Will Libya become second Syria for Turkey?

President Erdogan is close to securing a very rare victory for Turkish foreign policy, as the government Turkey supports in the Libyan civil war, the Government of National Accord liberate Tripoli and most of the coastline to Tunisian border.   As General Haftar’s forces retreat, Russia is conspicuously silent in terms of aiding its proxy.  If Ankara manages to negotiate a cease-fire or peace accord in Libya, which recognizes its Exclusive Economic Zones Treaty with NGA government, Erdogan will also gain a very valuable diplomatic asset in defending the share of hydrocarbon finds in eastern Med against the rivals, namely Greek Cypriots, Greece, Israel and Egypt.  Yet, could Libya turn into a second Syria for Turkey, asks al Jazeera.  The answer is probably not, but Turkey could pay a hefty prize for its Libyan adventure in Syria.

Istanbul, Turkey – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met on Thursday the prime minister of Libya’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Sarraj. During their meeting in the capital, Ankara, the two leaders reportedly discussed the details of a possible political solution to Libya’s war, reports al Jazeera.

Turkey has been one of the primary supporters of the Tripoli-based GNA in its fight against renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), which launched an offensive to seize the capital in April last year.

Initially, Ankara focused its efforts in Libya on securing a ceasefire between the GNA and the LNA, which is backed by Russia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt. But since Haftar refused to sign a ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia and Turkey in January, Ankara ceased its efforts to convince him to lay down arms and started to demand an immediate political solution to the conflict – with or without Haftar’s collaboration. To this end, it intensified the military and logistical support it had been providing to the GNA. As a result, the GNA in recent weeks made significant gains against Haftar’s eastern-based forces and captured several strategically important LNA strongholds, including al-Watiya airbase near the Tunisian border and the Tripoli International Airport. Earlier on Thursday, the GNA announced that its forces captured all areas surrounding the Tripoli city administrative area.

Mission accomplished, sort of…

The GNA’s military victories encouraged Haftar to return to the negotiating table, and the warring sides announced on Monday they had agreed to resume ceasefire talks. Supporters of the LNA, namely Egypt and the UAE, welcomed the resumption of the negotiations and al-Sarraj’s deputy Ahmed Maetig swiftly flew to Moscow, presumably to discuss the details of a possible ceasefire deal.

These developments, however, did not cause Turkey to drop its demand for an immediate political solution not tied to ceasefire efforts. “By taking back the coastline from Tripoli to Tunisia, recapturing international airports, and making further gains through air and land operations, the GNA essentially proved that Haftar cannot win this war,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a televised interview on Wednesday. He added that parties who have been supporting a ceasefire in Libya should now focus their efforts on securing a political solution to the conflict.

Encouraged by the GNA’s successes on the ground, Turkey is now working to consolidate support from NATO and Italy, which has been one of the GNA’s strongest supporters since the beginning of the war, to implement a political solution without wasting time with ceasefire negotiations.

It has also intensified its talks with the United States on the future of Libya. Washington has sent out a variety of signals about Libya under President Donald Trump, offering encouragement at different times to both al-Sarraj and Haftar. The US’s recent announcement that it is considering deploying a Security Force Assistance Brigade in Tunisia due to its concerns over Russia’s activities in Libya, however, raised hopes in Ankara that Washington could offset Moscow.

While Russia still appears to be supporting Haftar, there are signs Moscow may also be growing tired of the renegade general’s antics. A senior security official in Ankara told Al Jazeera that Haftar has inconvenienced Moscow by “acting like a new Gaddafi” and this may push the Russians to replace him in the future. The official, however, added that cutting ties with Haftar would not be easy for Russia, as it would struggle to find a more suitable candidate to run the LNA.

Could Libya become a second Syria for Turkey?

For now, Turkey appears to have come out of Libya’s multi-faceted conflict as a clear winner. But some experts continue to voice concerns that Libya could soon become a new Syria for Turkey, where it is locked in a costly cycle of conflict and cooperation with Russia.

In Syria, where Turkey supports rebel groups and Russia backs President Bashar al-Assad, Ankara and Moscow agreed in March on a protocol urging parties to “cease all military actions along the line of contact in the Idlib de-escalation area”. Despite this agreement, Moscow continues to occasionally harass Turkish-backed rebels in Idlib and accuses Turkey of protecting Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, a former al-Qaeda affiliate. Russian fighter jets reportedly bombed Idlib for the first time since the ceasefire deal on Wednesday. Now, many Syria watchers are pessimistic about the future of Ankara and Moscow’s collaboration in Syria’s long-running conflict and predict an escalation between the two powers in the near future.

Just like in Syria, Russia and Turkey are trying to cooperate in Libya despite actively supporting different sides of the conflict.

Turkey not only has troops in Libya, but it also has significant influence over Syrians fighting in the country on the side of the GNA. Russia does not officially have boots on the ground in Libya, but is believed to be active in the conflict through proxies such as the Wagner group which provides support for Haftar’s forces. Because of this, many believe there is a significant risk of direct conflict between Russia and Turkey in Libya, despite their continuing efforts to keep diplomatic channels open.

Turkish security analyst and former military officer Abdullah Agar, however, told Al Jazeera he believed Libya is unlikely to become a “swamp” for Turkey like Syria. Turkey found itself in a difficult situation in Syria, he argued, because it supported a wide range of rebel groups against an oppressive but established government in the conflict. In Libya, he explained, Turkey is supporting the only legitimate player, the GNA, against a strongman in a conflict that is gradually being transformed into a contest between major power blocks – namely the Sino-Russian Eurasian alliance and NATO.

Will Russia extract its revenge in Syria?

This, however, does not mean Russia is going to easily give up on its ambitions in Libya. Moscow appears to want a divided Libya, which would allow it to exert influence over at least some of the country’s strategically important territories and energy resources. Turkey, meanwhile, defends Libya’s territorial integrity and says the legitimate government should control the country in its entirety.

As their end goals are conflicting, it is likely that Turkey and Russia’s fragile collaboration in Libya will face significant obstacles in the coming days just like their pragmatic and conditional partnership in Syria. This may be the reason why President Erdogan is frequently calling US President Trump.  Will Turkey be forced to turn its gaze towards West to defend its gains in Libya and its vital stakes in Syria?   If Trump is reelected, this is possible. 

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Published By: Atilla Yeşilada

GlobalSource Partners’ Turkey Country Analyst Atilla Yesilada is the country’s leading political analyst and commentator. He is known throughout the finance and political science world for his thorough and outspoken coverage of Turkey’s political and financial developments. In addition to his extensive writing schedule, he is often called upon to provide his political expertise on major radio and television channels. Based in Istanbul, Atilla is co-founder of the information platform Istanbul Analytics and is one of GlobalSource’s local partners in Turkey. In addition to his consulting work and speaking engagements throughout the US, Europe and the Middle East, he writes regular columns for Turkey’s leading financial websites VATAN and www.paraanaliz.com and has contributed to the financial daily Referans and the liberal daily Radikal.