Deadlock with Russia Keeps Libyan Energy Opportunities Elusive

On 13-14 June, a large group of high-level technical experts from the Russian Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense visited their counterparts in Ankara to iron out a number of disagreements over Syria and Libya. This was supposed to be a prelude for Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Ankara on 15 June. However, the disagreements between the technical teams proved insurmountable, despite pressure from the presidents of both countries. As a result, Lavrov canceled his visit at the last minute.

According to a senior Horizon contact in the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs who was a member of the negotiating team, Ankara and Moscow were in agreement over the necessity of a cease-fire in Syria and Libya, but they had incompatible timelines. In northern Syria, the commander of the Turkish army, Gen. Umit Dundar, wants an immediate cease-fire – one that would build momentum toward a temporary political settlement between Turkish-supported pro-Kurdish factions and pro-Syrian government factions.

However, due to Turkey’s heavy military and intelligence involvement and de facto patronage of the Sunni jihadist groups in the northwest, the pro-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have been boycotting this proposal. In response, the Turkish Air Force initiated a large air campaign on 14 June, targeting positions of the YPG-affiliated Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, and an accompanying ground operation began on 16 June. Russia’s position is in line with the priorities of the YPG and the Syrian military, favoring a continued push into rebel-held territories to finalize the war in the north as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, Turkey and Russia have swapped their positions when it comes to Libya. The Turkish military task force there, headed by Lt. Gen. Metin Gurak, wants a later cease-fire, at a time when the operational tempo favors the Ankara-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. However, the Russian military is more interested in an immediate cease-fire before Khalifa Haftar’s rival camp disintegrates. As GNA forces close in on the strategic city of Sirte, the Russian task force is worried that Haftar’s forces will lose both the nearby oilfields and the main Russian-controlled Kufra air base located to the south.

Turkey, driven by its military high command, still insists that Haftar resigns and leaves Libya, and that his camp dissolves into the new government formed by the GNA. Although President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been trying to entice President Donald Trump to support his position in Libya, recent State Department statements indicate that a total removal of Haftar and his camp would prolong the war.

Both Ankara and Moscow want to reach a consensus, but the realities on the ground in Syria and Libya render an agreement difficult. Given the fact that both Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin approved an early June UN cease-fire proposal, their current disagreements concern not the necessity of a cease-fire, but what would happen after one. In Syria, Turkish Defense Minister and former Army Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar wants the current momentum to transition into a power-sharing agreement between the northern factions, whereas Moscow and Damascus insist on total Syrian control in the north. In Libya, Akar wants the cease-fire to create momentum that would lead to the removal of Haftar and the dissolution of the LNA, whereas Russia, Egypt, France and the UAE insist on a power-sharing agreement, potentially resulting in the partition of Libya. Since Akar is a former chief of staff and longtime member of Erdogan’s inner circle, he bridges both military and political interests, and thereby enjoys significant influence over the president and the military high command.

On 16 June, Lavrov declared that Putin, Erdogan and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran will hold a trilateral summit on Syria. The meeting will seek to iron out Syria-related disagreements – specifically, the status of Turkish-supported rebel groups – before the Turkish and Russian teams can continue negotiating on Libya. Turkish and Russian negotiators seek to leverage a potential agreement – however temporary – on Syria into opening up Libyan energy opportunities. From Turkey’s perspective, the main party to negotiate with on Libya is Russia, whereas France, Egypt and the UAE are less relevant actors. Once Ankara reaches a temporary agreement with Moscow, it will leverage this into making side deals with Paris, Cairo and Abu Dhabi. Until then, Turkey’s escalatory and disruptive tactics in the eastern Mediterranean will continue.