By Dorian Jones
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin about Libya as Ankara prepares for the possible deployment of soldiers to the war-torn country.
Moscow sought to put a positive spin on Tuesday’s telephone call, the second on Libya in a week. “Russia supports all efforts by individual countries in terms of finding a solution to the [Libyan] crisis,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov.
Ankara appears to have taken Moscow by surprise when Erdogan last month signed a security agreement with Libya’s head of the Presidential Council of the Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Sarraj, in Istanbul.
Under the agreement, the Tripoli-based government can invite Turkish forces to deploy in Libya. According to local media reports, Ankara is preparing a rapid action force for possible deployment. Erdogan repeatedly said this month he is ready to consider any Libyan request for military assistance.
Erdogan said he was reacting to the presence of “Russian Wagner mercenaries,” a private security force run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close links to the Kremlin.
“I wish that the matter of [General Khalifa] Haftar would not create a new Syria in our relations with Russia,” Erdogan said in a television interview earlier this month.
Haftar is the de facto leader of eastern Libya and is seeking to overthrow the GNA.
Despite differences Ankara and Moscow have about Libya, analysts suggest Putin and Erdogan are experienced in managing conflicting agendas. While Turkey and Russia back rival sides in the Syrian civil war, the two countries continue to cooperate in Syria.
“We have to make a distinction between Turkish-Russian relations, and Turkish-Russian relations in the Middle East,” said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University.
“In the Middle East, Turkish-Russian relations will remain conflictual with different views. Bilaterally it will not be a problem. But in the long run, it will be a problem, and this compartmentalizing is not sustainable as their interests don’t converge.”
Turkey, GNA deal
On Monday, Turkey’s foreign affairs parliamentary committee ratified the deal with the GNA, allowing it to move to a full parliamentary vote.
The main opposition CHP strongly opposes the idea of sending forces to Libya. “What are we in Libya for? For what were we in the Syrian marsh? The government has to take lessons from what happened in the Syrian marsh,” the CHP leader, Kemal Kilicadaroglu, said in an interview with the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper published Monday.
Turkish forces currently are deployed in Syria, fighting a Syrian Kurdish militia, and some analysts question whether the Turkish forces could become overextended.
Libya, however, has become strategically important to Ankara. Along with a security agreement with GNA, a second memorandum of understanding was signed that gave Turkey control over a large swathe of the eastern Mediterranean around Libya.
“With this move, Turkey took the board in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey showed that it was a playmaker in the region,” said Turkey’s special envoy to Libya, Emrullah Isler. He called the security agreement a “game-changer,” adding, “this is a step we have taken against those who were unfair to Turkey.”
Ankara is currently competing with several Mediterranean countries in a scramble for the vast energy reserves that are believed to be there. Greece, Cyprus and France have criticized Turkey’s Libya agreements.
Concern over Turkish forces
Analysts warn Turkey is facing a precarious situation in Libya. “In Libya, we have three different governments recognized by different countries. But the government that Turkey is backing is facing defeat by General Haftar, which will change many things,” said Bagci.
Several Middle Eastern countries involved in Libya are voicing concern over the prospect of Turkish forces deploying to the war-torn country. But former Turkish ambassador Mithat Rende says such concerns are likely to be dismissed by Ankara.
“Egypt is totally engaged, and is supporting one side. The Saudis and Emirates supporting one of the sides, and so many others, so everyone can support their side in Libya, but if Turkey supports a side, it’s hell. Ankara has an agreement with the legitimate government,” Rende said.
Some analysts caution that Ankara’s hand could well be forced in Libya, with Haftar announcing last week his intention to overrun Tripoli and oust the GNA.
“Troops would be ready to protect democracy and popular will against attempts to establish a [Haftar] military dictatorship,” said Turkey’s special envoy Isler.