Turkey may be turning into driving force in Libya peace talks

Sunday was the first day of the proposed ceasefire that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin hope can steer the conflict in Libya toward a controlled conclusion, and on Monday the two countries made further progress toward a peace deal after talks in Moscow despite warring factions failing to pen a final deal.

The latest intervention by Russia and Turkey, who have been supporting opposite sides of the conflict, took observers of the conflict by surprise: The two countries appear to have left European diplomats in the dust and taken the initiative to bring their respective Libyan partners to the negotiating table.

As in Syria, Turkey has cooperated closely with Russia to steer the conflict in a direction that is mutually beneficial. And it is in Syria that Russia may obtain its greatest benefit from the deal: Syrian state news agency SANA reported a meeting between Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and Syrian security aide Ali Mamlouk in Moscow, marking a possible step toward cooperation more than seven years after Turkey and Syria severed diplomatic ties.

The Jan. 12 ceasefire marks a remarkable turnaround for Turkey, which has gone from being frozen out of the Libya peace conference in Italy in November 2018, to becoming the dynamic force behind talks. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte hailed the latest developments after meeting Erdoğan on Monday, calling the ceasefire agreement an important step to ensure the continuation of an “undivided, independent and sovereign Libya”.

General Khalifa Haftar, the eastern leader whose forces launched a big offensive to topple the Tripoli government backed by Turkey, signalled he would abide by the ceasefire on Sunday and said he would consider the terms presented in Moscow and announce his decision on Tuesday.

Haftar’s willingness to come to the table also means it is unlikely that Egypt, one of several Arab states backing the Haftar, will ramp up its involvement in the conflict, despite the general’s earlier appeal to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to send troops.

Turkey’s partner, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, has its roots in the same political Islamist tradition as the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation that Sisi, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates view as terrorists and which is at the root of other regional disputes with Turkey. Haftar’s forces back the eastern-based House of Representatives, which split from the Tripoli government in 2014 after it rejected the results of a poorly attended election, and the eastern forces have vowed to keep fighting until they defeat the jihadist militias they say are propping up the government.

The conflict until this month appeared to be going against the Tripoli government, with the GNA boxed in by Haftar’s Libyan National Army and its complement of Emirati air power, Egyptian weapons and Russian mercenaries. Turkey’s intervention to send drones and armoured vehicles stemmed an onslaught by Haftar last year, but the pressure mounted again in December when the general declared the start of the final battle to capture the capital.

The declaration coincided with Turkey’s agreement to send its soldiers to assist the GNA. Just 35 have been sent to train and provide technical assistance so far, but by upping the ante Ankara appears to have paved the way for negotiations.

With significant opposition back home to the deployment of troops, the pressure was on Erdoğan to get results in Libya. If he can keep the Tripoli government standing, the president would bolster his country’s claim to the expanded Mediterranean maritime jurisdiction it set out in its November deal with Tripoli and could regain some of the money lost by Turkish companies in the fallout of the uprising that overthrew former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

These objectives will depend on the next stage of the peace talks, which are set to continue under the U.N.-backed Berlin process soon, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said last week.

© Ahval English