Turkey and Russia’s joint call for a ceasefire in Libya

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin met in Istanbul on Jan. 8 to inaugurate the TurkStream gas pipeline that runs from the southeastern Russian port of Anapa to Turkey’s coastal town of Kıyıköy near the border with Bulgaria. 

The two leaders used the opportunity to exchange views on several other issues, including the critical refugee situation in Idlib, oil and gas drilling in the eastern Mediterranean, and heightened tension in Libya.

This article will focus on the Libyan crisis. 

Two memoranda of understanding that Turkey and Libya signed on Nov. 27 changed several paradigms in the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. One of them concerned military cooperation between Turkey and Libya. Erdoğan announced that “if the internationally recognised government of Libya (Government of National Accord operating in Tripoli) asks for Turkey’s assistance, Turkey would take necessary steps to fulfil this request”.

The most critical aspect of this initiative is that Turkish and Russian armies will find themselves on the opposing sides, because there are Russian Wagner legion fighters on the side of Khalifa Haftar, whose forces are fighting the Tripoli government. The two leaders did the right thing under the prevailing circumstances in Libya – they invited the fighting parties to cease fire by Jan. 12. 

The Tripoli government accepted the offer while general Haftar hesitated. He first refused the proposal, continued his military action and seized the coastal city of Sirte. Though the government claimed that it withdrew its forces from the city in order to avoid civilian casualties, it is widely acknowledged that the Tripoli lost the battle. It is unclear whether Turkey’s military assistance could turn the tide in favour of the legitimate government.

Haftar later agreed to participate in ceasefire negotiations in Moscow, but he returned to Libya without signing the agreement. Russia is still doing its best to persuade him to sign. Haftar is reluctant to do so before a meeting that is expected to be held in Berlin on Jan. 19, probably because of the pressure from countries that support him. He may be expecting to be in a stronger position in the Berlin talks if he eventually participates in it.

Continuously changing tribal allegiances may also be another factor in Haftar’s hesitancy. 

Turkey has high stakes in Libya. Turkish construction companies have important business in the country. There is nothing surprising in Ankara’s trying to save whatever is salvageable in Libya, but it is unclear to what extent this endeavour will be successful.

Russia, while trying to accommodate Turkey’s expectations, will also try to make its own interests prevail both militarily and economically. 

It is unclear what U.S. President Donald Trump has in mind when he says NATO should be expanded to the Middle East, but if he also includes Libya in the future NATOME (NATO-Middle East), Russia will have an additional reason to be obstructive beforehand.

Turkey’s cooperation with Russia in Syria helped Ankara adjust its policy to the reality in the field. Similar cooperation in Libya may also yield fruitful results.

If it turns to be a war of mercenaries, countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia may spend large amounts of money to train and equip them. On the opposite side, the major financier would be Qatar, but it is difficult to foretell whether Qatar could compete financially with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 

The countries that are clearly against the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are definitely opposed to the Tripoli government. In an armed conflict it is futile to try to find out which part is right. The outcome will probably be determined by the party that fights better. 

The situation was still fluid. Apart from Turkey and Qatar, almost all potential actors in Libya are waiting for matters to become clearer. They do not want to bet on the losing horse.

What is sure is that peace is not around the corner in Libya and it will be a pity if the Libyan people face the same fate as Syrians. 

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.