What’s going on Libya: Relations between Türkiye, the US and Russia

What’s going on Libya: Relations between Türkiye, the US and Russia

Interview by Yunus Soner

The recent meeting of the presidents of Türkiye and Egypt in Cairo has fueled expectation for a political solution to the crisis in Libya. How far is that possible, are elections realistic, what is the role of the United States in that country? We asked these questions to Ismail Hakkı Pekin, retired Lieutenant-General of the Turkish Armed Forces and former Head of Intelligence at the Chief of Staff.

How is your general evaluation of the situation in Libya? How probable is it that a united government can be established during 2024?

The country presents a fractured landscape. Egypt supports Haftar. Türkiye does not recognize him and has signed bilateral agreements with the government in Tripoli on defense and energy.

All sides are arming up. Haftar, the Wagner elements… The conflict is not only about Libya but the entire energy structure of the region.

I consider that there’s only a low possibility of holding elections and establishing a government of national unity.

There is news that the US is pressuring via the UN for the establishment of a government of national unity, and for that purpose, is holding talks with local militias. Is that true?

Yes, this is true. The United States is trying to do that. They are meeting with local elements. The UN envoy to Libya is also working on that. At the same time, they reject the role of Dbeibeh.

Meanwhile, Washington also wants to force Türkiye out of Libya. When Türkiye was fighting Haftar in Tripoli, the US did not raise its voice. But now, their stance changed a bit.

Haftar on the other side is engaged in tremendous oil smuggling to Sudan. The oil is delivered to the Rapid Support Forces there. With that income, Haftar is buying up arms and equipment.

There are reports that the US is holding talks to establish a military base in Libya. In your judgment, which of the Libyan actors would accept such a step?

I think that none of them would accept that. Neither the Tripoli government nor Haftar. The European Union would also not accept that. Same for Türkiye.

Besides, is it questionable whether the US can open up such a base. There is a security problem in that. Remember that the US left Libya because their ambassador was assassinated.

Maybe Türkiye can do something in the name of the US. Türkiye has enough military personnel, the UAV..

In my judgment, it is difficult for the US to establish a military base there.

I consider that with its forces there, Türkiye balances Russia according to the demands of the US. The Turkish military base is sufficient for that.

Who is influencing the President of the Libyan Central Bank? What is the reason for the disagreement between the President of the Central Bank and Dbeibeh? And what is the role of the US in that?

The Central Bank plays a key role. All the money is in there. The money from oil selling goes to the Central Bank, but it is not distributed.

Dbeibeh considers himself government, but the President of the Central Bank does not recognize him.

Dbeibeh was formerly close to Türkiye. Now, he is very close to France. The President of the Central Bank doesn’t want him to participate in elections. Meanwhile, all the money deposited there is not disbursed.

The United States waits till the conditions evolve to its benefit. Washington wants to control energy resources. They say that Dbeibeh is not suitable for government, but behind the curtain, they support him. The US is engaged with all sides.

How far has the position of the US strengthened in recent times? In the East and the West of the country?

I don’t think that their position has strengthened. Not only in Libya, but also in the entire African continent, the US is trying to curb Russian-Chinese influence. 

But I do not consider them very strong in Libya right now. The situation in the country has become a real mess.

The US is trying to control the money and the energy. They actually benefit from the fractured situation.

I think that in their upcoming meeting, Biden and Erdoğan will also talk about Libya. Türkiye has energy investment there, which it doesn’t want to lose. The interests of the US and Türkiye converge. The US does not want to be too much on the front scene. 

There is a serious risk that the civil war may erupt again.

As for the Turkish foreign policy: Often we start very well, but then we do not get the results. We change sides, we overestimate our force, we make promises beyond our capabilities.

Do you think that the US activities in Libya weaken the position of France and Italy in the country?

Yes, of course. France and Italy want to intervene directly in Libya and create their order. The US wants to limit Chinese influence and expel Russian forces. They fight over the control of energy and money.

But the capacities of France and Italy do not suffice. When they are left alone, the events might again evolve towards an attack of Haftar on Tripoli.

Are the US coordinating or discussing their activities with the Turkish Defense Ministry?

Most probably yes. They might be discussing the US activities, as well as Türkiye’s activities, air defense issues, marine operations.

The entire region is in a turmoil, and it is well possible that a wide range of area, from Egypt to Sudan, from Libya to Somaliland is being evaluated. Türkiye has an established force consisting of Armed Forces personnel and volunteers.

In some way, a system needs to be established where diplomacy can work.

Türkiye is an important balancing power. Importantly, the US relies on Türkiye. On the other side are Wagner forces, which have nothing to do with their previous status. They are now reorganized by the Russian Defense Ministry. They are active in Ukraine, in Syria and in North Africa. Russia also wants to control energy lines. There is a competition between Russia and the US on that.

Türkiye has gained an important position; its activities cause respect on all sides. Its EEZ delimitation agreement with Libya is very important. It pursues diplomatic relations with the entire African continent. It is in a more advanced position than France and Italy.

Is there a possibility that Türkiye and Russia cooperate in Libya? On which topics could this happen?

Yes, there is. First of all, they need to talk.

The Libyan scenario is complex, with several external actors: Türkiye, the US, France, Italy, the European Union, Russia, Egypt, the UAE, the Saudis… From outside, the Chinese…

Russia is operating oil fields and mines. Türkiye needs to talk to all of them. Türkiye might see Russia as a competitor, but it must not see it as an enemy. Both sides have armed forces in Libya.

The US might threaten that. But at the end, Türkiye will have to balance the US too. The current situation should be preserved, avoiding the eruption of a civil war.  I think that a cooperation might be on the agenda if Russian President Putin visits Türkiye.

The main problem is to find out the policy of the US towards the region. They are now focused on their election.

Türkiye needs to cooperate with Russia from the Black Sea to the Caucasus, from Syria to Libya. I consider it very important that both sides communicate in Libya.

Ismail Hakkı Pekin

Retired Lt. Gen. Ismail Hakkı Pekin is the former Head of Türkiye’s General Staff Intelligence Agency between 2007-2011. He was born in 1951 in Iznik. He is married and is the father of two children.

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May 2024