By Arab News
By Yasir Yakis*
Turkey’s relations with Russia are usually regarded as a zero-sum game in terms of its relations with the US. When Ankara took a positive course with one of them, it went in the opposite direction with the other. Now the situation has become more complicated because Turkey has positive and negative aspects in its relations with both Moscow and Washington.
The US has stepped up the supply of arms and ammunition to the Syrian Democratic Forces, whose backbone is composed of Kurdish fighters. Turkey has always been sensitive to any move that promotes Kurdish identity in Syria. While doing this to the east of the Euphrates, the US’ Syria coordinator James Jeffrey supported and praised what Turkey is doing in Idlib.
The same ambivalence is valid for Turkey’s relations with Russia. In Syria, cooperation turns to strained relations from time to time. Now, Turkey and Russia are faced with a similar dilemma in Libya.
Turkey’s support for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) has dramatically changed the course of events. Ankara is eager to continue pushing back the forces of Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar until they are totally defeated, but its attitude differs from that of Russia, which is an important player in Libya. Despite the support it has given to Haftar’s forces through Wagner Group mercenaries, the Tripoli government’s successes gained as a result of Turkey’s support may have raised in Russia’s mind a question mark over whether betting on Haftar might put it in a difficult position.
Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj last week visited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The three items on the agenda were: Energy exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, Haftar’s loss of efficiency, and the Libyan cease-fire and peace process. These items indicate that Turkey and Libya are preparing themselves for a lasting relationship.
Another aspect of Turkish-Libyan cooperation that is not loudly voiced is Muslim Brotherhood solidarity. In the past, Turkey has supported the Libyan Justice and Construction Party — a name inspired by the ruling Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) — which has close ties to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. This is perhaps the critical factor in the opposition of Egypt and other Arab states to Turkey’s involvement in Libya. Russia is also opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood gaining prominence because of Chechens who espouse the same ideology. So the Turkish-Russian cooperation in Libya will have to go through a minefield.
GNA Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq last week made a statement that made Turkey very happy. He said the strategic partnership with Ankara would continue during the reconstruction of Libya. So Turkey is aiming for a lasting cooperation with Tripoli and is trying to recover about $19 billion of losses suffered by Turkish construction companies because they had to leave projects incomplete as a result of the Libyan crisis.
On the military front, when Haftar’s forces were withdrawing from the districts around Tripoli, they planted bombs and set booby traps. This was perceived by the GNA’s forces as a sign that they do not plan to return. Russia must have made a similar observation.
After Turkey’s complaint about the presence of Russian mercenaries in Haftar’s army, Moscow withdrew them, but instead sent a fleet of MiG-29 fighter aircraft. Assessments vary on the motives of this move. Russia may wish to keep the balance between the GNA and Haftar and not be a loser. It may also wish to be in a stronger position in the peace talks, so the aircraft will be kept in reserve in case they are needed. Rather than taking the risk of being on the losing side, Russia may prefer to cooperate with Turkey so it can become an arbitrator and reap the associated advantages.
In a meeting held in Moscow between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Libyan counterpart Mohammed Siala last week, it transpired that Moscow might, in fact, shift its support from Haftar to Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. This could help its efforts in reaching a compromise on the complicated Libyan chessboard. It may also solve the problem of Turkey’s strong refusal to make any deal with Haftar.
An important stake for Turkey is the implementation of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) it agreed with Libya. Ankara needs a government that would control Libya’s eastern shores because, for the agreement to make sense, the Turkish and Libyan EEZs have to become contiguous. If Libya is divided into two parts and control of its eastern shores falls into the hands of a government that is not friendly toward Turkey, that government may refuse to implement the EEZ agreement. This cannot be secured without the support of a country like Russia, which has leverage on both sides. So the Turkish-Russian cooperation may be put to a new test.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar