Turkey and Russia remain at odds as Libya edges towards a political settlement

Last month, Libya’s warring factions agreed a joint administration to lead the country until elections scheduled for December.

Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, a Libyan businessman from the western city of Misrata, was named as interim prime minister. And Mohammad Younes Menfi, Libya’s former ambassador to Greece, will serve as president. 

The interim government is still in the process of taking shape, but notable exclusions include Turkish ally Fathi Bashagha and Russian ally Aguilla Saleh, both of whom have yet to be given a role.

Ivan Bocharov, a researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) in Moscow said that the selected candidates are instead largely political unknowns, leading to uncertainty as to whether they can succeed in their roles. And he expressed scepticism about their ability to win over the local population.

“I have a fear that the transitional government will not be respected among Libyans,” told Ahval in an interview for the Turkey Abroad podcast.

“I’d like to hope that the composition of the new government will meet the interests not only of Russia, Turkey or other external actors, but mainly the Libyan people.”

But It was too early to judge how any new government might fit Russian or Turkish designs for Libya, he said.

Efforts to create stability in Libya following the 2011 NATO intervention against former leader Muammar Gaddafi have been complicated by a sea of armed factions with deeply held grudges against one another, often backing by competing international powers. 

Turkey has thrown its support behind the Government of National Accords (GNA) in Tripoli, while Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have backed the rival Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar.

Facing regional isolation and a struggling economy, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has staked much on the success of his Libya policy. Since militarily intervening in January 2020, Turkey has signed economic packages with the GNA worth $35 billion in construction projects alone. Turkey and the U.N. recognised GNA have also agreed a maritime pact that cuts across internationally recognised waters belonging to Greece, Cyprus and Egypt in the Mediterranean, where competition is heating up following the discovery of natural gas.   

Russia’s motives in Libya are also primarily economic, Bocharov said. Like Turkey, Russia lost lucrative contracts after Gaddafi was toppled, and Moscow is keen to salvage unfulfilled deals.

But unlike Turkey, Russia has fewer political goals in Libya, allowing for a greater degree of flexibility, Bocharov said. 

“Russia maintains contact with all parties of the conflict, and it seems to me that Moscow is not interested in seeing Libya become a puppet in the hands of Erdoğan,” he said.

Both Russia and Turkey have mobilised thousands of Syrian mercenaries to fight on either side in Libya. While and Russia had bolstered the LNA with fighters from the Wagner Group, a private military company. Conventional forces are also present in the conflict, with Turkish soldiers providing military training to the GNA, and unmarked Russian warplanes deployed alongside the Wagner Group.

And one of the thorniest issues facing Libya’s new interim government is the agreed October deadline for foreign forces to withdraw from the country.

It is unclear how any withdrawal will take place, and Bocharov said a definitive outcome was ultimately unlikely.

Erdoğan has said he will not pull troops out until others do so first. And both Turkey and Russia formally deny using unconventional forces in Libya, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary

“I think that the process of complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Libya is impossible to control,” Bocharov said.

Another largely unknown variable is the attitude of new U.S. President Joe Biden. Libya was not substantially addressed during his run for office. But under Biden, the U.S. State Department has already taken a more strident tone, calling on both Turkey and Russia to withdraw.

Key Biden advisors Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan supported the initial NATO intervention in Libya. But Bocharov offered a reminder that Biden opposed the move while serving as vice president to Barack Obama.

Biden may instead follow the Trump administration’s hands-off approach, leaving Russia and Turkey’s calculations unaltered, Bocharov said. “I don’t think we will see a deep level of U.S. involvement in the Libyan conflict.” 

Libya edges closer towards a political resolution regardless, with Turkey and Russia still fundamentally at odds over the country’s future.

According to Bocharov, differences between the two countries are unlikely to escalate into a larger conflict, but are still a cause for concern in Moscow.

“Turkey is a very unpredictable partner, so it would be beneficial to Russia if the Turkish influence in Libya is lessened” he said.