The meeting of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Libyan Prime Minister of the “national unity government” (GNA) Fajis al-Sarraj in Ankara on 4 June was staged as a “perfect Show” and was intended to show the world that the civil war in Libya had already been decided inescapably. Erdogan and his guest from Tripoli presented themselves in front of cameras as the confident winners of the Libyan civil war. In this context, they also revealed their future plans for the North African country: Turkey will not only continue its support for Tripoli, but also increase it if necessary, confirmed Erdogan, Turkey’s strongman. Al-Sarradsch first thanked him respectfully for” Turkey’s historic and responsible attitude”, before offering his hosts a” close cooperation " in the field of politics, oil production and the reconstruction of his country. Both called the Libyan war opponent Khalifa Haftar a “war criminal"and ruled out peace talks with him. Apparently intoxicated by their supposed victory, they declared that Ankara and Tripoli would not stop their military activities until they could take control of the Libyan cities of Sirte and Al-Jufra, along with the rich oil wells in central Libya.
New Balance of power in Libya
At the latest after this meeting, the international media is talking about a fundamentally new balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean. So what exactly happened?
After the fall of Libyan ruler Muammar al-Ghadhafi in 2011, the country fell under the control of various tribal and war leaders. Two of them finally prevailed: Fajis al-Sarraj, who is recognized by the United Nations as the rightful prime minister of the national unity government, exercised his power in the capital Tripoli and smaller territories in the west of the country. The warlord Khalifa Haftar, a former confidant of Ghadhafi, on the other hand, boasted of being Ruler of large parts of Libya: he controlled not only the urban center of Benghazi in the east of the country, but also the region of Libya known as the “Libyan Crescent”, where most of the country’s oil wells are located. In April 2019, General Haftar bravely attacked the final battle for Tripoli and besieged the capital with his troops. He still felt sure of his business. The power struggle for Libya, which has more oil reserves than any other state in Africa, had already degenerated into a proxy war:
The prime minister in Tripoli has been and is supported by Italy, Turkey and Qatar;
Russia, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have sided with Haftar.
Last November, Haftar attacked Tripoli’s International Airport. This was the moment when Turkey “cleverly seized the opportunity” to conclude two important agreements with the beleaguered Libyan prime minister, according to the Turkish ex-foreign minister Yasar Yakis. The first concerned an agreement on the exploitation of gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean. In a rather rare Interpretation of international maritime law, Erdogan and al-Sarraj drew sea borders that from then on geographically transformed their countries into neighbors and divided any oil deposits in the eastern Mediterranean entirely among themselves. They demonstratively ignored the fact that this agreement was in conflict with other agreements already reached between the neighbouring states of Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus on the exploitation of the oil and natural gas resources of the eastern Mediterranean.
In return for this first agreement, Ankara promised arms and military aid of all kinds in a second Tripoli: since last November, Turkey has sent modern weapons, warships, warplanes, drones and military advisers to Tripoli. In the fight against the warlord Haftar, Ankara finally allowed Islamist fighters to fly in from Syria to Libya. According to the Turkish press, up to 4,000 Syrian fighters from Idlib are said to be in Ankara’s pay and fighting on the side of the government in Tripoli. The UN arms embargo was generously overlooked.
Haftar’s defeat: a mystery?
In a dramatic turnaround, al-Sarraj’s troops have gained the upper hand on the battlefield since March. Thanks to Turkish military aid, they were able to break the siege of Tripoli in a very short time, then take the important air base al-Watiya and finally the city of Tarhouna. Haftar’s troops withdrew to the line from which they had begun their march to the “final victory on Tripoli” in April 2019.
“Why the powers of Haftar dissolved into thin air on the battlefield remains a mystery,” mused the usually well-informed Jerusalem Post. Most sources agree that Haftar’s troops have effectively left one place after another without resistance. On their retreat they left behind tanks, Mi-35 helicopters and Russian air defense systems as well as tons of weapons, trucks and money. This fueled speculation, especially in the Arab press: Arab News wanted to know that Haftar had to withdraw to 60 kilometers further east under” international pressure “and attributed this to an alleged Russian-Turkish” secret Deal”. The fact is that in a night and fog operation, Russia had its warplanes moved from the vicinity of Tripoli to the eastern airbase al - Jufra. After Sirte and Al-Jufra, the so-called Wagner troops, who fought in Libya on the side of Haftar in the wages of Moscow, were also quietly withdrawn. At the same time, Moscow has brought more than a dozen warplanes from Syria to Al-Jufra.
Sirte and Al-Jufra formed Moscow’s “red line”, which Turkey and the troops of Tripoli should not pass under any circumstances, the Arab Weekly estimated.
The Cairo Declaration a stillbirth?
On June 4, when the Turkish President and his protégé Fajis al-Sarraj declared themselves victors in Ankara, General Haftar visited his patrons in the Egyptian capital. Egyptian President al-Sisi then declared a ceasefire. This initiative, known as the Cairo Declaration, supports peace talks between the two parties to the conflict and new elections in 18 months, but at the same time calls for the dissolution of the militias (including Islamist fighters from Idlib) and the withdrawal of all foreign (including Turkish) troops from Libya. While Moscow and Washington welcomed the Initiative, the Turkish Foreign Minister rejected it as a “death birth”. Egypt, however, had troops moved along the common border with Libya.
The American Agency Bloomberg believes to see a “repetition of the Syrian example, on Libyan soil”. For years, Russia and Turkey have been fighting for power and influence in Syria, sometimes fighting each other and then concluding supposed peace agreements with each other again. Will Russia and Turkey, as in Syria, also determine the fate of Libya in the future?
The Turkish Journalist Fehim Tastekin is a good expert on political developments in the Middle East. Ankara and Moscow could theoretically agree on a ceasefire, he wrote in the Internet platform al-monitor. For Moscow seems ready to renounce General Haftar and replace him with the leadership in the east of the country by the Aqullia Saleh Issa, the president of the parliament in Tobruk. General Haftar is indeed the” big loser " of recent developments in Libya, and according to press reports has been considered missing since his visit to Cairo. However, according to Tastekin, Moscow will never renounce Sirte or Al-Jufra or the oil wells in the east of the country, giving Erdogan the choice of seeking a further confrontation with Russia or accepting its claim to Sirte and the east of Libya. A renunciation of the Libyan Crescent would automatically lead the first Turkish-Libyan agreement for the exploitation of all oil sources in the eastern Mediterranean to waste. And thus all the Actionism of the Turkish now well-oiled military apparatus in Libya would have been in vain.
A high-level Turkish-Russian meeting in Ankara was scheduled for last Sunday. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoiku wanted to clarify questions about Syria and Libya with their Turkish counterparts. It did not come to that. At the last Moment, the visit from Moscow was reportedly postponed for a later date. Reasons for this were not given.