Russia and Turkey seem to be on the brink of a serious confrontation in Libya, while simultaneously supporting opposing sides in the civil war in Syria.
RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Aleksandr Gostev spoke with Russian political scientist and Middle East specialist Mikhail Magid about the stakes in both conflicts and the goals that Ankara and Moscow are pursuing.
RFE/RL: How are we to understand the conflict in Syria and the current relations between Russia and Turkey?
Mikhail Magid: I'd like to start by saying I do not view the war in Libya as something completely separate from the war in Syria. The military actions in these two countries are unfolding synchronously, and the phases of these changes correspond closely.
In the last year, the [Libyan National Army (LNA) commander] Khalifa Haftar began his attack on Tripoli and the forces of the NTC [National Transitional Council] with the support of Russia and the United Arab Emirates. Haftar was fairly successful, but I would point out that up to 30 percent of the PNS [Government of National Accord] losses in several areas of the front are attributable to Russian mercenaries, according to my sources. The snipers of the Vagner private security firm were particularly effective. Already by the beginning of this year it seemed that Haftar's forces were on the verge of victory.
At the same time, in late 2019 and early 2020, came the attack of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad's forces on Idlib. It also developed rather successfully and with some support from the same sponsors -- Russia and the United Arab Emirates, although in this case the participating emirates were different.
But then things started to change. First, in late February and early March there was a fierce counterattack near Idlib, and Turkey sent in its forces. Ankara began actively using military drones, and we saw the horrific pictures of how dozens or even hundreds of pieces of Assad's heavy equipment were burning. It was a rout. After March 5, Russia and Turkey concluded a cease-fire agreement.
And in Libya, a very similar counterattack began in April and May. Some think it started a bit earlier. And everything was reminiscent of the battle outside Idlib -- Turkey employed military drones and dozens of pieces of Haftar's armored equipment were destroyed. According to Turkish figures, 15 Russian Pantsir self-propelled missile systems were destroyed, although it is possible that figure is exaggerated.
It certainly seems as if these two wars are merging into one based on a general Russian-Turkish conflict. Turkey apparently shipped up to 10,000 troops of its anti-Assad coalition from Syria to Libya, while Russia transferred its military aircraft.
RFE/RL: Do you think a serious air war might develop in Libya since, as you said, the NTC's success has been based on Turkish air support -- primarily, drones -- and now Russia has brought in military aircraft?
Magid: There is definitely a risk of such a conflict. Turkey, incidentally, used not only drones in Idlib but also military jets. It could also use the full power of its air force in Libya, just as Russia might.
Overall, Libya is an all-out -- one might even say imperial -- conflict that encompasses ideological and geopolitical interests as well as a bid to control the international market of natural resources, all at once. And this is the wasp's nest that Putin has climbed into with his own interests."
Overall, the permanent Russia-Turkish conflict is moving constantly between hot and cold phases and this is very dangerous. When there was a hot phase in 2015, when Turkish pilots in Syria shot down a Russian aircraft, it seemed briefly that the two countries were on the brink of a full-scale war. So far, such incidents have been contained because of the massive trade between Turkey and Russia, as well as their common geostrategic interest in one topic: Both Russia and Turkey want to limit the influence of the United States in the Middle East.
Nonetheless, since their interests also conflict and they are on opposite sides in the conflicts in Libya and Syria, all of their agreements are short-lived, and sooner or later another hot phase starts. It is now entirely possible that another agreement will be reached and, most likely, an air war will be avoided. But soon, most likely, there will be another escalation.
RFE/RL: Is Russia's introduction of military aircraft to Libya and its simultaneous withdrawal of mercenaries from the front a sign that the Kremlin is being beaten in Libya? Or could it be a signal that the Kremlin is dissatisfied with [Haftar] and just doesn't want to support him anymore? Or could it mean that Moscow and Ankara have already reached some sort of agreement? Maybe one that includes Moscow pushing Haftar from behind to again undertake peace talks?
Magid: Russia would like to avoid serious losses, and I think that is what they had in mind when they pulled the mercenaries back from Tripoli. We can understand this against the background of the fact that quite a lot of Russian military equipment that had been provided to the LNA through third parties was destroyed there. I wouldn't even be surprised if some of those vehicles had Russian crews, although we will never know that for sure.
At the same time, Russia might try to influence Haftar to soften his position in order to reach some agreement with Turkey on the next partition of Libya or at least on a temporary cease-fire.
The problem is that Haftar, just like Syria's Assad, is not a leader who just carries out Russia's instructions. They both have various sponsors. A very large role in both of these conflicts is played by the United Arab Emirates, which finances and sends military support to both Haftar and Assad. So these guys can rely on various forces and this gives them a certain independence.
So it is not a fact that Haftar is just going to do whatever Russia wants. He might withdraw, but he might also manifest his notorious stubbornness and just plunge more deeply into the battle, dragging Russia along with him. Haftar might at one point follow Russia's advice, but then later act on his own.
RFE/RL: Let's discuss the big picture. Why is Russia participating in this conflict at all?
Magid: The general direction of Russia's current foreign policy is to undermine wherever possible the "global hegemony of the United States," to use the Kremlin's term. Putin thinks that Russia must enter those zones where the influence of the United States is weak or absent and to solidify its positions there. It wants to influence international affairs by using every opportunity to poke a stick in the wheels of the United States and NATO.
Libya is just such a region. In addition, Russia dreams of controlling Libya's oil fields, which are really enormous. In addition, Russia could control the flow of refugees from Libya into the European Union. After all, Libya is Africa's sea gateway to Europe. If Russia can control that region, it can dictate to Europe its conditions, taking advantage of Europe's sensitivity to the refugee problem.
RFE/RL: But it would seem that Russia is not only tripping up the United States, but Turkey as well -- both in Libya and Syria. What is the big picture for Turkey and why is Ankara involved in this war?
Magid: Turkey's interests in many ways are similar to Russia's. They would like to establish control and create or expand a military presence in the Mediterranean region. They are also interested in controlling the flows of refugees from Africa as a means of influencing Europe. They are also interested in the multibillion-dollar oil contracts that Turkey signed with [former Libyan dictator Muammar] Qaddafi but were never implemented because of Libya's civil war.
Ankara would definitely like to control Libya's oil and Libya's gateway for refugees. These are the reasons for the struggle with Moscow over this country.
RFE/RL: But what are the priorities? Are the players in Libya following military-political interests primarily or economic interests? In the Islamic world, there is a growing confrontation among several blocs of countries, as well as the so-called "gas conflict" in the eastern Mediterranean. How does all this impact the military action in Libya?
Magid: The gas conflict in the eastern Mediterranean is one of the key conflicts influencing the Libya war. Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, and Israel are the countries that have discovered large gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, and they are planning to export it to the European Union. France also intends to participate in these gas deals. Turkey also wants to join in and get a share of the profits, but the other countries have not agreed to this.
So, at the end of last year, Turkey signed an Agreement on Delimiting Sea Borders with the NTC in Tripoli. Under that agreement, enormous maritime areas came under Turkey's influence. In fact, under it only Turkey now has a right to develop those gas reserves. The other countries have not recognized this agreement and it is likely international courts will have to rule on who has the right to control these gas reserves
But while the world is waiting for those rulings, the risks for the countries that would like to develop those reserves are growing. And that is just what Ankara is counting on. Turkey now calls the eastern Mediterranean its "blue homeland." This concept, "our blue homeland," is now prominent in Turkish media. But to maintain this, Turkey needs to keep the government in Tripoli with which it signed the agreement.
And there is one more conflict that is very important in the Middle East -- the so-called Sunni-Sunni conflict. On one side, we have the bloc of Turkey and Qatar, and on the other there is Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E. This is a struggle to control the Sunni Muslim world -- and I would remind readers that the majority of the world's Muslims are Sunnis.
Turkey and Qatar are relying on some powerful forces, including the international Muslim Brotherhood movement, which is quite powerful in Tripoli. Anakara's opponents, naturally, are supporting Haftar and other forces opposing the Muslim Brotherhood.
Overall, Libya is an all-out -- one might even say imperial -- conflict that encompasses ideological and geopolitical interests as well as a bid to control the international market of natural resources, all at once. And this is the wasp's nest that Putin has climbed into with his own interests.
RFE/RL: We also can't forget that all this is taking place during the global pandemic, which has struck both Russia and Turkey, as well as the entire Middle East, maybe a bit more harshly than other countries and regions.
Magid: Yes, this is an important point. Russia and Turkey are pouring enormous resources into the wars in Libya and Syria while thousands of their own citizens need immediate medical care and millions of people have lost jobs or could do so at any moment. The resources that could be devoted to helping the sick and the poor are now being spent on these wars.