Putin And Erdogan Fight For Dominance In Libya

Ever since the forced demise of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 through NATO’s half-hearted operation, the country has been plunged into intense instability and chaos. Instead of introducing democracy to the North African country, the events of 2011 created a power vacuum which two alternative factions – backed by different global and regional players – are trying to fill.

Libya In A Nutshell: The GNA Versus The LNA

On the one hand, there is the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) with control over Tripoli and the surrounding areas while the oil-rich east is ruled by the rebel leader Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA), which earlier in April launched an offensive to take the capital. 

The events since then have led to polarization not only within the country but also in the international arena as Libya’s conflict was quickly co-opted by other playersin the neighborhood and beyondwho are trying to secure their own interests. For example, the GNA government – given its Islamist inclinations – has its key allies in Turkey and Qatar, two countries that have previously thrown their weight behind the Muslim Brotherhood in other states too. Beyond that, the GNA also draws some verbal support from the US and other major powers such as Libya’s former colonizer Italy.

In contrast, Egyptunder Abdel Fateh al-Sisi, a ruthless opponent of the Brotherhoodand the United Arab Emirates are backing Haftar’s militia given its anti-Islamist (and dictatorial) ideology. Then there is Russia, which has an on-ground presence through its mercenary forces, the so-called Wagner Group, aiding Haftar’s rebel group. 

Ankara And Moscow: Opposite Sides Of The Battle Line In Libya

Even in a multilateral battleground like that of Libya’s with many foreign powers involved, two actors lately seem to be emerging on the top and calling the shots: Turkey and Russia. Ankara last month signed two memorandums of understanding with Tripoli on military cooperation and maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean. Thanks to the first one, Turkey is now considering deploying troops on Libyan soil to aid the GNA government, and has already sent a bill in this regard to its parliament. Bloomberg even reported that Turkey plans to deploy factions of Syrian rebels and militants under its control.

Turkey’s decision warranted a strong reaction from Libya’s eastern parliament’s head, Aguila Saleh, who termed the offer unacceptable. Egypt’s Sisi and France’s Emmanuel Macron also held a meeting on the development and called for greater restraint, while Italy’s leader Giuseppe Conte proposed a no-fly zone.  

The second of the two pacts extends Turkey’s maritime borders to the Derna-Tobruk coast in Libya, creating an exclusive economic zone. This irritated not only the existing party Egypt – who called it illegal – but also long-time rival Greece. The Southern Cyprus also expressed its concern and displeasure at this agreement. 

With France’s support for Haftar largely limited to the extent of protecting its oil interests and the US taking a passive role at best, Russia has quickly expanded its sphere of influence. The Kremlin already has on-ground presence through its shadow mercenaries in the Wagner Group. 

The GNA’s Fading Power

Since the April offensive when Haftar’s forces stepped up their efforts to take the capital, the GNA government has seen waning on-ground support, raising questions about its legitimacy. In this context, Turkey’s pledge of troops deployment is a welcome move for the troubled Tripoli-based administration and is expected to restore some balance between the two opposite camps. 

Despite their support for the rival groups, Ankara and Moscow haven’t let it adversely impact their bilateral ties significantly at this point. In mid-December, Vladimir Putin and Moscow had a phone call to discuss the situation in Libya and Syria and seemed to reach an understanding that limits any fallout from their direct dealings. That is evident from the fact that Turkey just recently bought Russian S-400 missiles. How long can they keep playing their cards like this without relations breaking down over Libya remains to be seen.