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Why Russia and Turkey’s Proxy War in Libya Is Heating Up

On June 15, 2020 Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, stated that Ankara has no dispute with Russians partners on Libya, added that talks to launch the political settlement process regarding developing a mechanism for the ceasefire is positively in progress. Looking at the strategies of the two countries in Libya, it is understood that it is different in Syria. 

Last November in 2019, Turkey, as a result of the agreement she made with the Government of National Accord (GNA) started to back the (GNA) which was recognized by the U.N.  The recent achievements of GNA, which the Turkish Armed Forces provided equipment, consultancy and training support, changed the balance in the Libyan civil war. Russia, on the other hand, commissioned the private security company Wagner Group, known with its proximity to Kremlin at the end of 2018, to send mercenaries to Libya. UN reports note that the Wagner group has supported the General Caliph Khafter forces since late 2018.

The balance of powers is changing

As a result of Turkey’s military intervention backing Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) forces achieved considerable success and were able to launch counter attacks.  GNA forces led by President Fayiz es-Serrac removed the 14-months long siege of Tripoli and repulsed General Hafter forces from the capital. Throughout April, GNA troops took the control over the entire coast in West Libya, from Misurata to the Tunisian border. Soon after, the General Hafter army had to leave the capital Airport, Tarhune city and Al-Batu air base.

 President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is not hiding the fact that the successes against General Hafter have been achieved largely thanks to the Turkish forces in Libya and working in coordination with GNA forces to achieve common goals. It is also necessary to take into account that, Fayiz es-Serrac government, has also received the support of some Tuareg militia in southern Libya.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the security co-operation agreement between Ankara and Tripoli signed in November 2019 was an attempt to legalize military support that violated the arms embargo. The EU, Egypt, Israel, Greece and Southern Cyprus condemned the agreement which allegedly violated the international law. The Tripoli government in exchange for Turkey’s support for the conflict in Libya, acknowledged Turkey’s right to extract of natural resources in designated special economic zone.

Turkey versus Egypt in Libya

Turkey’s interest in Libya is obvious. Ankara announced that it plans to win contracts for the restoration of Libya and to participate in Libyan oil production in the future. It is also known that Turkey plans to open two military bases in Libya. Ankara aims to set up air defense and drone systems at recently captured El-Batuy airbase. In addition, Turkish troops will be deployed on a military base near Misurata. Turkey’s interests in Libya are not limited to economic interests but also some military and political interests.  Ankara, which may further affect the government’s political course in Tripoli; Will be able to control the military movements of the Libyan National Army (LUO) troops; It will deploy its military forces in a country neighboring Egypt, one of Ankara’s permanent foreign policy opponents in the Middle East. This is a reason for the harsh warnings of Egypt.

Clashes between the Libyan National Army (LUO) led by General Caliph Khafter and the army of F.Serrac approached the Mediterranean coastal city Sirte, an important strategic point. Sirte, located in the east of the country and controlled by LUO forces, is a strategic region close to oil fields. Egyptian President Abdulfettah el Sisi, like Erdogan, threatened to militarily intervene in Libya, stating that Sirte and Cufra had red lines. Underlining that they can intervene in Libya “to ensure stability and protect western borders”, President Sisi also noted that they are ready to provide weapons and educational support to the Libyan tribes for ‘defending their country.

What Syria means for Turkey; Libya is exactly what it is for Egypt. In Libya, the fact that both al-Qaeda and similar radical groups are active and that the Muslim Brotherhood Movement has a strong position within the GNA is considered as a major threat in terms of Egyptian security. Stating that Egypt’s military intervention in Libya would be legitimate as a right to defend under the United Nations agreement and called upon the call of the House of Representatives established in Tobruk, Sisi accused Ankara of violating the sovereign rights of Arab states, disturbing regional stability and supporting terrorists.

Russia’s influence on developments

Egypt was not the only one which was frustrated by the progress of GNA forces backed by Turkey. Likewise, Russia and France also designated these two points as their red lines. In fact, Russian authorities ordered their war planes to turn back from the Black Sea since Turkey did not step back from Sirte and Cufre. This particular incident indicates how Russia and Turkey has different approaches in Libya.

 According to the US African Command (AFRICOM), war planes sent by Russia in May are actively used in the war in the country. According to the statement made by AFRICOM, at least 14 MiG-29 and Su-24 type jets flew to Libya over Syria. AFRICOM stated in the previous statements that these planes are the planes that are not found in other parts of Africa, and that they took off from Russia and flew to Libya over Iran and Syria and that they have evidence in their hands. Russia, on the other hand, denied the allegations and stated that the planes did not belong to them, adding that they might have been purchased by other African countries.

In March, the Libyan Embassy in Damascus, which has been closed since 2012, was reopened in the eastern region, where Khafter forces were active. Flights between Benghazi city and Damascus have also begun again. According to a report from the United Nations, 33 flights by Syrian Cham Wings Airlines, believed to be carrying Syrian mercenaries, were detected. Experts observing the arms embargo against Libya said in the report, “According to the information obtained from the sources, the number of Syrian foreign fighters supporting Khafter is around two thousand”. According to experts, Cham Wings made these flights in accordance with the quarterly contracts with the private Russian military company Wagner, which is said to have collected Syrian mercenaries. Moscow, on the other hand, suggested that it had no role in finding Russian mercenaries in Libya.

Anti-Erdogan propaganda in Russian media

The Russian media began to write more about how the Ankara government intervened illegally in Libya by violating international agreements. Federal News Agency RiaFan known with its proximity to the Kremlin, journalist, Boris Menşov reported that Turkey have been using ISIS and Al-Qaeda militants to expand her influence in the region. 

It is evident the military solution does not benefit the Libya problem for regional reasons. If the warring parties cannot find a political solution, it means that Libya will remain a country divided for a long time. In this case, Russia will want to take more initiative. If the international calls would not be responded, Russia would increase its presence. Moscow and Ankara can run their experience in Libya with extensive experience in finding reconciliation, as in Syria. 

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Arif Asalıoğlu is General Director of the International Institute of the Development of Science Cooperation in Moscow; expert in the field of Russian-Turkish relations; columnist of Informational agency REGNUM; Founder of Russian and Turkish Intellectuals Meeting.

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