By Fehim Tastekin
Libya’s coastal city of Sirte, a strategic gateway to major oil facilities, has emerged as a critical point of contention between Turkey and Russia, with France also scrambling to impede Turkey via NATO.
The fast-paced advance of the Turkish-backed Tripoli forces in Libya has stalled at the key coastal city of Sirte as Russia’s role in the conflict has grown more assertive, heralding a tough bargaining between Ankara and Moscow.
Turkish drones, which helped turn the tide in favor of the Government of National Accord, have run into range constraints as government troops moved farther from Tripoli in pursuit of Khalifa Hifter’s Libyan National Army. On the Hifter side, meanwhile, drones provided by the United Arab Emirates have been joined by Russian MiG-29 jets as Russia appears to be trying to impede any advance to Sirte.
Hifter’s setbacks around Tripoli had raised expectations that the parties would return to the positions they held before the Libyan National Army launched its thrust on the capital in April 2019 and that a Turkish-Russian partnership would take shape to steer the process down the road.
The first stab at such collaboration was actually made in January after Ankara signed a maritime demarcation accord with the Government of National Accord and Turkey stepped up its military involvement in Libya, but the attempt fell through as Hifter persisted in trying to capture Tripoli.
Following the Libyan National Army’s loss of the al-Watiya base last month, Moscow pulled the Wagner mercenaries backing Hifter to al-Jufra in central Libya, which was seen as a sign that the area would become a Russian red line.
Hifter captured al-Jufra in 2017, while Sirte, some 300 kilometers (190 miles) to the north, fell to his forces in June 2019. By deploying at least 14 MiG-29 and Su-24 jets to al-Jufra in late May, Russia showed it would stand its ground there.
It has shown no flexibility about letting Sirte fall, either, dashing Ankara’s hopes of repeating the relatively easy victories of al-Watiya and Tarhuna.
On June 14, Russia’s foreign and defense ministers postponed a visit to Turkey at the last minute, with bilateral contacts said to continue on a lower level. The Russians backed out of the talks after Turkey dismissed an Egyptian cease-fire proposal that was in line with Russia’s game plan; Turkish officials were bent on sustaining the Government of National Accord’s military push.
In a TV interview June 8, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cited Sirte, al-Jufra and major oil fields as the next targets of the campaign. He conceded Russia was “disturbed” and said he would discuss the matter with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A brewing tussle over Sirte was already evident in early June, when a Government of National Accord delegation, including the deputy chair of the presidential council, Ahmed Maiteeq, visited Moscow.
Maiteeq was reportedly told that Sirte was a red line for Russia. Back in Tripoli, he called the commander of the Sirte-Jufra operation, urging him to halt the offensive and sparking an in-house rift.
he Government of National Accord’s interior minister vowed that Sirte would be taken and Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, returning from talks in Ankara, ordered the offensive to continue. “Sirte is a red line for us,” Gen. Abdulhadi Dirah, the spokesman of the Sirte-Jufra joint operation room, said June 15.
So, what makes Sirte everyone’s “red line”?
Sitting right in the middle of Libya’s coastline, Sirte is the western gateway of the country’s “oil crescent” region and the route that one has to control to dominate the ports of Sidra, Ras Lanuf, Marsa al-Brega and Zuwetina, where 11 oil pipelines and three gas conduits reach the Mediterranean coast.
By capturing Sirte, one could easily seize a 350-kilometer (217-mile) coastal stretch all the way to Benghazi, abounding in pipelines, refineries, terminals and storage facilities. Hifter’s seizure of the “oil crescent” — home to 60% of Libya’s hydrocarbon riches — had given him the leverage to undermine the Tripoli and Misrata forces.
In prewar Libya, 96% of public revenues came from hydrocarbons. The country’s reserves amount to 48.3 billion barrels of oil and 1.5 trillion cubic meters of gas. Its oil output, however, has plunged to 90,000 barrels per day from the 1.6 million barrels of yesteryear.
In sum, controlling the “oil crescent” in a way that ensures the flow of oil could have a multiplier effect in swaying the conflict and Sirte is seen as the key to seizing the region.
After capturing al-Wishka on June 6, Government of National Accord forces marched on Sirte from three flanks, but Libyan National Army air raids stalled the advance. The stalemate has reinforced anticipation for Turkish-Russian talks, yet a breakthrough appears unlikely until Erdogan and Putin come together.
Turkey is seeking a lasting military presence in Libya, eyeing al-Watiya and a naval base in Misrata. Some claim Ankara would acquiesce to Russian control in al-Jufra in return for Sirte.
The al-Qardabiya air base near Sirte is another facility that Turkey is said to be eyeing in the event of Sirte’s fall.
Russia, for its part, is believed to have set its sight on Sirte as a naval base, in addition to al-Jufra, keen to reinforce its posture in the Mediterranean after acquiring bases in Tartus and Latakia in Syria.
Not surprisingly, such prospects have alarmed NATO, which is wary of being squeezed on its southern flank. Yet NATO is not unified on the issue.
France, which is averse to both Turkish and Russian control in Sirte, has already stepped in. The appearance of French fighter jets in Libyan skies is seen as France’s claim of being part of the game.
A Libyan source was quoted as telling The Arab Weekly, “It seems that France has started to line up with Russia against Turkey, and in truth, it is against the United States. The Russians and the French view Sirte with the same importance; both want the port and the base of Al-Qardabiya.”
On June 14, France lashed out at Turkey for growing “even more aggressive” in Libya, accusing it of sending half a dozen ships to the country and violating the UN arms embargo, and requested a NATO meeting on the issue.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Turkey’s attitude was “a danger to ourselves, an unacceptable strategic risk, because it’s 200 kilometers [124 miles] from the Italian coast.”
France followed up with accusations of an “extremely aggressive” intervention by Turkish frigates against a French navy vessel checking a freighter suspected of taking arms to Libya. On June 18, NATO said it would investigate the incident.
France is reportedly seeking direct US support to restrain Turkey, while Turkey is calling for cooperation with the United States in Libya.
For the United States, the priority is to impede Russia, but for France it is Turkey first. As long as Russia prevails among its concerns, the United States is unlikely to corner Turkey in NATO.
Openly supportive of Turkey already, Washington is busy exposing Russian jets in Libya. What could prompt Washington to change heart would be the emergence of a Turkish-Russian partnership in Libya.
On June 17, amid the showdown with France, Erdogan sent a high-level delegation to Tripoli, comprising Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin.
According to Cavusoglu, the aim of the visit was “to emphasize support for Libya in a strong manner.” The talks focused on the military campaign and economic projects.
The visit was certainly a show of resolve, but hardly removes the imperative for Turkey to compromise with Russia. Commenting on the visit, Khalid al-Mishri, the head of Libya’s High Council of State, said the Turkish-Russian dialogue on Libya was “compatible” with Government of National Accord principles.
Turkey and its allies appear bent on excluding Hifter from prospective settlement talks. Russia is unlikely to jeopardize talks by balking at this condition.
Amid Hifter’s defeats, Moscow has already raised the profile of Aguila Saleh Issa, the head of the Tobruk-based parliament. Still, the two sides need to see what they can pull off in Sirte and al-Jufra before looking for an exit from the conflict.
Fehim Tastekin is a Turkish journalist and a columnist for Turkey Pulse who previously wrote for Radikal and Hurriyet. He has also been the host of the weekly program “SINIRSIZ,” on IMC TV. As an analyst, Tastekin specializes in Turkish foreign policy and Caucasus, Middle East and EU affairs.