Source: Al-Monitor, 18 September 2020

Egyptian mediation in Libya could prove a silver lining for Turkey as its ability to influence the conflict seems to wane, bearing also on its energy ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey appears increasingly pressed to downscale its goals in the conflict in Libya, which has become closely intertwined with its gas exploration rows in the eastern Mediterranean. The course of developments in the region dictates a more realistic attitude from Ankara, including acceptance of Egypt’s role in Libya, provided that certain Turkish expectations are met, and even laying the ground for normalizing ties with Cairo.

With settlement efforts gaining pace, Egypt has proved capable of mediating between the opposing sides in Libya, though it had thrown its weight behind the eastern forces fighting the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and its Misratan allies, which Turkey has backed with military, intelligence and militia support. Ankara’s rigid attitude in the conflict has reduced its clout to influence over only its allies. And the infighting in the GNA presents a further risk to Turkish interests in the upcoming settlement process. 

In other words, Turkey has failed to preserve the advantage it gained through its scale-tipping military intervention since the rival parties called for a cease-fire last month, opening the door to negotiations. The arm-wrestling between GNA head Fayez al-Sarraj and his interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, has made Ankara realize that it cannot control everything in Tripoli by deploying soldiers and militia. Certainly, those setbacks do not mean that Turkey will bow out and let others run the show.

The parties in Libya were forced into talks by a stalemate on the battlefield after Egypt drew a red line at the strategically significant Sirte and al-Jufra and Russia reinforced the region in response to Turkey’s military intervention, which had set Sirte, al-Jufra and the Oil Crescent as its next targets after securing Tripoli. An Egyptian-sponsored cease-fire proposal by the eastern forces — represented by Khalifa Hifter, commander of the Libyan National Army, and Aguila Saleh, head of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives — in early June was followed by simultaneous cease-fire calls from Saleh and Sarraj on Aug. 21. 

Ensuing street protests across Libya over economic grievances further pushed the parties toward negotiations as the rivalry between Sarraj and Bashagha boiled over in late August. Sarraj suspended Bashagha who, many believed, was eyeing the premier’s post with Turkey’s support, and replaced other key officials in Tripoli. In the east, the popular anger forced the resignation of the government allied with the House of Representatives.

Amid the fast-moving events, Turkey focused on keeping the GNA from unraveling. As a result, Bashagha, whose influence draws on the Misratan forces, was reinstated. Yet Sarraj irritated Ankara by moving to diversify his foreign ties, while reinforcing his position at home. Having already replaced the chief of general staff, Sarraj sought to tighten his grip over security, intelligence and media bodies, promoting figures who irked the Muslim Brotherhood and Misratan groups and even triggered calls for civil disobedience. 

Since the Sarraj-Bashagha showdown, many have tended to see an anti-Turkish move in any step Sarraj takes. He seemed to back off from a meeting in Paris, to which Saleh and Hifter were invited as well, after his apparent willingness to attend sparked questioning of his loyalty to Ankara. But Bashagha, too, has been courting France and Egypt, despite leaning on Turkey. 

Either way, both actors remain in need of Turkey’s support at present, as evidenced by Sarraj’s Sept. 6 visit to Ankara, shortly after Bashagha’s trip to Turkey that had coincided with his suspension. Sarraj was the one to sign the maritime demarcation deal with Ankara in November 2019, reportedly under Turkish pressure and fears of Tripoli falling to Hifter. The accord, which became a mainstay of Turkey’s gas exploration claims in the eastern Mediterranean, remains without a parliamentary ratification and its survival depends on the survival of the GNA. 

On top of all those controversies, Sarraj announced Sept. 16 a desire “to hand over [his] duties to the next executive authority no later than the end of October.” Referring to the settlement efforts, he expressed hope that “the dialogue committee will complete its work and choose a new presidential council and prime minister.” 

By speaking of stepping down while trying to consolidate power, Sarraj is believed to be trying to get rid of pressures ahead of prospective peace talks in Geneva. For Ankara, his announcement resonates as a warning: “If I’m gone, the maritime accord is gone as well.” The move, however, might stoke the infighting in Tripoli.

In sum, the balance among its Libyan allies is too fragile to allow Ankara to steer them as it wishes. This, in turn, makes it all the more difficult for Ankara to steer the dialogue between its allies and their eastern opponents. 

Delegations from the House of Representatives and Tripoli’s High State Council held five-day talks in Morocco last week, reaching some understandings on power-sharing. The talks sparked objections from several dozen members of both bodies, who complained about the composition of their respective delegations. Khaled Mishri, head of the High State Council who is close to Turkey, said the talks were of consultative nature and not binding for the council.

Also last week, representatives of Sarraj and Saleh held talks in Cairo, agreeing to set a date for elections no later than October 2021, restructure the GNA’s Presidential Council on the basis of a 3+1 formula — one president and two deputies and an independent prime minister — and address economic issues such as wealth management and equitable distribution of resources.

The Cairo meeting followed Sarraj’s latest visit to Ankara, where the mood was far from upbeat. Cairo’s emergence as a platform for reconciliation is not something that Ankara prefers, but also not something that it is seeking to prevent. Turkey’s flexibility can be attributed to several reasons. Above all, Ankara realizes that Libya’s main oil fields have gone beyond its reach after the Russian buildup in Sirte and al-Jufra and that it will now remain stuck in the Tripoli-Misrata enclave. And with the fragile coalition in Tripoli creaking, Ankara has no option but to give way to negotiations.

In return for acquiescing to Egypt’s role, Turkey hopes to make certain gains, namely the sidelining of Hifter as a solution partner and the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) exclusion from the settlement process. 

The talks in Cairo were limited to representatives of Saleh and Sarraj, thus meeting Ankara’s reservation on Hifter. And if Egypt’s mediation would push back the role of the UAE, the chief sponsor of the 14-month siege on Tripoli, that would be a lesser evil for Ankara, which sees Emirate interference in its areas of interest as more dangerous.

Another factor compelling Turkey to acquiesce to Egypt’s role is Russia’s influential posture on the ground. It was Russia’s delicate engineering that raised Saleh’s profile on the eastern camp at the expense of Hifter. Hence, Russia is Turkey’s only channel to exert influence on the eastern forces.

Last but not least, breaking the ice with Egypt in Libya might give Turkey room to maneuver to pull Egypt away from Greece, its chief adversary in the eastern Mediterranean. Last month, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed ongoing contacts with Egypt on the level of intelligence officials amid growing calls in Turkey, led by influential retired generals, to mend fences with Egypt and Israel to break Turkey’s isolation in the eastern Mediterranean. While Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood — Cairo’s archenemy — remains a fundamental stumbling block, Turkey’s allies in Libya, too, acknowledge that Egypt is a crucial neighbor and has legitimate security concerns.

Fehim Tastekin is a Turkish journalist and a columnist for Turkey Pulse who previously wrote for Radikal and Hurriyet. He has also been the host of the weekly program “SINIRSIZ,” on IMC TV. As an analyst, Tastekin specializes in Turkish foreign policy and Caucasus, Middle East and EU affairs. He is the author of “Suriye: Yikil Git, Diren Kal,” “Rojava: Kurtlerin Zamani” and “Karanlık Coktugunde – ISID.” Tastekin is founding editor of the Agency Caucasus. On Twitter: @fehimtastekin