Shortly after signing the landmark TurkStream agreement in Istanbul last week, the Russian and Turkish presidents proceeded to issue a joint statement; not surprisingly, their speech has not been limited to the colossal energy deal but highlighted the remarkable geopolitical footprint of the two sides in the south-eastern Mediterranean.
Syria as a regional example – in Putin’s words
Vladimir Putin has paid a brief last-minute visit to Damascus just before meeting Erdogan in Istanbul. According to the Russian President, Syria sets a regional example of how to achieve stability and manage a tremendous humanitarian and geopolitical crisis, in a country that has been suffering from an internal conflict for almost a decade and has been several times in the verge of collapse in the recent past. Now, as President Assad has secured his position and the country is gradually returning to a “state condition” probably for the first time since 2011, President Putin emphasized Russia’s role as a stability guarantor, and directly compared and criticized the numerous mistakes and wrong moves of the West that turned Libya to a failed state. The persistent pressure from Western countries, especially France, to topple Muammar Gaddafi, dragged the country into a grave civil war, with unprecedented consequences.
Libya; different proxies, common ground
This “Western incompetency” is also responsible for the current power vacuum in Libya, as the two Presidents have pointed from Istanbul. Two main rival fractions are dominating the Libyan front, with Moscow and Ankara putting their money on different sides this time. The Tripoli-based and UN-recognized Government of National Accord under the Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj is currently being drastically supported by the Turkish President. On the other hand, Russia stands behind General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army, which already possesses most of the Libyan territory and most recently managed to cease control of Sirte, a port city of strategic importance, located between Tripoli and Benghazi.
Even though Erdogan and Putin have crucial differences when it comes to Libya, they managed to come up with a cease-fire proposal, just after their agreement on the TurkStream pipeline, a project that will significantly upgrade the international standing of both countries and will have a considerable geopolitical impact on Europe as a whole, considering all the energy security parameters and implications. The cease-fire proposal that has been accepted by the opposing sides in Libya, might be a fragile one, yet it is a plan that has been approved by the parties involved, putting Ankara and Moscow’s influence in the country beyond question. This is the very reason why Turkey and Russia found common ground and managed to achieve what the EU and Western powers have been failing to do so far. A cease-fire agreement makes Erdogan and Putin de facto players in the Libyan crisis negotiations, just like the way Moscow managed to establish its role in Syria, consolidating their image as international power brokers.
EU role in Libya and beyond
Vladimir Putin has also disparaged from Istanbul the Western and EU reaction to the escalating tension between Iran and the US, which has been triggered by Soleimani’s killing. Focusing on the Libyan front, in fact, the European Union has done too little too late. Even though the Tripoli government has been officially recognized by the UN and most western countries, the European Union failed to react or simply ignored Saraj’s calls for support. Therefore, the Tripoli government had to eventually turn to Erdogan for military and logistical assistance alongside diplomatic and political backing. The vital space that Ankara exploited has been created by the European absence from the crisis.
President Putin met Angela Merkel in Moscow on Saturday 11 January 2020, and the Libyan crisis has been among the top issues in their agenda, alongside their backing for JCPOA and their plans for NordStream. Regarding Libya, albeit the differences between Putin and the German Chancellor, it has been clear that both sides look forward to initiating the talks for the de-escalation of the crisis, in order to establish a functional Libyan state again. Merkel has been particularly interested in the Libyan developments, as Berlin is going to host the Libya peace conference later this month, according to German officials.
On the same day, Erdogan has welcomed in the Dolmabahçe Palace, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel. President Michel embraced the Erdogan-Putin joint statement on a ceasefire and welcomed the support of the Turkish President for the Berlin peace negotiations. Erdogan has also hosted Sarraj in Istanbul on the 12th of January; the Libyan GNA leader visited Turkey after talking with several EU leaders last week.
Currently, the situation in Libya remains highly unstable, with both sides accusing each other of breaching the fragile ceasefire agreement; the escalation of hostilities could be triggered again anytime. Numerous countries are working towards a peace plan, with all sides pointing towards a political solution, as the most appropriate -if not the only- one for the country. Whichever the course of the events is from now on, crucial developments should be expected in the days and weeks to come.