January 09, 2020
Libya - the next Syria?
Libya risks becoming the next big civil war crisis after Syria. Libya may be have a smaller population that than Syria, but it is in certain aspects more strategic. Only a day's boat-trip away from Europe, Libya is one of the main passage routes for refugees. The country is also Africa's third largest oil exporter and crucial for sharing hyrdocarbon deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean. Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, France, Italy, Germany, the UK and Turkey are all involved there. Fifty militias add to the volatility in the country and, as General Haftar advances further in the East of the country, his troops are now controlling most of the oil-relevant regions. Haftar is supported by Russia, which dispatched 2500 mercenaries, as well as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Russia and Turkey work together in Syria, but at the same time they are in opposite camps in Libya. An escalation of the Libyan conflict is in no-one's interest. Both Turkey and Russia called for a ceasefire.
But Erdogan needs to honour his deal with Libya's government to send troops to Tripoli to help against Haftar. Yesterday he announced the deployment of only 35 soldiers in a non-fighting capacity, hardly something Russia needs to worry about.
If anything, the ties between Russia and Turkey have become stronger. Yesterday Vladimir Putin came to Istanbul to inaugurate the TurkStream gas pipeline, with a capacity of 31bn cubic meters per year, bringing Russian gas to Turkey and Europe bypassing Ukraine. This adds to the NordStream 2 project in the Baltic sea, where it is now up to Russia to finish the last 160km of the 1200km. US sanctions were against both pipeline projects, TurkStream and NordStream 2, to deter Russian influence. But the sanctions won't hold Russia for long.
Russia is clearly evolving into the power broker in the Middle East, even if the killing of Qasem Suleimani may challenge their diplomatic skills to show that they can have good relations to all the countries in the region. The EU has not much of a say there. What could they say anyway apart from issuing condemnations? Torn between its dependence on Russian gas and its allegiance to the US, the EU could be challenged if tensions between Iran and the US were to escalate. France is particularly wary of such a scenario, where the EU would have to take a stance exposing ambiguity of their diplomacy and commitments. But, given Iran's restrained reaction, this scenario looks less likely now.
At the moment EU foreign ministers can use their diplomatic capital to de-escalate the situation in Libya. They also take a stance against Turkey. France, Greece and Cyprus joined Egypt to dismiss the deals between Turkey and Libya on military deployment and maritime rights in the eastern Mediterranean which Turkey has used as a legal basis for its drilling activities. In theory, Turkey could use this border delineation to block a proposed Cypriot-Greek-Israeli pipeline to Europe, though it is more likely that Turkey will uses it as a bargaining chip.
Russian gas supply is now flowing to Turkey, making the country dependent on Russia too. Welcome to the new decade of shifting power relationships in Africa, of which Turkey wants to secure its share even if Russia is the real adult in the room.