Erdogan and Putin’s call for Libya ceasefire rejected, reports of first Turkish casualties

Ankara is seeking geostrategic and economic advantages through intervention in Libya.
Sunday 12/01/2020
Joint benefits. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend cerenomy inauguration of a new gas pipeline “TurkStream” in Istanbul, January 8. (AFP)
Joint benefits. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend cerenomy inauguration of a new gas pipeline “TurkStream” in Istanbul, January 8. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Efforts by Turkey and Russia to put aside conflicting interests in Libya and present themselves as peacemakers for the North African country suffered a setback when a joint ceasefire bid fell flat amid reports of Turkish casualties in the conflict.

Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) rejected the Turkish-Russian ceasefire call and said it would continue its campaign to oust the government in Tripoli.

The Libya Review website, based in Tripoli, said three Turkish soldiers had been killed in Libya. The website cited Libyan media as its source. There was no official statement from the Turkish government. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor close to the Syrian opposition, also said “several” Syrian fighters had been killed in clashes in Libya.

“I doubt how tenable any cessation of hostilities in Libya will be,” said Simon Waldman, an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a British think-tank. “Haftar seems to have the upper hand and is itching for a fight.”

A Turkish-Russian alliance could give the two countries a bigger role in Libya as well as more leverage on Europe, which is concerned about a flow of illegal migrants from Libya’s coast to its southern shores. Turkey also hopes the alliance with Russia in Libya will strengthen Ankara’s position in a row with its neighbours over the ownership of natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey backs Fayez al-Sarraj’s Tripoli-based internationally recognised Government of National Accord and has said it would send military advisers, mercenaries and possibly troops to reinforce its support. Russian military contractors have been deployed alongside Haftar’s LNA, which took control of Sirte, a strategically important city in the centre of Libya’s Mediterranean coastline, in a rapid advance January 7 and was seeking to consolidate gains.

Despite being on different sides of the conflict, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a call for a ceasefire in Libya during a meeting January 8 in Istanbul. Hostilities should stop at midnight January 12, they said in a statement.

With the ceasefire call, Erdogan and Putin, in effect, shouldered the UN efforts in Libya aside and hijacked a German initiative to organise a peace conference in Berlin. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is to meet with Putin and Erdogan for separate talks before the Libya conference.

At the Istanbul talks, both leaders tried to mute their differences.

Erdogan did not publicly repeat his accusations that Russia was supporting Haftar with “mercenaries.” Putin remained quiet on Turkey’s military engagement in Libya, even though the Kremlin has expressed concern over the issue. The two presidents did not appear before the media, thus avoiding questions about their positions.

Kerim Has, a Moscow-based expert on Russian-Turkish relations, said by e-mail that it was “highly likely that the ceasefire call of Russian and Turkish presidents from Istanbul will be ineffective and remain short-term.

“The political situation and military balance of power are more complex than in Syria,” he said.

Turkey and Russia, two countries that came close to war less than five years ago over the downing of a Russian military plane by Turkey on the Syrian border, have developed a close relationship in recent years that seeks to maximise joint benefits despite supporting opposing sides in the Syrian war.

While Putin is the most important ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Erdogan has backed groups fighting the Damascus government. Despite the differences, Ankara and Moscow have worked with Iran in the so-called Astana process that resulted in the start of talks about a new Syrian constitution. Erdogan received the green light from Putin for three military interventions by Turkey in Syria that targeted Kurdish fighters.

Has said the “Syrian model” would be hard to replicate for Russia and Turkey in Libya “because there are many other influential actors involved in the process and Russia is not the unique actor that can change the balance of power on the ground.”

Waldman agreed. “Russia has some influence over [Haftar] but not to the same extent as it does with Assad, whose survival has been practically guaranteed by Russia,” he said by e-mail.

In November, Erdogan signed a maritime delimitation agreement with Sarraj that outraged Greece, Egypt and Cyprus because it gives Turkey exploration rights in a gas-rich area of the Mediterranean where the three countries have significant interests.

As Erdogan met with Putin on January 8, France, Greece, Egypt and Cyprus declared “null and void” agreements between Ankara and Libya assigning Turkey rights over a vast area of the Eastern Mediterranean. A statement by the foreign ministers of the four countries said the controversial agreements undermined regional stability.

Waldman said Ankara had gained some advantages.

“By sending troops (and Turkey-backed Syrian fighters), Turkey has managed to give itself a place on the table when the future of Libya is discussed,” Waldman said, “and by backing the Tripoli government it has gained a significant source for the purchase of Turkish military hardware and influence in the future of Eastern Mediterranean gas.”