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Why Russia Seeks a Foothold in Libya

Why Russia Seeks a Foothold in Libya

Sunday, 7 June, 2020 - 11:15
Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy
Former Egyptian Ambassador and Senior UN official.

For a long time it appeared that Russia and Turkey were on opposite sides in Libya. Russia supporting The Libyan National Army (LNA) headed by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, while Turkey openly supporting the UN recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj. This was happening at the time when both countries were cooperating in Syria, first through the Astana process, then by bilateral agreements on the northeast in October 2019 and the more recent one last March on Idlib.

So how can this apparent contradiction be explained. A review of the history of Russian-Turkish relations is useful.

Russian - Turkish relations are complex. They have been cyclical over their centuries old history, featuring both friendly periods but more often hostile ones. They fought numerous wars between the 16 and the early 20 centuries. Relations improved under Soviet Russia, only to sour again during the Cold War where they have been on opposing sides of the divide. They have also been separated by ideology. First by communism and now by political Islam. In short, there is deep suspicion, but they need to find ways to live together.

Matters started to improve since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1981. While Turkey remained a member of NATO, it drew closer to Russia out of economic interest, focused on energy, trade and tourism. Further there is no doubt that the position taken by Russia on the unsuccessful coup attempt against President Erdogan reinforce Ankara’s desire to strength ties with Moscow. Even the fact that they were on opposite sides of the conflict in Syria, did not put a hold to this trend. It was not only Ankara that had an interest in developing relations with Moscow, but the latter also considered close relations with the former was a strategic asset to be used to complicate matters for NATO.

Turkey’s downing of the Russian jet over Syria in November 2015, could have reversed the trend. That was not the case. Moscow seized the incident to draw Turkey even closer. Not long after the incident, Russia was able to co-opt Turkey into reaching ceasefire agreements in Syria through the Astana process. There was now unprecedented military cooperation between Russia and a member of NATO. The fact that they continued to support opposite sides in the Syrian conflict did not hamper such cooperation.

And now in Libya, while again on opposite sides , it seems that they have now decided to take their cue from their experience in Syria, including from the Astana process. They may have clashing interests, but they can still manage their differences. For Turkey, its about breaking out of its relative regional isolation, supporting its Islamist kins across the Mediterranean and ensuring that it has a say in whatever energy arrangements that can be worked out in the future. Russia on the other hand is approaching matters from a strategic perspective . It’s objective is to be a major, if not the major foreign player in the field in energy in the Eastern Mediterranean. For that a foothold in Libya would be an important asset. Interestingly, notwithstanding the on-going war, Tafnet a Russian oil company signed a contract last December to excavate for oil in on-shore fields in the Ghadames basin in the west of the country.

To realize such an objective, there were different alternative routes that Russia could pursue. The first was to provide support for the LNA in taking over Tripoli. That Moscow did, making sure that it’s involvement was neither direct nor obvious. Were Haftar to enter Tripoli, Moscow would have had a friend ruling Libya. This however, proved to be a failure due to number of factors foremost amongst which was the decisive Turkish military intervention in support of the GNA.

It now appears that Haftar withdrew his forces from the Al- Watiya airbase and towards Tarhouna when Russian assistance on the frontlines ceased. It is said that the Wagner fighters who were on the frontline were withdrawn. Interestingly, Turkey did not pursue the withdrawing forces, indicating a possible understanding between Moscow and Ankara.

But what would such an understanding consist of .

In the interim, Turkey can enjoy the success in protecting the GNA. It can savor the fact that it now has a foothold in Northern Africa, thereby shoring up its regional and international prestige. It can also entertain the dream of having a share in Libya’s oil riches. This Moscow can live with for the time being.

But Russia will draw a line in the sand. It will do it’s utmost not to allow an Islamist government to dominate the whole of Libya. The oil crescent remains with whoever rules from Benghazi. In other words under Russia’s protection. News about Russian military aircrafts arriving in Libya is an indication that Moscow intends to adopt a higher profile to protect its interests. The supporters of LNA can live with such an arrangement. The French, the British the Italians and the Americans will certainly not like that.

Once there is de facto acceptance of such an arrangement, the UN political process can be resurrected. This time with Russia playing a prominent role. As long as the fighting stops and the oil is exported the world can live with it. What will remain is to find a way to ensure that the oil revenues can be shared between the GNA and the authorities in the East. Such arrangements were possible in the past, so why not now, in a what could turn out to be a more stable environment. Given the state of the oil market, the world can do without Libyan oil for months to come allowing for such arrangements to be worked out.

This is in many ways similar to the Astana agreements and the bilateral Turkish -Russian agreement in northwest and northeast of Syria. Moscow and Ankara cooperate in opening and protecting the strategic highways M5 and M4, while each are committed to restrain their respective ally from any military activity that could radically alter the Russian -Turkish arrangements. Certainly Ankara could not complicate matters as it does in Idlib. But Moscow would always possess the upper hand.

In the long-run a comprehensive settlement in both Syria and Libya can be reached through a UN process influenced by parallel Russian efforts. No doubt once Moscow holds the keys to settlements in both Syria and Libya, its bargaining power with the west with regard to the Ukraine will be markedly enhanced.

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