Turkey, Russia should work together and not compete in Libya

Turkey, Russia should work together and not compete in Libya

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold their first in-person meeting of 2020 on Jan. 8 in Istanbul on the occasion of the inauguration of the TurkStream natural gas pipeline.

The two leaders will spend more time discussing the recent developments in the Middle East after the United States killed Iran’s top commander Qasem Soleimani in a drone attack in Baghdad. They will also have a review on the latest in the Syrian theater amid intensified attacks by the Syrian regime into Idlib at the expense of causing a fresh humanitarian tragedy and a refugee influx towards the Turkish border.

Equally important, Erdoğan and Putin will also talk about the situation in Libya where they support rival camps. The Turkish president has informed that the deployment of the Turkish troops has gradually begun for the protection of the Tripoli-based U.N.-backed government under the leadership of Prime Minister Mustafa Fayez al-Sarraj. Russia, on the other hand, backs General Khalifa Haftar who controls a big portion of the Libyan territories but has failed to capture Tripoli.

It’s, therefore, going to be quite important whether Putin and Erdoğan will be able to agree to work together in the Libyan theater as they have in Syria. There are, in fact, four reasons that tell us that they would cooperate in Libya as well.

First is about the state of bilateral ties. At a comprehensive press conference in which he evaluated the achievements of Turkish foreign policy in 2019, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu assessed the progress marked on ties with Russia under a special title. The increase in the number of Russian tourists in 2019, the accomplishment of the TurkStream pipeline and the continued efforts for the construction of Turkey’s first nuclear plant were among issues Çavuşoğlu has stressed on.

The fact that Turkey has deployed S-400 air defense systems from Russia in 2019 despite U.S. sanctions and that defense industry officials are in talks for future deliveries indicate how bilateral ties were expanded onto a strategic field.

Çavuşoğlu also cited disagreements between the two countries on issues concerning Crimea, the territorial integrity of Georgia and Syria, but emphasized on the fact that they did not obstruct dialogue between the two capitals.

“Now we have become two important actors in Libya. What would be important on issues that we disagree with? It’s the continuation of the dialogue. That’s what we are doing. We are continuing to exert efforts for a ceasefire in Libya at a bilateral level,” the foreign minister said.

The second important reason corresponds to ongoing cooperation between Turkey and Russia on Syria. Thanks to the Astana Process, with the participation of Iran, Turkey, and Russia, it could contribute to de-escalate violence and create conditions for the establishment of a committee to re-write the constitution for Syria, although after a very difficult process.

The lessons and experience gathered from Syria will surely guide the way for Turkey and Russia despite the fact that the Libyan conflict is very different from the former and includes the presence of multiple foreign powers like Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and others.

Still, Turkey and Russia sound like they want to cooperate in Libya as they have kept the communication lines open since early December. It was interesting to note that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu spoke with Turkey’s intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, on the phone in an effort to find joint ways to address the growing tension in the Middle East and North Africa.

The third reason why Turkey and Russia would join forces diplomatically is that both countries are in close contact with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on her efforts to organize a summit in Berlin for Libya. Merkel will be in Moscow on Jan. 11 and in Ankara on Jan. 24 and will seek the support of both leaders. As stated by both sides, the motive of Merkel’s initiative corresponds with their primary objective of reaching a cease-fire and starting a political process in Libya.

Fourth, and maybe one of the most important aspects, is the changing game in the Middle East after the killing of Soleimani by the U.S. Statements issued by Ankara and Moscow indicate a shared concern because of the escalated tension, with Iran and the U.S. continuing to threaten each other with retaliation.

A fresh cycle of violence will be to the disadvantage of both Turkey and Russia, with impacts on the Syrian and Iraqi theaters. It’s, therefore, going to be only natural if Turkey and Russia decide to work even closer in light of these developments in the Middle East.

This would require a better understanding of each other’s position in Libya as well.

All these show that there are more gains for both sides should they choose to cooperate in Libya instead of engaging in endless competition.