By Micha’el Tanchum
On November 13, 2018, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay stormed out of an international conference on Libya organized in Palermo, Italy, complaining about “attempts to keep Turkey out of the process” to resolve the chaos in the divided North African nation.
Later, the Turkish Vice President vowed that “Turkey will continue to display its righteous and firm stance with determination in Cyprus, Syria and Libya.” Oktay’s actions and remarks in fact reflect Turkey’s weak hand in Libya.
A future Turkish show of force in Libya cannot be ruled out, but ultimately the change in the balance of power in North Africa toward Russia and Egypt has inevitably undermined Turkey’s already challenging strategic position in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In March 2017, press reports emerged of the presence of Russian Special forces in Egypt’s coastal town of Sidi Barrani, located just one hundred kilometers from the eastern Libyan territory controlled by the Russian-backed Libyan commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
Russia’s minimal objective for the deployment was to help stabilize Egyptian President Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi’s regime by assisting Egypt to stanch the chaos of its western neighbor from bleeding across the border.
As the Soviet Union, Russia enjoyed a robust military alliance with Cairo from 1956 until 1972. In October 2016, Russia and Egypt held their first joint military exercises since the Soviet era. By assisting Egypt to protect its western border, Moscow has re-forged the military links of its former alliance with Cairo.
According to Egyptian sources, Russia also sent six military units to an Egyptian base further east in Marsa Matrouh in February 2017.
The maximal objective of the Russian 2017 deployment was to support Haftar, whose forces faced an attack on March 3, 2017 against the Ras Lanuf and Es Sider oil ports under their control.
The attacks were conducted by the Benghazi Defense Brigades, a front of Islamist and jihadist militias that Haftar claims enjoys Qatari and Turkish sponsorship.
The 75-year-old Haftar, who retains the loyalty of the parliament in Tobruk, is a central actor in the Libyan civil war. A former ally of deposed Libyan strong man Moammar Gadhafi who received his military training in the Soviet Union, Haftar maintains deep ties with Russia.
Haftar’s forces control most of Libya’s oil facilities, particularly after they captured the ports along Libya’s “Oil Crescent” in September 2016, resulting in a rise in oil production from 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) to over 700,000 bpd in January 2017.
On February 21, 2018 Russian oil giant Rosneft signed an investment and crude oil purchasing agreement with Libya’s National Oil Corporation, paving the way for a major Russian role in Libya’s oil industry.
The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has been steadily increasing its level of support for Haftar. In January 2017, Haftar was invited aboard Russia’s aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean in order to conduct a video conference with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
At the same time, Ankara was struggling to restore its position in Libya since it backed the Muslim Brotherhood’s ill-fated attempt to create its own government based in Tripoli instead of supporting the new Libyan parliament, the Council of Deputies, housed in Tobruk.
During Ahmet Davutoğlu’s tenure as Turkey’s prime minister, relations between Ankara and the Tobruk-based parliament deteriorated to the point where all Turkish firms were expelled from Libya.
The May 2016 visit to Libya by then Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu succeeded in securing an agreement with the U.N.-backed administration of then Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli for Turkey to complete 304 abandoned projects worth $18.5 billion.
In 2017, members of the Tobruk-based Council of Deputies accused Turkey of sponsoring Benghazi Defense Brigade attacks on oil terminals.
During the time of the attacks, al-Sarraj himself was in Moscow for high-level talks – a sign of how much the Libyan game board had tilted in Russia’s favor.
In October 2018, Turkey officially reopened its embassy in Libya after a two-year hiatus, but Ankara remains a secondary foreign player in Libya.
In the run-up to international conference on Libya in Italy this month, Ankara attempted to bolster its hand with a visit to Tripoli by Turkish defense minister Hulusi Akar, who met with now Chairman of Presidential Council al-Sarraj as well as Libyan Interior Minister Fatih Ali Bashagha.
During his visit, Akar reportedly presented maps to the Tripoli-government officials indicating that Greece was attempting to encroach on Libya’s continental shelf.
The Turkish defense minister’s accusation may be an attempt to create a deeper alignment with the Tripoli-government that could serve as the basis for Turkey to play larger role in Libya.
Akar’s Libya visit was followed up by a visit on November 9 by al-Sarraj and a delegation of senior ministers to Istanbul. The visit also included a one-hour meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
However, Ankara’s efforts to gain influence in Libya pale in comparison to the security assets that Moscow and Egypt may be preparing for a more expanded military presence in Libya.
On November 7, 2018, Haftar and his senior staff visited Moscow for their latest meeting with Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu.
Following the session, the Libyan Armed Forces released a video showing the presence of Yevgeny Prigozhin, an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin and linked to several Russian private military companies, including the Wagner Group that allegedly participated in operations in Syria.
Prigozhin’s presence at the Haftar-Shoigu meeting has suggested to observers within Russia and beyond that Moscow may be gearing up for some form of increased intervention in Libya with operations similar to those conducted in Syria.
At the same time, from November 3 to 16, Egypt hosted a two-week long joint exercise with the militaries of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Jordan.
Dubbed Arab Shield 1, the exercise involved land, naval, and air forces as well as Special Forces and took place at Egypt’s base in Marsa Matrouh.
While some view the exercises as a step toward creating an ‘Arab NATO’ to confront Iran, the massive joint Arab exercise on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast sent a clear signal to Turkey and demonstrated the sort of coalition Egypt could muster should it decide to expand its military footprint in Libya.
On November 13, when Khalifa Haftar joined a meeting with his rival Council Chairman al-Sarraj on the sidelines of the Palermo conference, the major security providers on both sides of the divide also participated while Turkey was given no place at the table.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who officially did not attend the conference, participated along with Russian Pime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Turkish Vice President Oktay was the odd man out; his exclusion revealed Turkey’s lack of standing with regard to a vital Eastern Mediterranean issue
Obviously, both Russia and Egypt have strategic incentives to escalate their support for the aging Libyan commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
In April 2018, the general suffered a stroke and required hospitalization in an intensive care unit in Paris.
Although two of Haftar’s sons are commanders in the Libyan National Army, it is unclear whether either one of them could maintain the loyalty of the coalition of diverse factions that have united under the figure of Khalifa Haftar.
It would behoove both Moscow and Cairo to press their current advantage and deepen their respective positions in preparation for a post-Haftar era.
In addition to its alliances with Syria and Egypt, Moscow’s military presence in Libya would enable the Kremlin to complete a Russian ring around the southern half of the eastern Mediterranean.
It is worth noting that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is more popular than NATO in Greece and among Greek Cypriots. With only 195 nautical miles (360 km) separating Tobruk and Crete, Turkey thus faces the prospect of eventually finding itself encircled by a Russian presence among all of its regional adversaries.
Two days after Fuat Oktay stormed out of the Palermo conference, the Turkish vice president addressed a ceremony in the Turkish-held part of the Cypriot capital Nicosia, to mark the 35th anniversary of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, a “state” that is only recognized by Turkey.
Oktay vowed that “Turkey will continue to display its righteous and firm stance with determination in Cyprus, Syria and Libya.” With Turkish forces in Syria and Turkish ships in South Cypriot waters, Ankara’s “determination” could possibly entail some future show of force in Libya.
But ultimately vice president Oktay’s actions and remarks vowing determination reflect Turkey’s weak hand in Libya.
The change in the balance of power in North Africa in favor of Russia and Egypt inevitably and severely undermines Turkey’s already challenging strategic position in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Dr. Micha’el Tanchum is a Fellow at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University and an affiliated scholar with the Centre for Strategic Studies at Başkent University in Ankara, Turkey (Başkent-SAM).