Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin leave following a joint news conference in Ankara, Turkey, September 16, 2019 (Photo: Reuters)
Defence and diplomatic officials from Russia and Turkey were scheduled to meet on 13 June to discuss the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Libya, in which both parties are involved. One day later, in a phone conversation, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu decided to postpone the talks.
An official explanation for this development can hardly be found, though it was reportedly due to the battle over Sirte in Libya. On 17 June, along with Iran, they again decided to meet via video conference to discuss Syria in August. Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif hopes the video conference will take place in August.
As put by Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey programme at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “have been on opposing sides of the ongoing proxy wars in Syria and Libya.” But they “have managed to maintain cordial relations and continue their cooperation in foreign and security policy.”
“Paradoxically, the clashes between the armed proxies of Russia and Turkey have a tendency to mutually strengthen the respective positions of both countries in Syrian and Libyan theatres of action”, said Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian.
The politico-strategic relationship between Russia and Turkey is definitely a complicated one. For example, Turkey started receiving the Russian S-400 surface-to-air-missile system in 2019. This caused problems for the NATO member with the United States. Washington responded by stopping the training of Turkish pilots and mechanics in the US and suspended Turkey's role in the F-35 programme. But this was not a sufficient incentive for Turkey to change its position on the deal.
However, when it comes to the Middle East, Turkey and Russia continue to clash on Libya and Syria. Ironically, Lavrov said in February that his country will welcome any US endeavour for a truce in Libya. This came after a conversation between Erdogan and US President Donald Trump on Libya. Erdogan said then they agreed on “some issues” about Libya and asserted that a “new era between Turkey and the US may start after our phone call.”
Erdemir said that Turkey senses a “unique opportunity to bolster its legitimacy as a potential counterweight to Russia” as it sees “Washington’s growing concerns about Moscow’s expanding footprint in the Middle East and North Africa... The rising isolationist sentiment in Washington and Trump’s commitment to reducing the US military footprint in the region further provide opportunities for Erdogan to exploit as he offers Turkish troops and proxies as an alternative to fill the ensuing vacuum,” he explained.
“Ironically, the instability likely to be triggered by Erdogan’s growing confidence and maximalist ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean may force in the months ahead greater US involvement as Washington feels compelled to deal with the military and diplomatic fallout with a much greater footprint.”
In Libya, Moscow — in addition to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates — is offering support for the east-based Libyan National Army (LNA) and its commander Khalifa Haftar, while Turkey is backing the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli with troops and thousands of Syrian mercenaries. According to a Reuters report, Turkey is now having talks with the GNA for a possible use of the Misrata naval base and the Al-Watiya air base. This is a sign of limited Turkish interest in ending its military involvement in Libya.
In Syria, Russia and Iran have been providing support for state troops, while Turkey backs armed groups. Mohamed Abdel-Kader, an expert on Turkish affairs at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said that Russian and Turkish officials regularly meet to “avoid a direct clash” between their troops in conflict-hit areas.
Abdel-Kader said that Turkey wants the conversation over Libya to be on the “pre-Sirte basis”. “Haftar won Sirte, Misrata and then started his Tripoli operation. The Turks want Sirte because they want to be close to oilfields, which will allow the GNA to establish control over a huge coastal area. The most important thing for the Turks is oil.” he stated.
“This is, of course, not acceptable for either Haftar or Russia. But the revival of talks, especially in light of the results of previous talks in Berlin and Moscow, is certainly a possible scenario. It will not be the first time when Turkey and Russia sit and negotiate this issue,” added Abdel-Kader.
On Syria, Abdel-Kader pointed out that Bashar Al-Assad’s troops now control about 70 percent of the territory, while the Turks also control large parts of the war-torn state. He noted that, so far, the Turkish-Russian cooperation is successful.
“Perhaps the most important thing for the Russians is the issue of terrorist organisations, including Al-Nusra Front, and I believe there are no recent developments on this,” he concluded.