Can Russia and Turkey offer a solution to the Libyan crisis?

Recent deployment of Russian jets seen by analysts as preparation by Moscow to shore up its position ahead of talks.

General Haftar, commander in the Libyan National Army, meets with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in Moscow
Haftar in January refused to sign a ceasefire agreement at a summit held in the Russian capital [File: Karpukhin/Reuters]

Russia and Turkey are again taking the lead in efforts to find a solution to Libya’s near decade-long crisis – and hoping in the process to carve out spheres of influence for themselves in the oil-rich North African nation.

In a telephone call late last month, the two countries’ foreign ministers urged belligerents in Libya to cease hostilities and return to the negotiating table, something many analysts see as the beginning of a renewed attempt to resolve the conflict.

That call came on the heels of a resounding military victory for the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in western Libya.

Turkish support for the GNA had only weeks earlier allowed it to turn the tide and repel a year-long offensive by eastern-based renegade commander Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), which Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egpyt back.

But as Russian mercenaries from the private Wagner group retreated from the Tripoli front lines – in what seemed like a move coordinated with Ankara – more than a dozen Russian fighter jets landed in eastern Libya, according to the US Africa Command.

‘Unlikely to reverse tide’

For some observers, the move signalled Moscow’s willingness to step up its support for Haftar.

Samuel Ramani, a researcher at Oxford University, however, said the manoeuvre was aimed at cementing Russia’s negotiating position ahead of potential peace talks.

“It is not a sign of its willingness to engage in a Syria-style military intervention in Libya, as Moscow has privately acknowledged that Haftar is unlikely to reverse the tide of the Turkish offensive,” Ramani told Al Jazeera.

The link between Russia’s diplomatic aspirations in Libya and its deployment of the MiG-29 aircraft, Ramani said, becomes apparent when one considers Moscow’s rhetoric over the past week.

“On the day of the US report about Russian jets arriving in Libya, Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke with Aguila Saleh, head of the [eastern-based] parliament and LNA ally, about a political solution,” he noted.

Saleh, an influential figure with Libya’s eastern tribes and the speaker of the House of Representatives, has announced an initiative of his own for Libya, one that includes talks with the West and comes into direct conflict with Haftar’s plan.  

Battlefield success

This is not the first time that Russia and Turkey have attempted to broker a ceasefire in Libya.

In January, GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Haftar visited Moscow as part of Russo-Turkish efforts to secure a lasting ceasefire.

However, Haftar – seemingly bolstered by his battlefield successes at the time – refused to sign the agreement and abruptly left the Russian capital.

The Moscow meeting was followed a week later by a separate summit, this time hosted by Germany.

The Berlin conference saw the participation of a dozen countries, at least half of which were supplying Libya’s warring parties with arms in violation of a 2011 UN arms embargo.  

In addition to securing a pledge by foreign actors to desist from further arming Libya’s belligerents, the meeting – postponed several times – was an opportunity for Europe to reassert itself in a strategic part of the world that had become a gateway for tens of thousands of refugees and migrants seeking new lives in Europe.

In the end, however, weapons continued pouring into the war-torn country, eventually leading Ghassan Salame, the UN’s special envoy for Libya, to resign.

Though accompanied by much less fanfare, Russia’s renewed eagerness to mediate the conflict has been met with heightened concern by the United States.

“For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now,” General Stephen Townsend of the US Africa Command said in a statement on Russia’s deployment of combat aircraft.

The gravity of his tone stood in sharp contrast with the mixed signals the United States sent during the previous year.

Shortly after Haftar launched his offensive on Tripoli in April 2019, President Donald Trump praised the Ajdabiya native for his role in “fighting terrorism”.

To complicate matters further, some of Washington’s biggest allies, including the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, are propping up Haftar and appear, at least in the short term, to be siding with Russia. 

Compromises for Turkey

Tough compromises await Turkey as it considers its next move.

Ankara’s allies in Tripoli have made it clear that under no circumstance will they entertain the prospect of negotiating with Haftar.

To be sure, the 76-year-old’s survival is not guaranteed. After rallying his troops for an entire year around the goal of overtaking Tripoli, signs of his domestic support base fragmenting in light of the setback his LNA is facing are beginning to emerge.

There are also reports suggesting that Abu Dhabi and Cairo are looking for a replacement.

Turkish columnist Semih Idiz told Al Jazeera the country’s vast territory means that it is unlikely for Turkey to pursue a military strategy.

If Haftar’s support base does not break up, then there is little Turkey can do to exclude him from future talks, Idiz said. 

Airpower a tall factor in Libya war outcomes

“It [Turkey] will find itself in a similar position to that which it is facing in Syria, where Ankara does not recognise Assad despite more and more countries coming around to acknowledging that the Syrian president is part of the equation,” he said.

“Eventually, Turkey will have to accept this, and it already has. There are indirect talks between the government and the Assad regime.”

Turkey’s troubles, however, don’t stop there.

Should Haftar continue to play a role in eastern Libya, then Turkey’s intervention will have gone in vain, according to Idiz.

This is because one of Turkey’s prime motivations for entering the war was a contentious maritime border demarcation agreement it signed with the GNA that expanded its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the resource-abundant eastern Mediterranean.

EEZs allow countries exclusive rights to exploit natural resources, including mineral wealth.

“There is no guarantee for Turkey that an agreement between the GNA and Haftar in Libya will honour the November deal that Ankara signed with al-Sarraj for the demarcation and delimitation of the eastern Mediterranean,” Idliz said.

“While Ankara acknowledges that a deal could move in the direction of a federation and that Turkey will have influence in the west, there is nothing to say that its strategic objectives in the eastern Mediterranean will be fulfilled as a result of the political agreement that might be reached.”

Mohammed Ali Abdallah, an adviser to the GNA for US affairs, similarily said Turkey’s maritime agreement is “of no value to it if the Libyan government is unable to control its entire shoreline”. 

Source: Al Jazeera