What is Russia’s real position on Libya? Has it shifted sides or playing a double game? And what strategy can Turkey’s Erdogan take now, so that he remains a friend to Putin but also a winner in Tripoli? Martin Jay asks the Tripoli-based analyst Mohamed Eljarh for his take on who are the winners and losers of Russia and Turkey being on opposite sides in Libya.
SCF: Russia entering the conflict recently is a game changer. Is it more or less the same story as Syria, or are there differences?
Mohamed Eljarh: Russia’s involvement in post-Qaddafi Libya started in 2014 and picked up in the following years. Russia’s involvement was through Private Military Contractors that provided advisory services, training services, maintenance of weapons/equipment, demining services as well as, training for new military command systems. Russia’s approach in Libya has been to talk to all the different sides of the conflict. However, since August/September this year, reports and evidence emerged of Russian PMCs taking part in actual military operations in support of the offensive by Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Haftar to capture the capital, Tripoli. Russia’s involvement seems to have had some impact on the frontlines giving the LNA the upper hand over GNA forces. However, unlike Syria, Russia still denies any direct involvement in the Libyan conflict, maintaining that they have no Russian troops on the ground without denying or confirming the presence of PMCs. This is the main difference between the Syrian and the Libyan case. Also, in the case of Syria, Moscow still recognized the Assad regime to be the legitimate and sole representative of the Syrian state and people, thus it was easier to make a deal with the Bashar al-Assad to deploy Russian forces and build Russian bases in Syria. Until now, Russia seems to rely on PMCs in Libya rather than its formal army units. This means Russia will always try to maintain plausible deniability, thus this will limit the Russian impact on the ground. Also, it is not clear if Russia is willing to commit more support to help Haftar in his quest for power in Libya. Thus far, Russia’s engagement in Libya has been very inexpensive with the advantage of plausible deniability.
SCF: Doesn’t this new situation put enormous pressure on Turkey and Erdogan? How does Erdogan come out of this a winner?
Mohamed Eljarh: Turkey’s involvement in Libya is part of its bigger foreign policy strategy to expand its influence and dominance beyond its frontiers, not just in Syria and Libya, but also in Africa and Eastern Europe. Also, Erdogan is trying to use the conflict in Libya to his advantage. The signing of the MoU is a clear sign of Erdogan taking advantage of the weakness and desperation of the GNA in the face of the LNA’s offensive and the wide foreign support it enjoys. Erdogan is trying to turn Libya into a new battlefield against Europe and his foes in the Eastern Med.
SCF: Does it shift Turkey closer, once again, to Washington and Trump?
Mohamed Eljarh: Although reports have emerged that the recent phone call between Erdogan and Putin regarding Libya went badly, the two men have an interest in working together in Libya like they did in Syria. Both men have animosity towards Europe and the west and believe through a strategic partnership in Syria, Libya and elsewhere, they can form a bloc that would counter western influence and dominance in the region. Both Erdogan and Putin have shown pragmatism in Syria despite being on the opposing sides of the conflict, but they have managed to work out their differences and established a cooperative relationship that secures the interests of the both sides at the expense of western influence in the region. The difference between Erdogan and Putin in Libya is that Erdogan is much more forceful and aggressive in his approach. Putin still denies Russian involvement in Libya, while Erdogan is making it clear that he is ready to deploy forces to Libya in support of the GNA in Tripoli.
SCF: What is mainstream media missing in the reporting in recent days?
Mohamed Eljarh: I think what has been missing in media coverage of the last few days is that Turkey has been involved in the current Tripoli war since May 2019 through material support for the GNA forces including missiles, drones, and armoured vehicles. In addition, Turkey has been actively involved in Libya since 2011 supporting Islamist and Misurata factions. Turkey was accused of having links with Libya’s Islamists and the transfer of Libyan Jihadists and fighters to Syria through Turkey to fight against the Assad regime.
SCF: Is Haftar really going to take Tripoli in the coming days?
Mohamed Eljarh: Haftar has the upper hand militarily through the foreign support he is getting from Egypt, UAE, Jordan, Russia and to a lesser extent France. However, if Turkey decides to deploy forces to support the GNA and increase its material support for the GNA forces, that will have a dramatic impact on the ground. This is one of the reasons Haftar announced a new major offensive to capture Tripoli in the last few days. He is worried that the Turkish are serious about their threats to deploy forces to Libya and that the only way to prevent that from happening is by capturing Tripoli. Also, Haftar announced his offensive to capture Tripoli hoping to take advantage of the negative reactions to the signing of the MoU and condemnation by various regional and European countries. Haftar hopes he’ll be able to escalate the violence without the risk of condemnation from the UNSC or the EU given that key countries in both entities would prevent such condemnation due to their opposition and anger towards the MoU signed by Turkey – GNA.