After Syria, we are watching the developments in Libya as a lesson. The Russian tsar has put on Ottoman boots, traveling first to Damascus then to Tripoli. Don’t be misled by the title about how Russia is stealing Erdoğan’s dreams. President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is collecting wise victories for himself from the adventures of the NATO-Gulf block in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as from the mistakes of those governing Turkey. After Syria, Libya is next.
During the “Arab Spring” days, Erdoğan dreamed about performing that week’s Friday prayers in Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. This dream has been hanging as an unfulfilled desire for nine years. Putin, as if to make him jealous, visited the Umayyad Mosque together with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, the Russian leader presented a 17th century handwritten Quran to the Umayyad Mosque. This visit came right after the killing of Qassim Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, the person who had convinced Putin in 2015 to intervene in the war in Syria. One of the main actors that turned Erdoğan’s dream into a nightmare is gone, but this was not a loss that would hamper Russia’s return journey to the Middle East.
A new development occurred during Putin’s passage from Damascus to Ankara that demonstrated how Russia is the determining factor in the region. Putin and Erdoğan discussed Libya for an extended period and they called for a ceasefire as of Jan. 12.
Now, covering up their great loss with a small win, government circles may say, “If Turkey had not passed the resolution to send troops to Libya, thus showing its muscle, this ceasefire would not have happened. With this, we have secured our place at the negotiation table.”
This story would sell amazingly at twilight, but at the Libyan dawn, it becomes dust. Let us not torture our memory by repeating the heroic slogans about the Libya campaign. The bet was huge. In the proxy war that’s been going on in Libya for the last five years, two agreements were signed on Nov. 27 with the Government of National Accord. Helping the Tripoli wing to victory was made a top priority so that the maritime agreement could be carried into the future, so for this reason, the resolution to send troops to Libya passed in the parliament on January 2. After that, it was disclosed — Turkish intelligence organization MİT actively participating — that military deployment was already gradually being carried out. Parallel to this, the operation to transport militia from Syria to Libya accelerated.
However, the resolution that passed the parliament with fury did not turn into a majestic campaign. Before anything else, it was understood immediately that Russia, which interrupted the “desired” project in Syria and imposed its own road map to Ankara, was again to become a head-to-head opponent in Libya. While discussing such topics as Idlib and Tripoli, our defense minister, foreign affairs minister and the head of MİT spent more time in the Kremlin palace than the Beştepe palace.
On the other hand, the rival front in Eastern Mediterranean took guard. The EstMed line agreement, which will carry natural gas to Europe, was signed in Athens on Jan. 2 with the participation of leaders from Greece, Israel and Republic of Cyprus.
The foreign ministers of France, Greece, Egypt and Republic of Cyprus got together on Jan. 8 in Cairo and declared that the deals Ankara signed with the Tripoli administration were invalid.
On the other hand, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates increased their support of the Libyan National Army, led by Khalifa Haftar.
And the Tripoli wing, which people hoped would repel Khalifa Haftar with the help of the Turkish military, was defeated at Sirte. The city was taken over by Haftar forces. Haftar was aiming for Misurata after Sirte, but then the call for the ceasefire happened.
Meanwhile, one noteworthy point regarding the balance of power in Libya is this: Sirte showed that when the wind blows from the opposite direction, the local armed forces can easily change sides. In parallel with these developments, tribal leaders from several places gathered at Benghazi and offered their support to Haftar and the House of Representatives. This support is also a rejection of Turkey’s military intervention. Aisha Gaddafi, the daughter of Muammar Gaddafi, who was lynched in 2011, made a televised call to repel the Turkish military intervention.
The attitudes of Libya’s neighboring countries did not change in the direction Ankara was expecting. Tunisia had to reject claims that it would open bases and a logistic line for Turkey many times. Despite the provocative news that two Turkish frigates were to dock at Algerian ports, Algeria announced that it was rejecting all foreign intervention to Libya. Algeria is keeping its distance from the two sides of the war.
In such an equation, it was Russia that took advantage of the situation Turkey had created. Putin changed Turkey’s intervention plan into an advantage, convincing two critical supporters, Egypt and the UAE, that a ceasefire would benefit everyone. Turkey’s attitude inevitably puts Haftar at one end of the table. Turkey’s Libya move has been shrunken into a smaller target.
In fact, the Islamic forces that ran away from places such as Benghazi, Derna and Sirte have made Tripoli their area of concentration. Unless there is domestic disintegration in Tripoli, Haftar’s external moves can only bring destruction and blood.
Most probably, when Putin spoke to the UAE crown prince Muhammed bin Zayed and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, he made them understand this. Russia’s recently developed relations with countries such as the Gulf block and Egypt — countries that Erdoğan is always quarrelling with — makes them follow his advice.
Russia’s relations with Israel, Greece and Republic of Cyprus, which fall on the other side of the conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean, have always been friendly. Naturally, Russia’s coordination with Turkey in Libya will proceed in accordance with the balance set by these relations. While Turkey is becoming a part of the war in Libya by putting all its eggs in one basket, Russia has elevated itself to the position of mediator through its network of balanced relations. While Putin has strengthened Russia’s position in the region with this ceasefire, he has also prevented a Turkish-Russian encounter. Because the account in Syria has not been settled yet, unwanted encounters in Libya could have destroyed everything.
The approach Russia has developed in Syria is one that uses Erdoğan’s uncalculated, hasty, single-shot and highly threatening moves in such a way that they open the way for Russian strategy. Most probably, Putin sees the influence of Erdoğan on the Islamists in Tripoli as a channel of influence to attract the different sides to the table.
After signing deals with the Tripoli government, Erdoğan said, “I do not want the Haftar issue to produce a new Syria in the relations with Russia. I believe Russia will also review the current thesis.” Putin replied with an arch smile; in these stormy times, he not only restricted Turkey in Libya, but also opened the TurkStream natural gas pipeline that Erdoğan called “the latest sign of our cooperation” without issue. Their strategic partnership is expansive enough that it has a calming effect on the areas of dispute between the two countries.
In short, the balance in Libya prompts the “partnership in conflict” option for Russia and Turkey, just as before in Syria.
Putin, who thought they had been deceived with the no-fly zone decision by the UN Security Council on March 17, 2011, and who criticized this decision four days later as resembling “a medieval call for a crusade,” has returned to the Libya stage as the game changer. Actually, he should be thankful to Erdoğan.
Russia having a say in Libya is a sign of the strengthening of its position in the Mediterranean and an increase in relations in northern Africa, just as it means that they will be able to look at Europe from the south. After a similar trip to Damascus, this is now the equivalent of a jaunt to Tripoli wearing Ottoman boots.
He was right when Russian senator Oleg Morozov said last month, “Indeed, Turkey now stands out as a very serious partner in the crisis situations in these two countries. We understand that many problems cannot be solved in both Syria and Libya without serious and deep involvement from the Turkish side.”
Of course, the solution Morozov is referring to is different from Erdoğan’s dreams. If it were the same, they would have visited the Umayyad Mosque together. As long as flip-flop policies continue, the Damascus scenario may be repeated in Tripoli.