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Russia, Turkey in delicate dance in Eastern Med

Libya's call seeking military assistance from Turkey and the latter's prompt announcement on December 26 of its readiness to meet the request as early as January is no doubt a carefully choreographed sequence of events. Tripoli and Ankara are moving in tandem.

The day before the Turkish announcement, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a "secret" day-long visit to Tunis to streamline a regional axis comprising Turkey, Qatar, Tunisia and Algeria over the Libyan situation.

From the Turkish perspective, if Libya falls under dictatorship - as in Egypt - a similar threat would arise to the democratization, or "Arab Spring," in Tunisia as well.

Turkey and Libya are taking care that they have regional support while countering the renegade general Khalifa Haftar's offensive to capture Tripoli. Haftar has the backing of Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which is a formidable combination.

Erdogan has openly alleged that thousands of mercenaries from Russia and Sudan are operating on Haftar's side. The UAE keeps a base in Libya from which drones operate. In effect, Erdogan has highlighted Moscow's doublespeak on "regime change."


The Russian predicament comes out clearly in the defensive remarks made by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in Moscow on December 26. Peskov was hard-pressed to give a cogent explanation for the Russian mercenaries fighting in Syria.

Washington has alleged that Moscow has also lately deployed regular troops to Libya. All he'd say was that "citizens of different countries act as mercenaries in various parts of the world and it is impossible for a country to control the movement of all its citizens." Just not good enough.

Prima facie, if Erdogan deploys troops to Libya after parliamentary approval this Wednesday and Thursday, that could pit Turkish forces against Russians. But neither Turkey nor Russia wants a confrontation that could spoil their warming ties.

Meanwhile, Moscow is also leveraging the situation in northwestern Syria's Idlib province, the last remaining bastion of extremist groups, where Russian-backed Syrian government forces lately stepped up an offensive, threatening a new refugee wave toward the Turkish border.

Erdogan said on December 22 that fleeing the Russian-Syrian bombardment in Idlib, some 80,000 people were heading toward Turkish borders. Erdogan's key aide, Ibrahim Kalin, disclosed on December 24 that Ankara had asked Russia to (re)establish the ceasefire in Idlib and "they [Russians] told our delegation that they will make an effort to stop the [Syrian] regime's attacks within 24 hours." Moscow holds an "Idlib card."

A window of opportunity

The point is, it is highly improbable that Moscow would withdraw support for Haftar. Moscow sees a window of opportunity to become the most influential player in Libya if Haftar captures Tripoli.

The renegade general might have been the US Central Intelligence Agency's asset in the past, but now Washington has taken the window seat in the Libyan conflict. Haftar's other backers are Egypt and the UAE, and Russia overshadows them in military capability.

The Russian intervention in Libya is "self-financing" insofar as Saudis are bankrolling Haftar. Over and above, Russia is also serving the interests of the Egyptian, Saudi and Emirati regimes that are petrified that democratic transformation of Libya - on the lines of Tunisia or Algeria - might eventually lead to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, as happened once in Egypt.

Succinctly put, a "strongman" ruling Libya with an iron hand is what suits Russia, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Moscow is pushing a big agenda in Libya. Apart from Libya's vast oil reserves, the country can offer Russia bases along NATO's "soft underbelly" in the Mediterranean, which would supplement the bases in Syria and help to change the geopolitical dynamics of the Eastern Mediterranean.

[Source: By MK Bhadrakumar, Asia Times, Bangkok, 06Jan20]

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