The conflict in the Libyan arena during 2020 witnessed a fundamental shift in terms of the map of both international and regional influences. Turkey has become the supporter and controller of the military and political decisions of the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the camp supporting it. On the other hand, Russian influence increased in an unprecedented way on the country’s eastern camp.

The great increase in the influence of the two countries coincided with the increase in the pace of mutual coordination between them. Despite the failure to pass the ceasefire agreement that was sponsored by the Russian and Turkish presidents in Moscow in January 2020, the levels and mechanisms of mutual coordination between them witnessed a significant increase thereafter, at the level of both the presidents and the ministers of foreign affairs and defence. This was reflected in several meetings and joint statements in this regard throughout 2020. Overall, this duo has come to control the military track (at least during the first half of 2020), with an increase in its influence on the political track as well.

In the light of the declared trends of the administration of US President-elect Joe Biden regarding his foreign policy, speculations prevail about adverse policies and positions that are likely to be taken by his administration vis-à-vis both Russia and Turkey on a number of issues. This raises questions about the status of the Libyan conflict within those forthcoming positions of the new administration towards the two countries.

Motives of Russian-Turkish coordination

Despite the alignment of each of the two countries against the other in Libya, as well as their conflicting interests in other conflicts in the Eurasian and Mediterranean domains, the interaction between a number of vital issues for the two countries renders each of them for the other what could be described as the "favourite opponent", compared to other opponents who are characterised by a greater conflict of interests with either of the two actors.

At the forefront of the motives for coordination come the common interests in reducing the influence of European actors in Libya and the tendency of the conflict track to be based on the interests of the two countries and the degree of the existing understandings between them. This intersects with the complexities of the dispute over natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean. On the one hand, Turkey seeks to disrupt the current arrangements regarding the delimitation of the maritime borders and the subsequent sharing by the countries of the region of the gas wealth among themselves. Those arrangements culminated in the establishment of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), with most of whose members Turkey maintains hostile relations of varying intensity.

Through its intervention in Libya and signing an official agreement on maritime borders with the internationally recognised GNA, Turkey seeks to obstruct those arrangements that bring Turkey the least benefit compared to countries of the region. On the other hand, Russia has an inherent interest in blocking any productive projects that threaten its dominance of the gas market in the European continent.

The decisive military support provided by Turkey helped the GNA gain a military advantage during the Tripoli war in the face of Haftar's forces that were forced to withdraw from the entire western region. In the light of the complex calculations and restrictions on Haftar’s traditional supporters regarding providing him with large-scale military support, the rising military pressure on his forces drives for more dependence by the eastern Libyan camp on Russian military support, especially given that camp’s need for the cards held by Moscow through its relationship with some components and cities of the Western Region that previously supported the Gaddafi regime. Naturally, this track serves Moscow's agenda in regaining its lost influence in Libya.

According to the Russian-Turkish support for each of the two parties to the Libyan conflict, the dynamics of military escalation between the two parties intersect with the processes of "emptying" Syria of the fighting operatives there, after the relative decline in military operations and the drive towards a political settlement of the conflict. The escalation of the conflict in Libya achieves strategic goals for the two countries. On the one hand, Turkey seeks to restore its historical importance within NATO, which it had possessed during the Cold War era by virtue of its direct geographical contact with Soviet areas of influence, which gave its role a vital importance in curbing this influence. Through increasing understandings with Moscow on several issues, Ankara also seeks to expand the margin for manoeuvrability with the Western actors in the issues in dispute.

On the other hand, Moscow shows enough flexibility to drive understandings with Ankara to the furthest extent possible, in a way that might affect Ankara's western alliances, thus causing a degree of imbalance within NATO.

The experience of coordination between the two countries in Libya, albeit from a hostile position, has shown its ability to achieve some of those goals for the two countries, in terms of both the US green light received by Ankara to curb the expansion of Russian-backed Haftar forces, and the escalating differences between Ankara and other capitals of NATO members. With the continuing pace of the conflict at the military level, especially with the likely return of escalation in the activities of terrorist organisations in southern Libya, the influence of the two countries in Libya would be enhanced.

The Biden administration and curbing bilateral coordination

The declared trends of the Biden administration suggest that the margin available to Turkey and Russia to achieve their goals in Libya will diminish significantly, compared to the course of the conflict during 2020.

On the one hand, there is likely to be a change in the approach adopted during the Trump presidency, whereby the US relied on Turkey to confront the Russian intervention in Libya, at a time when relations between Ankara and Moscow were witnessing a great level of rapprochement. This went beyond Turkey’s mere pursuit of expanding the margin of manoeuvrability with the West, with the aim of increasing the value of its role with its traditional allies, going as far as concluding the S-400 deal, in a manner that constituted an uncharacteristic disregard for the US military concerns, given the security implications of this deal for NATO's interests.

In light of the strict stance shown by the US President-elect towards Russia, and after the US Congress imposed sanctions against Turkey in December 2020 against the backdrop of the deal, the Turkish behaviour is expected to be dealt with from a more comprehensive perspective, with the aim of resetting this behavior in a way that serves Biden’s trends towards restoring NATO's cohesion and responding to Russian influence in general.

In that case, the Turkish considerations in Libya may become more compliant with the US agenda in a way that may reduce the relatively wide margin of movement that was available to Erdogan before, both in managing his country's policy towards Libya and in his relationship with Moscow.

On the other hand, restoring confidence in relations with the European continent, and the priority of rapprochement with the major influential capitals there, in conjunction with open hostility towards both Moscow and the authoritarian regimes in general may all indicate an increase in the possibility of allowing the European actors to regain the initiative in managing the Libyan crisis once again, given that from the Obama-Biden administration's viewpoint, it had been dealt with as a "European issue".

Despite the unwillingness of the European actors to assume direct military roles in Libya, Biden’s trends indicate that it would be difficult to tolerate the Turkish employment of the Libyan issue in a manner that would benefit Ankara’s relationship with Moscow at the expense of Western interests, and its assumption of roles that seem ostensibly in defence of NATO’s interests against Russia, although they have negative effects on the cohesion of its members.

This coincides with Biden’s announcement of a preference for diplomatic tools in managing international crises, in parallel with an emphasis on the limited possibility of resorting to special forces if necessary. Hence, the US need for Turkish military services in Libya may be subject to more stringent and limited determinants.

Finally, the priority of fighting terrorism for the new US administration, and the emphasis on the desire to fight both Daesh (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda organisations, would increase the importance of the neighbouring countries of Libya as partners with the US in combating terrorist activities, especially in the light of the experiences that those countries have in the geography of the conflict which may limit Turkey's importance in this regard.

It is also noteworthy that United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) forces had previously played a direct role in the fight against terrorism in Libya, within the framework of Operation Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous (BaM, Solid Structure) in 2016, during Biden’s tenure as Vice President to President Obama. On the other hand, Turkey's involvement in supporting extremist Islamist operatives may, from a US viewpoint, limit its importance in playing any roles in fighting terrorism in Libya.

Conclusion

  • The course of the Libyan conflict and its intersections with a number of conflict issues between other regional and international actors constituted an opportunity to expand the Russian and Turkish influence in Libya during 2020. This was associated with a high level of coordination between the two countries to crystallise a set of political and military understandings between them there.
  • The declared trends of the Biden administration indicate the possibility of adopting a more hard-line approach towards Moscow and Ankara, with the aim of curbing Russian military influence in Libya on the one hand, and resetting Turkish behaviour on the other hand, in a way that would reduce the margin of "free and individuallised employment" by Turkey of its military role as a NATO member, without necessarily implying a complete US retreat from the green light granted to Turkey in Libya in the foreseeable future.

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