After the massive defeat of the Libyan National Army (LNA) at the hands of Operation Burkan Al-Ghadab (Volcano of Rage) - which supports the internationally recognized Government of Accord (GNA) - the new frontline is just west of Sirte, a city 370 km southeast of Tripoli and 350 km southwest of Benghazi, strategically located at the entrance to Libya’s Oil Crescent.
While Turkish combat drones, air defense, artillery, electronic warfare and Special Forces form, together with about 10,000 Syrian mercenaries, the backbone of Operation Volcano, hundreds of mercenaries from the Russian private-military company Wagner fight for the LNA. Much more important, in May some 12 to 16 MiG-29SM/SMT and 4 to 6 Su-24M fighter jets arrived in Libya from Russia via Syria and operate now mainly from the Al Jufra air base (about 230 km south of Sirte). The Egyptian President Al-Sisi announced on June 20 that his country will intervene militarily, if the Sirte - Al Jufra line is crossed by pro-GNA forces. The political opponent of the GNA, the internationally recognized House of Representatives (HoR) has already officiallyrequested Egyptian military support.
However, Turkey and Russia are now the two key foreign players on the ground in Libya. Actually, the GNA is fully dependent on Turkish support.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s power is founded on a combination of political Islam, nationalism and support for major economic enterprises. The economy of Turkey is in major difficulty, now even intensified by the COVID19 pandemic. Gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean is a key project to revive the economy, but relations with Greece, Cyprus and Israel are strained over Turkish maritime claims. The relationship with the European Union is difficult, and not only regarding migration.
The country has ongoing problems with its Kurdish minority and is engaged in costly campaigns in Syria and Iraq. Its relationship with the United States is difficult over arms procurements from Russia and a poor human rights record, but America still considers Turkey a bulwark against Russia in Syria and Libya. Relations with Moscow are ambivalent. While Russia is an important economic partner, in Syria and Libya the countries are opponents.
Libya has a key role in Turkey’s foreign policy and in its plans for economic recovery. There are strong historic ties with Misrata and the “Kouloughlis”, several 100,000 of people in Misrata, Tripoli and other coastal cities, who are descendants of the marriages of Ottoman Turks with local women. Those connections are maintained and exploited by Turkey also for its political purposes.
Vital Turkish economic interests related to Libya include the Maritime Agreement signed on November 27, 2019, concerning Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), which serves - although illegal by the standards of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea - as a basis for further Turkish argumentation about maritime claims in the eastern Mediterranean. Compensation for the financial losses suffered during the revolution (more than 18 bn USD) as well as a major share of the reconstruction of Libya under favorable conditions are crucial for the survival of some major Turkish business enterprises. Both were key topics during high-level talks in Tripoli mid-June.
Turkey has never before had a major oil concession in Libya, but this will change now. Its state-run firm TPAO (Türkiye Petrolleri Anonim Ortaklığı - Turkish Petroleum Corporation) has won a bid for seven exploration blocks off the Cyrenaica coast. Drilling shall start not later than September this year. With an increase in its technical capabilities, TPAO also expects a major share of onshore oil exploration on very favorable terms - and there is no doubt that it will get it. Last but not least, Libya shall also serve as a major export destination for Turkey, including for arms.
It can be debated whether the promotion of political Islam by Turkey in some kind of partnership with the Muslim Brotherhood is a tool to an end or an end in itself. Regardless, what is correct is that it is a driver of Turkish partnerships on the ground in Libya. Of future key significance is that Turkey will most likely useLibya as ahub for the regional expansion of political Islam and its own influence. The intention to establish a naval base in Misrata and an air base at Al Wattiya (close to the Tunisian border) is a strong indication of this. The naval base will allow for a permanent Turkish maritime presence not only in the Libyan Sea, but also in the Ionian and eventually the Tyrrhenian Sea. The air base will become a fighter and drone base, as well as a logistic center for Turkish activities in the Sahara region.
Regardless of their antagonism in Syria and Libya, relations with Turkeyare of great significance for Russia, including for its economy. Turkey is an important transit country for Russian gas pipelines, lessening Russia’s dependency on pipelines through Ukraine. Moscow tacitly appreciates Turkey’s role as a spirit of discord within NATO, and facilitates this through selling it sophisticated air defense systems.
Libya is not as important for Russia as it is for Turkey, but still provides a number of good opportunities for the country's geostrategic ambitions and its weak economy. As is the case with Syria, Moscow considers Libya a battleground against the spread of radical Islam, which is also perceived as a threat for Russia. The establishment of military bases, at least in eastern Libya (including a naval base for its aircraft carrier in Tobruk) would allow Russia to project its influence in the region and serve as a springboard for its ambitions in the southern Sahara, also in order to counter the American and European influence there. Russia is already present in Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR). Wagner is even providing military training to CAR’s forces, although there is a military EU Training Mission in the country.
On the economic side, Russia, like Turkey, seeks a major share in Libya’s reconstruction under advantageous conditions (at least in the east) and would like to increase its participation in the country’s oil and gas exploration. Furthermore, under Gaddafi the Russians (and earlier the Soviets) had been the main arms supplier to the Libyan army. Today, Moscow would like to regain such a profitable position.
The prospects for a resumption of the political process are currently dire. In order to secure all its national interests, Turkey needs to get the whole of Libya under control, or at least maintain its formal political unity under the domination of its allies in Tripoli/Misrata. A separation of the east would make the vital maritime agreement with Libya irrelevant. As long as it is successful on the battlefield, Turkey will not seek any negotiated settlement with the LNA/HoR. If the military offensive towards the east stalls, it is very likely that it will be resumed later on in order to prevent a break-away of Cyrenaica.
The Misrata and Islamist groupssupporting the GNA are eager to continue to the east anyway as they want to eliminate the LNA once and for all, take revenge for their previous defeats in Benghazi and Derna and allow for the return of refugees to those cities. On the economic side, there is simply too much oil in the Oil Crescent to leave it to the east.
Consequently, Turkey and the GNA/Operation Volcano are not seriously interested in a ceasefire, especially as they are convinced that they could defeat the LNA at least in Sirte and take the Oil Crescent - if Egypt does not intervene. Therefore, and assuming that Egypt will stay out, they will attempt to continue towards the east, if the LNA does not withdraw voluntarily.
Nevertheless, because such an advance would directlyharm vital Egyptian interests, President Al-Sisi cannot afford to ignore this. Therefore an escalation is very likely. The Egyptian Armed Forces certainly have the capability to stop Turkey and Operation Volcano. Therefore, the more credible the Egyptian threat is, the more likely it is that at the least Turkey will refrain from an attack on Sirte, at least for the time being.
Differently from Turkey, Russian interests in Libya are already widely served, if it manages to maintain a foothold in eastern Libya. Therefore Russia will aim to prevent the total defeat of the LNA if this is achievable with diplomatic and moderate military means. Most likely it will continue its limited military support for the LNA while seeking an arrangement with Turkey.
Neither Egypt nor Russia will support any LNA ambitions for another military adventure in Tripolitania.
It would be naive to assume that Turkey would reduce its grip on Libya if the Russians would leave voluntarily or the LNA is defeated. There is no reason whatsoever for them to do so. Furthermore, the weak GNA leadership loyal to Turkey needs the continued cooperation with the Turks also for domestic reasons.
Impact on European interests
In conclusion, it is very likely that the Turks and Russians are in Libya to stay. Their presence will impact European, and especially Italian, interests in a negative way.
Although it is not recognized by anyone other than Turkey and Libya (or to be more precise: by the GNA), the Maritime Agreement is used as a precedent by Turkey in its argumentation about the delineation of the EEZs in the whole eastern Med to the disadvantage of EU member states Greece and Cyprus. Turkey will not negotiate, but simply drill (or continue to drill) in the areas it claims. The drillship Yavuz recently started to operate in Block 6 of the Cypriot EEZ in an area licensed to Eni and Total.
Turkish intrusion into Libya’s oil business will be to the disadvantage of the European companies, especially Eni, Repsol, Total and Wintershall, and reduce their market share in the mid-term significantly. For Turkey this is not only about some cheap crude, but about the domination of Libya’s hydrocarbon industry. Turkish companies will also push for contracts in the construction business, the health sector, and for power stations – and certainly get them, in part sidelining European companies. In addition to several important pipelines running through its territory, Turkey now also de facto controls the Green Stream Pipeline towards Italy. The brief occupation of Eni’s Mellitah terminal by militias on June 10 gave a first taste of what could easily happen in the future, although the selling of gas to Italy is certainly in Libyan interests.
Turkey now has not only control over the eastern Mediterranean migration route, but also over most of the central route. Events on the Turkish-Greek border last March demonstrate that President Erdogan does not hesitate to use migration to pressure Europe. This could also be the case in the struggle for gas exploration off Cyprus.
Keeping President Erdogan’s record of aggressive policy in the eastern Mediterranean and towards the European Union in mind, contrary to what is believed by some, it is highly unlikely that it will be possible to find some kind of permanent arrangement with Turkey in Libya. Erdogan will not hesitate to demonstrate his new power. The short-notice postponement of Italian Foreign Minister Di Maio’s recent visit to Ankara - because his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, decided that it was more important for him to travel to Libya on the same day - is a strong hint of how Turkey understands the relationship with Italy and Europe regarding Libya.
Turkish cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood will be much easier in the future, since by its influence on the GNA the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups will for the first time have direct access to a vast amount of wealth on their own. These new funds will be certainly used for their future expansion in the region and beyond. This will contribute to the destabilization of countries in the Sahara region, some of which are of key importance for France.
A permanently enlarged Russian maritime presence in the Mediterranean is not in the European interest, let alone the long-term deployment of an aircraft carrier. An increased Russian influence in the southern Sahara will lead to a clash with European interests. The future stronger economic involvement of Russian companies in Libya and the Sahara region will certainly be to the disadvantage of the Europeans.
After being outmaneuvered, Turkey’s and Russia’s strong influence in Libya is something Europe will need to learn to live with. In order to be able to mitigate the negative impact at least in a limited way, Italy and the EU need to find a way to become more serious actors in Libya. But this will be very, very difficult.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of ISPI. Photo credits: ©European Union