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Opinion - Conflict in Libya: Turkey, Russia, and the need for a united EU policy
17 May 2020

The EU should not accept, even tacitly, a Turkey-Russia hegemonic role in North Africa and the Arab Levant, argues Noman Ahmed in this commentary for commonspace.eu

Amid ongoing volatility in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) over the last decade, Turkey and Russia have increased their power projection and ambition for influence. Both states embarked on a quest to cement their regional influence, sometimes coming to an agreement and in other times, appearing close to conflict.  These two contemporary key players in the Mediterranean and the Middle East were largely insignificant in the region a decade ago. With the waning American influence, their emerging action comes as no surprise, yet poses concerns and potential threats to European political, economic and security interests.

There are many examples of cooperation between the two regional powers. Pragmatically however, it is difficult to describe the Turkey-Russia relations as based on either cooperation or confrontation. For most of their modern history, both countries had an uneasy relationship, with the recent years witnessing some serious fluctuations. In 2015, a Russian plane was shot down over the Syria-Turkey border, but the following summer, relations were mended after the Turkstream project was signed. The deal aims to connect the large gas reserves in Russia to the Turkish transportation network, creating a reliable source of energy for Turkey, and strengthening the Turkish ambition to become an energy supply hub for Europe and beyond. Nonetheless, Russia and Turkey have diverse goals in the Mediterranean and beyond. Both have long deep-rooted historical connections and strategic interests in the Caucasus and the Black Sea, where they have often competed.    Relations between Russia and Turkey, therefore, remain complex and continue to unfold. Libya is the new front where this relationship is playing out with the ongoing global health pandemic providing an uncomfortable backdrop that may also impact how the two regional powers play their cards. 

State of Play

Ankara and Moscow are on different sides in the Libyan conflict but continue to pursue active  power-projection replacing the traditional European and western actors who dominated in post-2011 Libya. Put simply, Turkey supports the Tripoli-based and internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by Fayez al-Sarraj while Russia backs the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) with General Haftar as the head of its Libyan National Army (LNA). Turkey's relations with Tripoli are crucial to for its economic and geostrategic presence in the wider Mediterranean. Last year, Turkey signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the GNA establishing a joint exclusive economic zone (EEZ) which stretches from the Libyan coast up to Turkey's maritime borders. Greece, Cyprus and Israel soon rushed to announce a deal to construct the EastMed pipeline, a project that intends to supply Europe with gas in a bid to counter the Turkish-Libyan project. At the same time, the Turkish parliament authorized a Turkish military intervention on Libya's soil to support Tripoli's counteroffensive against Hafter's forces. On the ground, peace efforts were largely rebuffed, with clashes resuming last month. Russia  opportunistically looks at Libya as the next arena after it solidified its presence in Syria. An arms trade agreement with the LNA provided an entry point for Russian engagement in post-2011 Libya. Currently, Russia's main involvement is through Private Military companies (PMCs), namely the Wagner Group, which despite not being a state structure, is closely associated to the Kremlin. The UN estimates around 1200 Russian mercenaries operating in Libya. On the economic front, Russia wants to maintain its domination of the European gas market. Russia, however, stopped short of   criticizing the new EastMed project due to its long-standing investments and trade relations with the EastMed countries. The increasing Turkish and Russian involvement in Libya has side-lined European actors both militarily and diplomatically due to the indecisiveness and disunity   evident at the Berlin Conference, held last January to discuss the progress of the now failing peace process.

Whilst tensions on the ground continued to rise in the last few weeks, no one can potentially benefit from a long-term conflict. Both Turkish and Russian economies are already under stress due to COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions. A considerable increase of military involvement is in the current circumstances out of question, yet both countries want to maintain their  footholds in Libya in the  meantime. The pandemic apart, Russia will seek to avoid a backlash in the form of an increased NATO activity in the Balkans, and Turkey is currently busy with its North Syria operations. Peace is not a piece of cake either. It is not in Russia's interest for the EastMed project to succeed as it would decrease the European dependency on Russian oil. For Turkey, Libya constitutes a strategic location for asserting a claim to the resource-rich region and to deter Greece and Cyprus from acquiring a large share in these resources.

How could the Libyan Scenario Unfold?

The intervention in Libya is clearly a new chapter in the Turkish-Russian aspirations for  influence in the Mediterranean. The ramifications of this involvement will not only shape Turkey and Russia as key regional players, but will also impact European shores and borders. Whilst the entire world is occupied with fending off the health and economic impact of the pandemic, Haftar and al-Sarraj administration have been fighting each other with the latter strengthening its position with a helping hand from Turkey. Peace, or the lack of it, matters for Europe not only because Libya has become a migrant hub, but also because of the proliferation there of all kinds of weaponry and the real risk that these may soon be readily available for Islamist militants. The conflict is helping antagonize, and perhaps radicalize, local populations suffering from various socioeconomic issues since 2011. Europe's own security depends on the security and livelihoods of Libyans. However, crafting a unified European policy that understands the core risks in Libya could be challenging largely due to the current focus on the Coronavirus pandemic. A realistic assessment of the risks of inaction, and a strong will to establish peace in Libya, can put the EU's role back on track.   

Turkey and Russia  are still in the process of defining the future of their relationship yet there are chances of cooperation amidst the grim reality on the ground in countries such as Syria and Libya where they support opposing proxies. By cooperating, Turkey, on one hand, can help Russia break its near isolation in the Mediterranean in exchange for energy and logistical access. On the other hand, Russia can be the key actor mediating a peace deal therefore cementing its Mediterranean policy and influence without jeopardizing Turkey's key strategic and economic goals. Concurrently, and depending on what Russia and Turkey decide, they can use Syria as a bargaining chip, in a scenario where Russia leads in Syria while leaving Libyan prospects to Turkey. Russia in turn has to respect Turkey's interests in Northern Syria and could negotiate with the Syrian regime to allow Turkey the space it wants in Syria. Turkey can accept the al-Assad's regime as a reality in Syria while benefiting from the Turkstream project. On the other hand a military escalation could deepen gaps between competing powers in Libya and consequently fuel another wave of extremism and migration.

The need for a unified EU response

The EU needs to step up its diplomatic and collaborative response. Any vision of peace would require commitment to succeed and be sustainable. The EU's reluctance to get embroiled more deeply in Libya and Syria, and its failure to develop a strategic approach to its Southern and Eastern neighbourhoods that goes beyond economic development, leaves it with only limited options. These options should not however include, even a tacit acceptance, to some sort of Turkey-Russia hegemonic role in North Africa and the Arab Levant. 

References

Morel, J. M. (24 March 2020). La Méditerranée orientale, un eldorado gazier très convoité. Orient XXI.

related content on commonspace.eu 

Poghosyan, B. (16 March 2018). Opinion: Turkey and Russia aspire to replace a century of western domination of the Middle East.  

Poghosyan, B. (17 January 2020). Opinion: The strange and uneasy partnership between Turkey and Russia.  

source: Noman Ahmed is Research Associate focusing on conflicts in Europe's Southern neighbourhood at LINKS Europe, and is currently finalising his post-graduate studies at Leiden University.

photo: The head of one of the two main factions in Libya, General Khalifa Hafter, being welcomed aboard a Russian aircraft carrier in the East Mediterranean in 2017

The views expressed in opinion pieces and commentaries do not necessarily reflect the position of commonspace.eu or its partners

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