes of the GNA forces, the Kremlin has been seeking to win time for the Libyan National Army (LNA) and General Khalifa Haftar. Even though Russia has consistently highlighted their intention to put an end to the long-term conflict without explicitly favoring any of the opposing sides, the Kremlin has been assisting the LNA and has been seeking to limit the extensive influence of the UN-recognized and Turkish-backed GNA.
After recapturing critical LNA bases and infrastructure, GNA forces are now pushing towards Sirte. Sirte, a port city between Tripoli and Benghazi and Muammar’s Ghaddafi hometown, was briefly captured by ISIS when the terrorist group was on its rise back in 2015; since then, the area has changed hands between GNA and LNA forces, and at the moment it constitutes a point of strategic significance for Haftar. A potential fall of Sirte could be a catalyst for the ultimate LNA defeat. A possible — even temporary — ceasefire and easing on the GNA’s pressure on Sirte was certainly among the Russian priorities during the scheduled meeting.
Implications Behind the Postponement
Turkish claims over Libya seem to have been the key factor for the cancellation. As Turkey strives to make the best of the latest tactical gains across the Libyan territory and turn the current situation to a strategic victory, easing the pressure on LNA might be perceived by Turkish officials as an unacceptable misstep. Capturing Sirte is the immediate objective for Ankara. Meanwhile, the Kremlin assesses any potential negotiation while Sirte is under siege as a no-go. At the same time, Ankara is considering officially setting up military bases in Western Libya. Such a development would expand further the Turkish footprint in North Africa, another thorn not only for the Kremlin, but also for Cairo.
Libya presents a case, where vital interests of several players are at stake. Turkey has invested in its strong and influential position in the country, as a critical means to boost its energy and security policy in the Mediterranean. The Turkish-Libyan maritime pact has long been an issue of international dispute and criticism, however if Ankara consolidates its presence in Libya, then the scenario of applying the controversial Turkish energy agenda at the expense of Greece is much more plausible.
The Kremlin’s POV
The Kremlin does not approve of Sarraj having dominance, as this would almost vanish the Russian influence in the country; the most favorable scenario for the Kremlin at the moment would be a Libyan state where the power would be equally shared among the current major players of the conflict, securing the long-term Russian interests in the country, as per the current alliances. At the same time, the Egyptian al-Sisi government is the most worried party about the Libyan developments, since a potential Sarraj victory could be seen as a time-bomb along Egypt’s country’s border. Sarraj’s affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood could trigger unprecedented political developments in Egypt and al-Sisi’s options would be significantly constrained, if the GNA gains control of all of Libya.
All the aforementioned factors have created an uncertain context, blocking the progress of the negotiations between Russia and Turkey. In addition there was another incident that has affected the situation which has not been deeply examined. On June 14, the day that Cavusoglu and Akar were due to meet their Russian counterparts, an interesting statement was made by the Russian Ambassador to Greece Andrey Maslov. According to the state-owned Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (ERT), Maslov mentioned in an interview last Sunday, that the Greek islands undoubtedly have Exclusive Economic Zone and their rights cannot be disputed according to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Turkey has resolutely rejected this claim, as Ankara is not a signatory of the convention. Furthermore, Erdogan is trying to push his very own agenda in the eastern Mediterranean, vaguely interpreting international law to serve Turkish objectives. This statement by the Russian ambassador should be added to the ongoing Russian-Turkish fallout.