Turkey and Russia, are they bringing their positions closer to Libya?

Ankara and Moscow would be working on an "immediate" cessation of hostilities, which would include the permanent sharing of spheres of influence
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Moscow, Russia, March 5, 2020

AP/PAVEL GOLOVKIN  -   Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Moscow, Russia, March 5, 2020

Turkish Defence Chief of Staff Yasar Guler and his Russian counterpart Valery Gerasimov discussed "the latest developments in Libya" on Wednesday, according to a statement from the Russian Ministry of Defence. On the same day, Kremlin Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov revealed that Russia and Turkey "are working on an immediate ceasefire agreement for the war in Libya," according to the Interfax news agency.

The Russian head of the foreign ministry has assured that his ally in the conflict, the Liberation National Army (LNA), commanded by Marshal Khalifa Haftar, "is ready to sign a document that will indicate the cessation of hostilities", and that he hopes that Turkey will convince its partner, the Government of National Unity (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, to join the pact. Lavrov also regretted that the latter side is not thinking about a ceasefire for the time being, but instead aspires to continue fighting for military victory in the civil war, which has been raging since 2011 after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. 

Thanks to the support of the Eurasian nation, the GNA announced at the beginning of June that it had won the battle over Tripoli, the capital, which had been under siege for 14 months by the LNA, which had launched an offensive against it to try to "free" it from the "terrorists" who were controlling the town. Now, Sarraj's army has set itself two new targets: the geostrategic enclaves of Sirte, in the north and rich in oil, and Al-Jufra, in the centre of the country and with the largest air base in the territory. Both are currently under the control of the LNA, which has already received the support of its allies, such as France, Egypt and even Russia, to defend them, in view of the deployment of GNA forces in the vicinity that has been known in the last week.

In addition, it should be noted that Turkey seems to be putting pressure on Sarraj to start the offensive against the two enclaves as soon as possible, especially after being forced to leave the base of Al-Watiya, when it received an attack against its positions that destroyed much of the military arsenal that was on the premises. Ankara aspires to conquer Sirte, because of its oil wealth, and has focused its military objective on Al-Jufra; in fact, the Turkish Communications Directorate posted a computer graphic on its Twitter profile with several reasons why the air base is "important" to the interests of the Eurasian nation.

Soldados turcos vigilan el paso de vehículos militares de una patrulla conjunta ruso-turca en la autopista M4 de la provincia de Idlib, al noroeste de Siria, el 7 de mayo de 2020
AFP/OMAR HAJ KADOUR - Turkish soldiers guard the passage of military vehicles of a joint Russian-Turkish patrol on the M4 motorway in Idlib province, north-west Syria, on 7 May 2020

Therefore, if Russia and Turkey manage to advance towards a ceasefire by bringing the positions between the GNA and the LNA, which up until now have been radically opposed, it would mean that there could be a de-escalation of the violence that has been the backbone of the conflict in recent months. However, it is not unreasonable to think that both Moscow and Ankara have a hidden agenda, since the cessation of hostilities would also be beneficial to their national interests. As analyst Will Pulido explains, the ceasefire agreement would probably be accompanied by "a permanent sharing of spheres of influence".

Moreover, according to this expert, even Egypt, which up to now has been the country that has "confronted" most with Turkey, even going so far as to threaten it with direct military intervention if it did not stop advancing on the two geostrategic enclaves, "would sign such a distribution of power and spheres, since it would prevent the GNA and Turkey from crossing the red lines of Sirte and Al-Jufra". From this, it could be deduced that in the agreement being worked out by the administrations of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, Moscow would manage to retain the two sites mentioned for the LNA, in exchange for Ankara achieving other positions in the country, which are still unknown.

Italy, the only European ally of the LNA, could also accept this agreement, since Rome has brought positions closer to Ankara in recent weeks, so it is foreseeable that if Turkey signs the agreement, Italy would not object, although it would ask to keep its projects in Libya -it should be remembered that the Italian company Eni is the largest foreign oil producer in Libya-. On 7 July, Italian Defence Minister Lorenzo Guerini travelled to the Turkish capital to meet his counterpart, Hulusi Akar. The two agreed on "the need for a political solution to the conflict in Libya," according to the Turkish Defence Ministry. In addition, Akar declared that he shared with his Italian counterpart "common and similar points of view on several issues", which opens the door for Rome to join in the possible understanding. 

El ministro de Defensa de Turquía, Hulusi Akar, y el ministro de Defensa de Italia, Lorenzo Guerini, en Ankara, Turquía, el 7 de julio de 2020
PHOTO/MINISTERIO DE DEFENSA TURCO via AP - Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and Italian Defence Minister Lorenzo Guerini in Ankara, Turkey, July 7, 2020

Moreover, this meeting that took place in Ankara on Tuesday "is important in view of the meeting of EU foreign ministers on 13 July on Turkey", said analyst Michael Tanchum, since Italy could convince member countries to tolerate the understanding between Russia and Turkey, justifying it as the most "viable" solution on the ground, in the same way as in Syria, where the EU has accepted it and plays no role. The only stumbling block would be France, whose relationship with the Eurasian nation has been significantly strained in recent weeks, causing a rift within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Moreover, the fragmentation of Europe - with Italy and France each supporting one side and the rest of the countries showing their indifference beyond the humanitarian crisis - makes it impossible for the Old Continent to play a crucial role in solving the Libyan puzzle, so it would not look badly on other actors involved in the war, such as Turkey and Russia, to solve the conflict for it, taking into account, moreover, the innumerable internal fronts that Brussels has open at the moment, with the plan to rebuild the economy or the Brexit.

At this point, it is worth mentioning that China has also joined the call for an immediate cessation of hostilities. At the last meeting of the UN Security Council, the State Councillor and Foreign Minister of the Asian giant, Wang Yi, stressed that "the main priority is to promote a comprehensive ceasefire and to stop the violence" and called on all parties to "return to dialogue". The foreign minister also showed China's support for the peace efforts promoted by the UN, which, it should be remembered, is the path defended by the GNA, since it was the United Nations that sponsored the formation of the Tripoli-based government.

Patrulla militar conjunta turco-rusa en la provincia nororiental de Hasakah, el 22 de abril de 2020
AFP/DELIL SOULEIMAN - Turkish-Russian joint military patrol in the north-eastern province of Hasakah, 22 April 2020

It should also be remembered that if the immediate ceasefire that Moscow and Ankara are working on is achieved, the other proposals that had been put forward to end the war would be discarded. They are the peace initiative put forward by Egypt, which was supported by the Arab sphere led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; and Algeria's plan to form an alliance with Tunisia and Egypt.

In any case, events in the coming days will dictate the chances of success or failure of the agreement on which Moscow and Ankara are working. If Turkey finally decides to conquer Sirte and Al-Jufra, provoking the intervention of Egypt, any option for peace in the North African country would be reduced to ashes.