Jalel Harchaoui and Bernardo Mariani
Future Prospects for the Russo-Turkish Entente
Russia and Turkey’s commitment to maintaining an informal entente with one another has been significant to Libya’s fate since 2020. Broadly speaking, Russia — unlike Europe —has shown a patient willingness to accept and, to some extent, accommodate Turkey’s aspirations to become a full-blown regional power.
Ankara and Moscow are often on opposing sides of regional disputes, such as in Syria, Libya, Ukraine, Armenia-Azerbaijan, amongst others. Despite this, Moscow attempts to remain pragmatic and amenable to dialogue due to the convenience of partnership between Russia and Turkey.
Although a rupture may occur at any time, Moscow has so far valued the option of striking temporary arrangements with Ankara. Those arrangements are useful in helping Russia avoid costly, prolonged episodes of unnecessary conflict.
Moreover, Moscow is interested in maintaining its semi-partnership with Turkey, an important member of NATO, partly because the existence of that relationship exacerbates tensions and erodes cohesion within NATO. When Turkey purchased the S-400 missile defence system from Russia, for example, Washington and other major NATO members deemed Ankara’s move a threat to Western tactical aviation.
More recently, Washington and other Western capitals were alarmed at the deepening ties between Turkey and Russia, to the point of contemplating punitive retaliation against the NATO member as it helps Moscow avoid sanctions.
After Russian-Turkish tensions over Syria decreased in 2020, the verbal sparring between Russian and Turkish officials regarding Libya also came to a quasi-halt. Despite this deescalation, the two countries disagree on Haftar’s place in Libya’s political future.
In Turkey, Haftar is widely viewed as a rogue warlord who depends on external military support for survival and lacks the popular legitimacy to rule Tripoli. However, senior Russian officials, such as Alexei Yerkhov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, argue that Haftar cannot be ignored because he controls too large a part of Libya while the Tripoli government has lost legitimacy by aligning with Islamist militias.
More recently however, Russia has made efforts to work with Tripoli to reopen its embassy there, while an assiduous dialog now exists between Ankara and Haftar’s sons.
If the US remains ambiguous towards the Libyan crisis while European powers continue to entertain conflicting agendas, Russia and Turkey may use the opportunity to marginalise Western powers through cooperation on a substantive peace settlement in Libya. The persistence of the Astana talks on Syria, despite continued strategic competition between Russia and Turkey, provides a model for this form of diplomatic cohabitation.
Turkish officials welcomed the 8 January 2020 Putin–Erdogan ceasefire negotiations on Libya as a noteworthy illustration of Turkey’s great-power status. Because a majority of Turks oppose Erdogan’s deployment of forces to Libya and the Russian public’s focus is on socioeconomic challenges at home, Erdogan and Putin could maintain pressure on the main Libyan protagonists to preserve the current modus vivendi.
Due to the dearth of genuine reconciliation initiatives amongst Libyan factions thus far, as well as a wide array of other transnational dynamics still affecting Libya, this Russo-Turkish entente may not be sufficient to ensure continued peace in Libya however. In that regard, the greater Tripoli area has become significantly more tense and divided since June 2020.
Foreign interferers—including Turkey, which is militarily implanted in that particular territory—cannot prevent conflicts from erupting in such populous urban settings. The war that Russia initiated in Ukraine in February 2022 has also had a noticeable effect on the transnational dynamics affecting Libya.
Notably, it has rendered several NATO powers more likely to intervene against Russian forces in the North African country. Russia’s war on Ukraine has made the environment more uncertain for its main Libyan partner, Haftar, who can no longer attempt large-scale offensives similar to his past campaigns without exposing his coalition to major risks, such as a Western-backed Libyan campaign aimed at seizing strategic territories from the field marshal.
Indeed, if Haftar undertakes a direct armed attack in addition to the oil blockade he imposed in AprilJuly 2022, Britain and Italy — with help from the United States — may support a Libyan counteroffensive against both his and Russia’s brigades.
In such a scenario, Turkey may work more closely together with its three fellow NATO members in their bid to weaken Russia’s presence in Libya. The Russo-Turkish entente, therefore, should not be seen as a resilient peace process capable of preventing Libya from relapsing in war.
China’s Prudent Strategy
Over the last two or three decades, China has tended to approach the African continent primarily and directly through sub-Saharan Africa, where it has built a large economic footprint. The same can be said of Algeria and Egypt.
Because of this existing footprint as well as the size of its own economy, Beijing can afford to patiently strategise on Libya. In that regard, China’s situation is notably different from that of Russia or Turkey, for whom Libya is a vital, urgently needed passageway into sub-Saharan Africa.
China has so far acquired a modest degree of influence in post-2011 Libya by prioritising economic penetration and low-key diplomacy. Undergirding its “economic stakes first” approach is the conjunction of China’s commercial ambitions on the one hand, and its profound reluctance towards military involvement on the other.
While avoiding being too visibly associated with one particular Libyan faction, China has monitored the politics surrounding the Central Bank of Libya as well as North African nation’s sovereign wealth fund, which, according to the valuation conducted in 2021, is worth about $68 billion.
Access to the nation’s significant financial resources is what enables Libyan decision-makers to award contracts to foreign, including Chinese, entities. As per mercantile logic, the Libyan faction with the greatest influence over the country’s financial resources is poised to elicit Beijing’s solicitude. Throughout its 2016-2021 tenure, the GNA enjoyed Beijing’s official recognition: Chinese diplomats met with GNA officials nine times between 2016 and 2020.
The most significant meeting occurred in mid-2018, when the GNA Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mohamed Taha Siala, attended a ministerial meeting of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in China and met with State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
The two signed a memorandum of understanding meant to bring China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to Libya. Amid talk of Libya joining the BRI, the GNA welcomed Chinese businesses back to Libya.
By 2019, bilateral trade between the two countries amounted to $6.2 billion, primarily due to rebounding Libyan oil exports to China. For its part, the GNA sought Chinese engagement, especially in areas like upgrading and rebuilding of Libya’s infrastructure—an essential long-term concern for Tripoli authorities.
Still, China’s policy regarding Libya throughout 2016-2020 remained somewhat ambiguous, owing to three main reasons. Libya was at war during that time, which meant that not only was the victor still unknown but also that reconstruction could not commence.
Further, the GNA never received the full support of the Central Bank of Libya, a political disagreement that hampered Tripoli’s ability to deploy funds, sign contracts, and transfer capital to foreign partners, all of which are necessary for any viable interlocutor to Beijing.
Finally, Russia—which China tends to follow when it comes to ideological preferences and geopolitical orientation in the MENA region—had not yet struck its modus vivendi arrangement with Turkey, a vital backer of Tripoli.
In 2021, these parameters changed: Dbeibah, the prime minister of the GNU, received the firm political support of the governor of the Central Bank; moreover, the Russo-Turkish entente was now in place.
During the first nine months of its tenure, the Tripoli-based GNU enjoyed its status as sole government in Libya to launch numerous economic initiatives, including facing China. For instance, Prime Minister Dbeibah installed a new chief at the helm of the state-controlled telecom holding entity called Libyan Post Telecommunications & Information Technology Company (LPTIC).
The latter then announced that it would give an important digitisation project to a Chinese group after rescinding a previous agreement with an Italian group. In parallel, U.S. telecom company Infinera, with support from the State Department, signed a 5G contract with Hatif, a company owned by the Libyan state.
These developments illustrate well the competition between China and Western nations when it comes to Libya’s telecom and data market, especially in circumstances wherein Libya has only one government enjoying the backing of the Central Bank of Libya. Yet, after December 2021’s elections failed to materialise, the Central Bank of Libya changed its attitude towards the GNU, making its access to public funds more difficult.
Dbeibah remained in office in 2022 but his legitimacy was diminished by the emergence of the GNS, the rival government designated by the HoR. As a result, diplomatic and business dealings with the Chinese became less frequent. If and when one single Libyan government emerges, China will likely become more economically active again in Libya.
Speaking to Beijing’s propensity to adapt and display strong stamina in Libya, a Western diplomat interviewed for this report underscored Chinese companies’ resilience in uncertain environments, as well as their willingness to have their workers operate in harsh conditions.
The interviewee also noted that “the Chinese definitely know how to participate in [Libya’s corruption and kickback] system” — illicit practices that Western companies are often required to stay away from. Owing to the conflict’s unpredictability, China has been cautious, avoiding entanglement in Libyan feuds and, instead, positioning itself to reap benefits regardless of the conflict’s ultimate outcome.
Crucial to this strategy is keeping channels open with both Tripoli authorities and the parallel authorities in the East. However, unlike Russia and the UAE, which have provided substantial military aid to the Haftar camp, China’s direct relationship with the East is strictly diplomatic—although Chinese-made Wing Loong drones, purchased and piloted by the United Arab Emirates, were an important part of Haftar’s various military campaigns.
In 2016, China approved the announcement by the eastern-Libyan authorities of a Chinese-built Tobruk-Sudan railway project. Although the latter almost certainly will not be funded in the foreseeable future, China still lent its name to the project for diplomatic reasons, knowing that eastern Libya may, in the future, achieve financial autonomy from Tripoli.
China’s neutrality and economic clout make it an attractive prospect for both Tripoli and the eastern faction. For now, it is unlikely that either side will push back on China’s nonalignment policy in Libya.
As signatories of a BRI Memorandum of Understanding in 2018, Beijing and the Tripoli-based GNA authorities laid the foundations of a future economic partnership. In parallel, China’s CNPC and subsidiary oil corporations may engage with an increasingly autonomous East, which hosts a large portion of Libya’s oil assets. The short-term future will likely reveal if Washington is willing to allow Russia to remain entrenched in Libya and carry on expanding its role there.
If the United States turns out to be permissive, China will likely infer that it, too, can pursue a more active agenda in Libya. In the view of one senior HoR policy maker, Beijing is well placed to act as a peacemaker in Libya, given its “equidistance vis-à-vis Libyan warring parties” and the “credibility it enjoys in Libya”.
Alternative scenarios exist, however, including one wherein war resumes in Libya. In such an eventuality, China will be unlikely to increase its visibility or activity. Moreover, should the political leaders in eastern Libya be able to establish their own hard-currency accounts, China would likely bolster its relationship with them while maintaining ties with Tripoli.
Jalel Harchaoui is a researcher specialising in Libya, and an Associate Fellow with the Royal United Services Institute, London. His work concentrates on the North African country’s security landscape and political economy as well as the role of foreign states.
Bernardo Mariani is a freelance conflict prevention and peacebuilding consultant based in Austria, with specialist knowledge of China. Since 2005, he has managed and implemented research and policy dialogue projects on the implications of China’s growing role in global security affairs.