President Vladimir Putin is seeking to make a Russian presence felt in Libya after having outmanoeuvred and marginalised the West in Syria, paving the way for Bashar al-Assad’s regime to score a decisive victory in the country’s bloody civil war.
This is now a new round of the Middle East chess game, where Washington seems, again, on the defensive.
American officials and reports have revealed that the Russians are stacking troops, weapons and mercenaries. Above all, they appear to be setting the rules for a strategic duet with the Turks similar to the one which played out very well in dividing influence between the two countries in Syria. A situation which has left Donald Trump looking foolish.
Whatever the morals over such a push, President Putin has played his hand right. The Benghazi attack on the American diplomatic compound in 2012, which resulted in Ambassador Christopher Stevens’s death, left a psychological scar in the US policy towards Libya, and Washington seems unable to find a way out of it.
This along with the chaos caused by numerous factions fighting for their own ends, shaped a perfect environment for Russia to step in. Libya, after Syria, is further proof that the policy of inaction that the Trump administration looks to employ is the biggest strategic asset Putin has. He is trying to make sure Moscow fills the gaps in leadership left behind.
After four years of supporting general Khalifa Haftar’s forces in the east through both diplomatic and other means, Russia has pushed drones, aircrafts, artillery and troops in to shape the final outcome of the Libyan war. On top of gaining a veto over any foreseeable resolution, Russia is trying to flank the Nato from the south. This strategic move will no doubt have set pulses racing in Europe.
In its bid to establish a foothold in Libya, Russia is looking for access to the strategic Libyan ports on the Mediterranean Sea to open the way for a further expansion of its influence in Africa. The flow of legal (and not) migration towards Europe will be another consideration. It is a problem for Europe and Moscow would love to wield some influence in that regard. In the long term, the Russians would like to see a lifting of the UN weapons embargo imposed on Libya, where Russian-made weapons are commonplace. Libya could resume its previous status, under Gaddafi, as an oil-rich client of its thriving military industry.
But It would be a mistake to think that the Russian aim in Libya is to shore up Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). In fact, Putin is playing a double game on both sides, treading carefully and waiting for the final victorious faction (if any) to side with.
The most startling shift in the conflict is what could turn into a dangerous partnership in the making between Russia and Turkey, copying exactly the Syrian combined strategy of playing all sides off and dividing the spoils between each other.
While Turkey is supporting the UN-recognised government and its forces in Tripoli against Haftar’s assault, an all-in gamble on Putin’s shrewd vision could be promising for them. Turkish president Recep Tayyip stated earlier this year that Turkey would mobilise all available resources to “disappoint those who want to turn Libya into a new Syria". But Erdogan seems to be the very one who is hoping for a similar outcome to the new “Russian-Turkish” reality on the ground in Syria.
Turkey supports what could still be called a western-recognised Syrian opposition against Assad, and is throwing its weight behind a western-backed Libyan government against another strong man who is deploying military power to take control of big cities. But, as in northern Syria, western hesitancy could mean that Moscow and Ankara get to wield major influence.
This is how the Russian-Turkish duo could navigate the Middle East new game of thrones in Libya, even if there is never a formal pact between the two nations.There is already some movement to forge new links. Moscow hopes to seal a new deal to supply Turkey with more S-400 missile systems in the first half of next year. This move will further strain ties between Turkey and the US, with Washington having suspended Ankara from their F-35 stealth fighter jet programme to punish it for buying the S-400 system earlier this year.
As time passes, Erdogan’s trust in his Russian counterpart will skyrocket, leaving little room for Turkey’s Nato partners to lure the Turks back into the western orbit.
In Libya, Egypt and the UAE, who have been on Haftar’s side for years, exposed to what might be the biggest strategic bluff in the region. As the biggest rivals of Turkey, the two countries have always thought of the Russian intervention as a possible strategic turn in Haftar’s military campaign to control Tripoli. But Russia’s push for influence could be devastating for the Egyptian-Emirati interests in Libya. While both Cairo and Abu Dhabi would hope for a breakthrough that would eventually lead to a political settlement, Moscow and Ankara’s aim is to kick the political solution into the long grass and manage the conflict instead of putting an end to it. In the process of installing himself as the new deal broker and kingsmaker in Libya, Putin needs time to work on establishing a full monopoly of power.
Sources have told me that The Egyptians have voiced their concerns about the Tripoli campaign and its consequences since day one. Their jitters proved to be perfectly valid, as the ongoing intense fighting not only reflects a predicted failure by Haftar to take the city, but it could also be the beginning of the end of the Egyptian and Emirati long-term interests in Libya in favour of the Russians and Turks.