The prospect of a Turkish troop deployment in Libya could prompt Russia to balance its interests and steer clear of warlord Khalifa Haftar.
The Syrian regime's new offensive on the east of the opposition-held Idlib province and the growing presence of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner company on the front line of the Libyan LNA militia led by warlord Khalifa Haftar have raised question marks in Ankara about Moscow's true intentions as a party to the conflict.
Along with Italy, which is increasingly taking Haftar's side, Turkey is considered the most important supporter of the internationally recognised Government of National Unity (GNA) in Tripoli. As in Syria, where Turkey supports the opposition, Ankara is convinced that there is no military solution to the Libyan conflict.
Under this impression, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on December 11. While the upcoming Putin visit to Turkey for the inauguration of the TurkStream gas pipeline was discussed, the conflicts in Syria and Libya were also on the agenda. As the Moscow-bound Turkish delegation returned on Tuesday, it was announced that the Turkish parliament will decide on January 7 about sending troops to Libya. The move could be Turkey's message to the Kremlin that it's determined to support the GNA, as Putin is expected in Turkey the following day on January 8.
If Turkish troops truly landed in Libya, Khalifa Haftar's fantasy of being an omnipotent force will receive a serious battering. This would however mean a maximum escalation of a conflict which, from a Turkish perspective, should be settled diplomatically.
According to an AP news agency report, the GNA government in Tripoli documented between 600 and 800 Russian mercenaries in the ranks of Haftar's LNA militia. According to a US official from the State Department, it is noteworthy that the Russian mercenary units were unable to change the military balance in favour of Haftar.
"It causes a bloodier conflict. But at the same time we don't see that Haftar is gaining ground," the US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Erdogan also upped the ante saying Turkey can put boots on the ground. "There is a security company from Russia [in Libya] called Wagner. This company has sent its security personnel there. On the question of sending soldiers: If Libya makes such a request to us, we can send our personnel there, especially after we have made the military security agreement,” he recently said.
These statements and the fact that a Turkish military and secret service delegation has been in Moscow since Monday suggest that Russia may have an interest in holding direct talks with Turkey.
This is because Ankara makes it difficult for Russia to achieve three important goals in Libya. Russia wants them to unite under one hat in order to gain influence on Libya's military, political and ultimately energy policy issues. To achieve this, Russia must achieve three goals, which are being questioned by Turkey:
- To give Haftar a military monopoly
- To force the GNA to bend the knee to Haftar and give him international legitimacy
- Post-war Libya National Oil Corporation (NOC), which is to grant Russian energy companies preferential access to energy reserves
Can Russia go alone in Libya and Syria?
The Kremlin is aware that despite escalating superiority it cannot end the Syrian conflict without Turkey.
The balance of power is similar in Libya, although Russia has counted on the element of surprise of the Haftar offensive on the Libyan capital. The result: diplomatic channels are running hot.
According to Al-Monitor, two sources from the Russian foreign and defence ministry finally spoke of a potentially "important initiative" on Libya after the visit of the Turkish military delegation. The two countries could launch this together after the meeting of both presidents.
The Middle East expert at the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs (RIAS) Kirill Semenov told TRT World:
"Of course, Russia and Turkey will be able to adjust their steps in Libya and Syria through some compromises. In general, I think that these talks in themselves should not be seen as unexpected or caused by the deterioration of the situation in Idlib."
Semenov summarised in his recent article that despite its penchant for supporting Haftar, Moscow is hedging its bets by maintaining its relations with Tripoli, notably through contracts signed by Russian oil and gas companies with the Libyan NOC in December.
Omer Ozkizilcik, the Turkish security expert of the research institute SETA, is not of the opinion in the discussion with me that the recent developments in Libya and Syria are necessarily causally connected:
"Nevertheless, Russia would like to use Libya to have stronger cards in Syria. However, the Libyan conflict is much more complicated than the Idlib, where in fact only Turkey and Russia determine developments.”
Russia wants to give political legitimacy to a warlord
Russia's great disadvantage in Libya, unlike in Syria, is the fact that it supports an internationally unrecognised warlord who does not even have authority over the oil that is in its control areas. This right is only vested in the country's state-owned oil company, the so-called National Oil Corporation (NOC), which has its headquarters in Tripoli.
Officially, Russia therefore follows the "principle of equidistance with all actors" in Libya. Russia does not proceed according to the principle of black and white thinking, as many experts with memories of the Soviet Union often try to suggest. On the contrary, Russia puts its interests first and acts pragmatically.
But since the Kremlin expects in the long term that Libya needs a strong leader like Muammar Gaddafi in his time, it is putting its voice above all for the warlord Haftar. Decision-makers in Moscow are ideologically shaped by the idea that a leader like Haftar will have the last word in post-war Libya.
With peace talks led by Germany due to take place in Berlin later this year, Russia is trying to strengthen its cards through Haftar's aggressive offensive on Tripoli. Appropriately, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Sakharova claimed that the Turkish-Libyan memorandum on closer military cooperation "could disrupt preparations for an international meeting on a Libyan settlement to be held in Berlin later this year".
Russia wants to have a say in Libya's future
Russia hopes to gain a decisive place at the negotiating table in Berlin where the future of the oil-rich North African state will be determined.
Russia's main problem with Turkey is that it is unwilling to legitimise a warlord like Haftar, who is also supported by France, Egypt's coup-generated president Abdelfattah al Sisi and the United Arab Emirates - all regional opponents of Turkey. Turkish sovereignty in the maritime border conflict with Greece is also linked to the events in Tripoli.
The question that arises is not whether Turkey and Russia will reach diplomatic understanding, but how far an understanding can influence the dynamics on Libyan soil, while the Emirates and Egypt are likely to stick to their course.
Ankara assumes that Russia could act pragmatically. The Libya expert Semenov points out that ultimately Turkey and Russia are pursuing the same geopolitical goals - only in different ways. This could continue to be the basis for both sides to take at least coordinated action in the future.
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