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Turkey, Russia will implement Syria scenario in Libya

Jun 02,2020 - Last updated at Jun 02,2020

The protracted nine-year-old Libyan conflict is quickly turning into another Syria; ironically with the same two main state actors, Russia and Turkey, clinching the balance of power and supporting opposite sides. Turkish supported fighters of the UN recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) have scored several gains recently against forces fighting under the banner of the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by renegade general Khalifa Haftar. The most important victory was the capture of the strategic Al Watiya air base on the outskirts of Tripoli more than two weeks ago.

The fall of the air base signalled a reversal in the fortunes of Haftar, who a year ago launched a military campaign to “liberate” western Libya from the GNA after talks to implement a political deal had collapsed. Until Turkey’s direct intervention last January, the GNA appeared to be on the brink of defeat after Haftar’s forces broke through the southern districts of the capital Tripoli.

Turkey is accused of dispatching thousands of Syrian mercenaries to Libya as well as drones and armoured vehicles, thus violating UN sanctions. On the other hand, Russia has been tacitly backing Haftar through military contractors, but last week it was reported that Moscow had sent 14 MiG 29 and Su-24 fighter jets to the LNA’s Jufra air base in central Libya. This could be crucial to keeping Haftar in the game. Turkish drones have been instrumental in destroying LNA’s air defences. The Libyan quagmire had seen foreign players taking sides, with Egypt and the UAE supporting Haftar and Turkey, with the hesitant backing of Tunisia and Algeria, defending the GNA under Prime Minister Fayez Al Sarraj.

But Haftar may have undermined his own position years after emerging as the uncontested ruler of eastern Libya. Last April, he absolved himself of the Skhirat agreement of 2015 and declared himself sole ruler of Libya; a move that was condemned by key international players as well as members of the Tobruk based parliament. Instead, speaker of parliament Aguila Saleh proposed an initiative to reach a political solution to the Libyan crisis.

With UN mediation failing to implement the Skhirat agreement and ending the deep rift between Tripoli and Benghazi, Turkey, and now Russia, have used the vacuum to bolster their own positions in the key North African country. The “Syrianisation” of the Libyan crisis is not far fetched. Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin had clashed in Syria before reaching a deal to jointly manage the Syrian crisis, at least in northern Syria. Now a similar scenario is unfolding in Libya and it underlines a new geopolitical reality that is marked by US lack of strategy and European divisions.

The possibility of Turkish-Russian collaboration in Libya, where both sides create a foothold and jointly benefit from the country’s riches is cause for concern, especially for Egypt. Turkey has been challenging Greece, Cyprus and Egypt over East Mediterranean gas fields and Erdogan has been condemned for signing a maritime demarcation accord with Libya. It is clear that Turkey’s objectives in Libya are long term.

The US, which has expressed concern over Russia’s deployment of fighter jets in Libya, appears to be content with Turkey’s role so far. Last week, a statement by the US embassy in Tripoli said that “the United States is proud to partner with the legitimate, UN-recognised government of Libya.” It also slammed “forces seeking to impose a new political order [in Libya] by military means or terrorism.” Such a position strengthens Turkey’s mission in Libya at a time when Haftar appears to be the aggressor and the one rejecting a political settlement.

That leaves the EU which, as to be expected, is divided over the Libyan crisis. France, unlike Italy, finds itself in alignment with Russia in backing Haftar, but is unable to embrace a clear policy other than to underline the threat of a chaos in Libya to European interests. The failure of Libyan parties to implement the understandings reached at the Berlin conference last January has, for now, crippled any credible political process. For Washington, backing Ankara in Libya is one way of offsetting the rising Russian influence in eastern Libya. On the other hand, Cairo’s qualms about the GNA’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood will not be eased by Erdogan’s increasing presence in the neighbouring country.

For now, the possibility of Turkey and Russia clashing directly in Libya seems remote. The more plausible scenario is that the two powers will find a way to impose a ceasefire, which is backed by almost all regional and international players, by controlling their proxies while seeking to reach an understanding on reviving political efforts. Saleh’s initiative may provide the basis for renewed political efforts if Haftar reaches the conclusion that his ambition of ruling over all of Libya is no more. Meanwhile, it is Russia and Turkey that appear to be in the driving seat now. Each is now able to implement its own self-serving agenda.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

 

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