ANKARA: Experts say that the rift between Moscow and Ankara over policy differences in Libya may intensify following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to send troops to Libya at the request of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA).
The presence of a senior Turkish delegation in Moscow on Monday to meet their Russian counterparts is considered an effort to avert a major bilateral crisis.
Although welcoming attempts for resolving the crisis in the North African country, Russia is against any interference in Libya’s internal affairs by an outsider, the Russian president’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on Thursday.
“We have repeatedly reiterated Russia’s stance on the Libyan crisis. Moscow is seeking a prompt resolution of the conflict and an end to the bloodshed in the country,” Peskov said.
Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Federation Council’s International Affairs Committee, wrote on his official Facebook page that Turkish military intervention in Libya could be the worst scenario.
Kosachev also criticized Erdogan’s recent claims that the Kremlin-linked Wagner group is in Libya with 2,000 mercenaries supporting Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Erdogan condemned the Russian presence in Libya, saying they had not been invited by the official government.
“To put it kindly, considering the level of our bilateral relations, it is not accurate to hear such statements from Ankara,” Kosachev said.
This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)
The comments from the Kremlin side were made after Erdogan’s announcement that he would submit a motion to the Parliament early next month to use Turkish troops in Libya.
Parliamentary approval is required for deploying Turkish troops although there is a military cooperation deal between both parties. The prospect of setting foot in Libya also boosts the nationalist narrative in Turkey.
Samuel Ramani, a geopolitical analyst and doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, UK, points to the risk of an Ankara-Moscow confrontation ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Turkey on Jan. 8.
All eyes are now on this planned visit which will be dominated not only by the opening of the TurkStream natural gas pipeline, but also by developments in Libya.
“Erdogan and Putin have consulted each other on carving out zones of influence in Libya to avoid conflict, but the potential for a clash is real,” Ramani told Arab News.
In Syria and Libya, Russia and Turkey are backing rival parties. Turkey supports Fayez Al-Serraj’s GNA in Tripoli, which controls the west of the country, while Russia is backing its rival, Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA).
According to Ramani, any confrontation between Ankara and Moscow would be unwelcome and have repercussions at a time when both powers are trying to reach a settlement on Idlib and Syrian refugee repatriation.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights recently claimed that Turkey-backed Syrian rebels have opened recruitment centers in northern Aleppo for dispatching young fighters to Libya through Turkey with a monthly salary of up to $2,000.
According to a UN report last month, Turkey has already sent military supplies to the GNA in breach of the arms embargo.
In anticipation of more military engagement, the Turkish Red Crescent is also gearing up to open a branch in Libya in the first months of 2020.
Michael Tanchum, a senior associate fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES), told Arab News that Russia does not want chaos in Libya, and the Kremlin would like to continue to use Turkey to keep NATO divided and off-balance.
“Erdogan’s best pitch to Putin is that if the GNA falls there will be more war and instability and that the Turkey-Russia partnership in managing Libya is a better option. Despite the previous flexibility that Russia has shown toward Turkey’s strategic ambitions, the Libya case may be different,” he said. “Sufficient weight needs be given to the Russia-Egypt and Russia-UAE relationships when assessing Russia’s strategic calculus. All these factors are at play.”
The special representative of Putin for the Middle East and Africa, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia Mikhail Bogdanov, met yesterday separately with the Libyan and Turkish ambassadors.
For Timur Akhmetov, a researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council, Russia is facing a dilemma where it should embrace Turkish demands for participation in Libyan affairs but keep Turkish participation not critical to Russian interests.
“The general trend now is that Turkey, while being isolated in the region, enforces its diplomatic stance with heavier reliance on hard power, but it doesn’t necessarily mean Ankara’s intrinsic inclination to hostilities; hard times demand desperate measures,” he told Arab News.
For Akhmetov, Russia would probably accept Turkish involvement to an extent where its role suits or facilitates Russian long-term interests such as stabilization of the conflict, securing economic assets or eventually making all major belligerent sides accept a final resolution.