How the Russia-Turkey geopolitical binary continues in Libya

Turkey’s intervention in the Libyan conflict proved decisive in tipping the balance of military force towards Ankara’s allies in the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.

Similar support for Azerbaijan in clashes with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in the Caucasus, an increasingly assertive stance against Greece and Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, and a series of military operations in Syria, have all seen Turkey exert its regional influence in the absence of U.S. leadership, often against the interests of Russia.          

Analyst Nikola Mikovic looks at how this dynamic has played out in Libya, where Ankara’s strategy is being shaped by relations with both Moscow and Washington.

 

Russia and Turkey - allies and enemies at the same time - used the United States’ “absence” from the Middle East and North Africa to increase their influence in the region. America’s expected “return” to the global arena under President Joe Biden means that Washington will face a new reality on the ground where Moscow and Ankara are strengthening their positions.

Nowhere is this most glaringly obvious than in Libya, where a new interim government was appointed at the end of a U.N.-sponsored meeting last week. And no issue drives the Moscow-Ankara axis of defiance against Washington as much as energy.

Energy is one of the most important segments in relations between Russia and Turkey, between whom trade reached U.S. $26.3 billion in 2019. Russia’s state-owned nuclear-energy giant, Rosatom, is building a nuclear plant in Turkey’s Mersin province. The Akkuyu plant, when completed in 2024, will provide about 10 percent of Turkey’s electricity.

Of course, Turkey will still be highly dependent on fossil fuel, and for that it will, again, remain highly dependent on Russia, principally for natural gas through the TurkStream pipeline.

This, however, does not mean Ankara has put all its eggs in one basket. Turkey already is trying to diversify its gas supplies.

Enter Libya. Turkey’s activities in Libya, including a maritime border deal, could eventually allow Ankara to extract natural gas directly from the Mediterranean, instead of buying it from Russia. (Admittedly, this possibility is fraught with many difficulties.)

But it is also in Libya that Ankara and Moscow confront each other in geo-strategic competition - and the United Nations’ Libyan Political Dialogue Forum that ended last week won’t change anything.

Over the past few years, Turkey has secured a long-term military-political presence in Libya, whose oil reserves are believed to be the largest in Africa and the ninth-largest in the world. But to secure the oil, and potentially natural-gas supplies, Turkey must establish control over Libya’s energy-rich Sirte province.

Those plans now look troubled, at least for now. Ankara’s attempts to use proxies to advance through the town of Sirte to the oilfields of Cyrenaica last year were unsuccessful. Now, with an interim government agreed, further military action is unlikely for the moment.

This leaves the Libyan National Army (LNA) under Khalifa Haftar in control over large parts of the oil industry and port facilities on the coast. Turkey recently accused Haftar, who launched an oil blockade and closed oil wells in the war-torn country for months, of selling oil through illegal corporations. Doing so allowed Haftar to raise more funds and to maintain support from foreign players.

While Turkey still has partial control over oilfields in western Tripolitania, it considers this only a consolation prize. The province of Sirte is key to its calculations. That’s why Ankara will keep strengthening its position in the eastern region and to look for ways to establish at least partial control over assets there.

To this end, it has the support of Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, the designated prime minister from the west of the country that is under the control of the Turkey-sponsored Government of National Accord, who called Turkey his country’s “friend and ally.”

On the other side of the country, Mohamed al-Manfi, the head of the new three-man Presidential Council, was reassured that Moscow, a sponsor of the LNA, would press on and strengthen Russian-Libyan cooperation.

The result is that, an east-west interim government notwithstanding, the Russia-Turkey geopolitical binary continues in Libya. Both will be heavily involved in the ongoing peace and political processes, as well as preparations for December elections - which are already viewed by some with much skepticism.

But apart from a statement issued at the end of the U.N. meeting - a joint statement at that, with Britain, France, Germany and Italy - the U.S. remains largely absent.

It has been said that Moscow managed to gain a foothold in the region because Barack Obama allowed it. As for Turkey, a lack of consistent policy direction from the Donald Trump administration opened up opportunities that Ankara gladly exploited.

Indeed, analysts have mulled over how Turkey might park its soon-to-be-commissioned aircraft carrier offshore Libya as a game-changer - such is the level of strategic boldness being contemplated in the absence of a robust American commitment.

Already entrenched in the region for years, Russia and Turkey (but also Iran and China) are expected to keep spreading their influence despite the U.S. “return”.

(Note to the Biden team: Issuing an earlier statement from the U.N. calling on Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates to leave Libya alone doesn’t quite carry the same force than if it were issued from the White House or State Department. Unless, of course, the administration didn’t really mean much by it.)

For the moment, the unlucky recipient of such great foreign attention is Libya. Watch it closely for how the game might progress.

(This article was originally provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.)