Russia and Turkey’s Proxy War in Libya Heats Up

Surce: Foreign Policy

Since the renegade Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar ended his 14-month siege of the capital, Tripoli, earlier this month, there has been a flurry of activity from the international backers of Libyan factions as they vie to lock in their influence in Africa’s most oil-rich nation. Libya is at risk of becoming the site of a protracted proxy war, like Syria, as a patchwork of powers have lined up to back the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli, and others have backed Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which controls the east. As in Syria, Russia and Turkey have emerged as the most consequential players, backing opposite sides of the conflict. Turkey emerged as kingmaker after it intervened in January, sending troops and drones in support of the GNA and enabling it to beat back Haftar’s forces, which have been supported by Russian mercenaries.

Reuters reported on Monday that Turkey is in talks with the GNA to use naval and air bases in the North African country, although no final agreements have been reached. The bases would give Ankara leverage over European powers but also its Arab adversaries, Galip Dalay, a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy, told Foreign Policy.

Turkey’s intervention in the conflict has prompted a rift with its NATO ally France, which has supported Haftar’s forces. On Wednesday, the French ministry of defense accused the Turkish navy of behaving in an “extremely aggressive” manner, harassing a French warship in the eastern Mediterranean as it tried to inspect a cargo vessel suspected of carrying weapons to Libya in violation of a U.N. embargo. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday that the bloc was investigating the incident.

A high-level Turkish delegation that included the country’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, its finance minister, and its intelligence chief arrived in Libya this week for talks about the latest developments in the crisis and the military cooperation agreement signed between the two governments last November.

Meanwhile, Russia, which has backed Haftar’s Libyan National Army in the east, is looking to further increase its military footprint in Libya, said Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Strategically, if Russia has access in Syria but also in Libya, it gives them a very wide platform because you’re talking about checking the southern flank of NATO,” she said.

An increased Russian presence in the country could also see Moscow gain greater control over refugee flows to Europe, which could be used to further destabilize the European Union. On Thursday, U.S. Africa Command released new evidence of Russian fighter jets being flown in Libya by state-backed Russian private military contractors.

The Russian and Turkish foreign and defense ministers were scheduled to cut out their Libyan middlemen and meet on Sunday, but the meeting was called off as the GNA pushed to retake the strategic coastal city of Sirte from Haftar’s forces. On Monday, the Turkish foreign minister said Ankara was committed to forging a lasting cease-fire deal. Given the stakes and the multitude of actors involved, what comes next will look more like conflict management than resolution, said Dalay of the Robert Bosch Academy.