Now that Libya’s Eastern and Western neighbours, Egypt and Algeria, have also declared their supports for Turkey and Russia’s call made on January 8 for a ceasefire in Libya from January 12, the prospect of war in the Mediterranean has been replaced by the prospect of the peace talks to be held in Germany.
It looks like Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s risky challenge to send troops to Libya has had shook things up and had considerable impact on a possible solution: the winners and the losers in the Libya issue are being re-defined. Three main aspects help us in determining who’s in which position:
1. When Erdogan signed a maritime agreement with Fayez al-Sarraj’s UN-approved government on November 27, it was a matter of days before Khalifa Haftar’s rebel forces would capture the capital city of Tripoli. Following the security agreement on December 14 and the Turkish parliament’s decision to send troops on January 2, the tables turned and Tripoli remained in the hands of a government that dodged being overthrown.
2. Just like in the Syria situation, Turkey and Russia were supporting opposite sides in Libya. The difference was that, in Syria, Russia was behind Bashar al-Assad’s UN-recognised government, while Turkey was in support of the rebel forces. However, in both cases, perhaps not peace but a certain non-conflict situation was eventually reached through Turkey and Russia’s agreement.
3. After Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan shared the starring positions in Libya too. In this case, the secondary parts played by the U.S. and Germany were also significant. A group of high ranking U.S. officers were in Rome on January 9, a day after Turco-Russian call to meet with Haftar (who has rejected the cessefire call) and the Sarraj government’s interior minister Fathi Bashagha, in support of the ceasefire call. Just before time was up, on January 11, in the hours following German chancellor Angela Merkel’s meeting with Putin in Moscow, Haftar declared that he accepted the ceasefire. A few hours prior, Turkey and Russia had declared that the ceasefire in Idlib between Syrian government and rebel forces was to begin after midnight of January 11.
Russia is back to the Mediterranean after the Middle East
Moscow had lost its influence over the Middle East and the Mediterranean region following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992. The final blow was the 2011 UN decision that cleared the way for a NATO intervention to Libya. Putin believed that then-U.S. President Barack Obama had tricked him, not keeping his word, and he never forgot about it. That’s why, when the Syrian civil war began to escalate at around the same time, he didn’t allow U.S. intervention Meanwhile, in early 2011, Erdogan was still thinking that he could persuade Assad to incorporate the Muslim Brotherhood into his regime and was keeping the U.S. will to intervene in Syria at bay. After -then- Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s lenghty August meeting with Assad,the tables had turned but it was already too late and Putin had already hit the brakes.
Putin, with two of his staff officers, his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu, has opted for a fundamental shift in the Russian foreign policy. The Soviet Union was the distrupter during the cold war, and the U.S., with all of its allies (including Turkey at the time) was all for preserving the status-quo. However, as Washington became the party that wanted to create change, in the 2010s, Moscow opted for the status-quo. Turkey played a key role here. Excitement swept Ankara after the Arab Spring, with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, but had to confront a harsh reality when a Russian plane was taken down in 2015, and then after the military coup attempt in Turkey.
Actually, Turkey’s discomfort had already started in 2014 when the U.S. had supported the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’s Party (PKK) and its Syria branch, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) against ISIS militants in Syria. As of 2016, Turkey started to oppose the U.S. view and maintained instead that the balances in the region should remain as they were. The change U.S. President Donald Trump brought about, helped by the pressures of Israel and Saudi Arabia who united in anti-Iran sentiment, was in the U.S. arms industry.
Russia turned to the Middle East with the Syria crisis, and then to the Mediterranean with the Libya crisis. And it did so with the cooperation of NATO member Turkey, to top it all of…
Winners and losers
Among the top winners in Libya, are Russia and Putin; Moscow has made a strategic comeback to the Europe-Middle East scene, where the U.S. used to have the stronghold, and it made its comeback not as merely a player but a game-maker. (Russia’s next move might be in the Persian Gulf, as the U.S. is on the brink of a higher conflict with Iran. One mustn’t forget that Russia is on good terms with both Iran and Saudi Arabia.)
Turkey and Erdogan have also emerged as winners from a high-risk game-plan concerning Libya. The challenge to send troops worked. No troops were sent, the supported party in Libya was saved, a ceasefire got accepted and the seat for Turkey on the Libya talks to be held in Berlin is stronger now. The Idlib ceasefire came simultaneously with Tripoli ceasefire, may grant Turkey a way out of Syria too: the sooner Turkey gets out of this detrimental situation, the better. Furthermore, the attempts to cut off Turkey from the Mediterranean using Cyprus would be averted. We must also take into account that due to the Libya issue, European Council president Charles Michel visited Turkey to meet with Erdogan; the immigration issue is no longer only between Turkey and Germany.
Germany and Merkel are among the winners. The Berlin Process steps she’s taken in September of last year, concerning Libya, has gained ground thanks to the Turkish-Russian ceasefire call. German diplomacy would do everything in its power to complete this process and would try to gain the upper hand against its rivals in the region; this would include its EU partner, France.
Though Italy made a last-minute move of supporting the ceasefire, along with the U.S., France and French President Emmanuel Macron seem to be among the losers this time. It mustn’t be forgotten that on January 8, the day Erdogan and Putin made their ceasefire call, In Cairo, France had declared, along with Egypt, Greece and Southern, or Greek Cyprus, that the Mediterranean deal between Libya and Turkey was “null and void”.
Now that Egypt too is backing the ceasefire, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect France, as one of the EU’s leading forces, would be forced to sign in favour of the ceasefire – at least on paper.
Abdellatif Sisi lost in Egypt, but It doesn’t mean Egypt has lost.
Firstly, through the maritime agreement signed between Turkey and Libya, Egypt’s zone of activity and economic-political rights are broadening in the Mediterranean. If peace is brought to Libya, it would not be logical for the new Libya government to simply toss the current maritime agreement bringing advantage to the country, and it’s likely the Egyptian government will comply, too. Moreover, following the recent searches, Egypt now stands as the country with the most abundant natural gas sources in the Mediterranean; this means there is no longer need for merging Cypriot and Israeli gas in exports to Europe, and no longer a need for cooperation with Greece.
The governments of Greece and Greek Cyprus seem to be the clear losers. Athens, during Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza government, could not gather the support it expected of the West when it took a harsh stance against Turkey; now, under Kyriakos Mitsotakis, it could further lose suppor. European Council president Michel’s visit to Turkey has been yet another sign of Athens and Nicosia have started to lose ground in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Israeli president Benyamin Netenyahu’s Mediterranean plan has also lost, but it doesn’t mean Israel has also lost. Israel still knows that it can deliver its natural gas to European markets in the shortest and cheapest way through Turkey. And for this, a Turkish-Israeli reconciliation is needed.
After these developments, one must carefully observe the results of the Moscow meetings of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Minister of Defence Hulusi Akar and National Intelligence Agency (MIT) President Hakan Fidan on January 13. (Sarraj was there, too.) Whenever the talks with Russia reached this level in the past, there have always been novelties in the region too.