Erdoğan-Putin Deal Tests Russian, Turkish Influence in Libya

The two strongmen announce a ceasefire, but they are not the only ones with an interest in Libya.

Days after sending military aid to prop up the UN-recognized government in Tripoli, Turkey’s strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has done a deal with Russia’s Vladimir Putin to halt the fighting in Libya.

Russian mercenaries fight on the side of warlord Khalifa Haftar, who controls the bulk of the country, including its oil industry.

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates also support Haftar, who has reportedly received Chinese-made drones and Russian-made air defenses from the UAE.

The Arab states see Haftar as a bulwark against Islamist influences, including the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is part of the Tripoli government. Egypt’s generals overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood in their country with the backing of most Arab monarchs in 2013.

It is unclear what, if any, effect the Erdoğan-Putin deal will have. Artillery and missile strikes were reported on the outskirts of Tripoli in the early hours of Thursday. The promised ceasefire could be a test of Turkey’s and Russia’s influence over their proxies in Libya.

Maritime borders

There have been no reports of regular Turkish forces joining the fighting. The expectation was that Erdoğan would send pro-Turkish Syrian militias to North Africa.

In return, the government in Tripoli has agreed to split the Mediterranean waters between itself and Turkey, ignoring Cypriot and Greek claims in the area.

Cyprus and Greece recently signed an agreement with Israel to extract natural gas from under the Mediterranean Sea and build a pipeline to Europe.

Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tried to elicit a show of support from President Donald Trump in Washington on Wednesday, but the American demurred. The official American position is in favor of the Greeks, but Trump’s diplomacy can be unpredictable.

Trump’s relationship with Erdoğan is a case in point. He gave the Turk a green light to invade northern Syria and crush the pro-American Kurdish militias there. Then he threatened to “destroy” the Turkish economy. Trump sanctioned Turkish officials and raised steel tariffs, which he respectively lifted and halved one week later.

Erdoğan and Putin

The relationship between Erdoğan and Putin is hardly more stable.

Th two back opposite sides in the Syrian War. Turkey even shot down a Russian attack aircraft near its border in 2015.

Yet Turkey has also bought missile defenses from Russia and is helping Russia build a natural gas pipeline into Europe that circumvents Ukraine. Erdoğan and Putin met in Istanbul on Wednesday to inaugurate this so-called TurkStream pipeline.

Both decisions were strongly opposed by Turkey’s nominal NATO allies. The United States kicked Turkey out of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program last year.

Western influence

Western influence in Libya has waned since the NATO air war that toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

The EU recognizes the coalition government in Tripoli, but the French have quietly backed Haftar, like the Arabs seeing him as an ally against Islamist militants in what used to be French-ruled West Africa.

Gaddafi’s collapse destabilized the countries in France’s former colonial empire, prompting French military interventions across the Sahel, including in Mali. The French fear is that instability in Libya could be a breeding ground for terrorism and send more refugees across the Mediterranean into Europe.

Italy, the former colonial power in Libya, has tried to maintain neutrality between the Tripoli regime and Haftar, as a result of which it is seen by neither as a relevant player anymore.