ISTANBUL – Analysts say Turkey’s deepening involvement in the Libyan conflict could be the catalyst for a reset in relations with the United States, in recent years strained by regional policy differences and mutual distrust.
In January, Turkey started sending military personnel to Libya in support of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. The GNA has been under sustained attack from forces led by Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, whose power base is in eastern Libya. Haftar’s Libyan National Army has the backing of the Egypt, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.
Ankara’s military intervention tipped the balance of forces in favor of GNA, driving Haftar from the suburbs of Tripoli. Turkish backed troops are now poised to seize the strategic town of Sirte, which is key to controlling much of Libya’s energy resources.
Turkey’s intervention in Libya appears to be helping Ankara find common ground with Washington.
“The United States and Turkey appear on the same page in Libya,” said Mithat Rende, a former Turkish ambassador to Qatar who now works as an energy consultant covering the eastern Mediterranean. “The deploying of Russian fighters in the eastern part of Libya made the American side quite disturbed by Russian intentions, so hopefully they [Turkey and the United States] can work together.”
Moscow officially denies offering military support to Haftar, but a U.N. report in May said approximately 1,200 Russian mercenaries with the Wagner Group were backing the Libyan warlord. The Wagner Group is a private security force run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman reported to have close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Since the end of World War II, Russia has sought to put Libya under its sphere of influence. Currently, observers say Moscow seeks new naval bases beyond Syria in the Mediterranean.
“Turkey is the only power to counter Russia’s naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean,” said Mehmet Ogutcu with the London Energy Club policy group. “Turkey is tilting more towards the United States, which probably the Russians are not too happy to observe.”
On Sunday, warplanes struck an airbase that had been recently captured by Turkish-backed GNA forces. The vital Al-Watiyah airfield suffered substantial damage. Ankara is now bolstering the base’s defenses. The escalating conflict is likely to see Ankara stepping up efforts to court Washington, perhaps at the expense of its growing ties to Russia.
Turkey’s military overstretched
One reason, analysts say, is that the Turkish military is overstretched.
“Turkey is currently undergoing a military operation in Northern Iraq, three to four military operations in Syria, and the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya,” said international relations professor Ilhan Uzgel of Ankara University. “Turkey needs not Russia but the United States to sustain its so overstretched military engagements.”
Since disaffected generals staged a 2016 failed coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish leader has increasingly looked to Moscow in what analysts say is a strategy to alarm Turkey’s NATO allies.
Senior Turkish officials accused Washington of being at least tacitly involved in the botched coup, a charge strenuously denied by the United States.
Putin has sought to exploit U.S.-Turkish mistrust. Moscow’s sale of its S-400 missies system to Turkey further soured relations between Ankara and Washington, culminating in Turkey’s exclusion from the US F-35 stealth fighter program.
Washington says the S-400 would compromise the F-35’s stealth technology.
Regional policy differences exacerbate mutual mistrust. Washington’s backing of the YPG Syrian Kurdish militia in its war against the Islamic State infuriates Ankara, which considers the militia terrorists who are linked to a decades’ long Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.
Turkey and Russia are cooperating with Iran to end the Syrian civil war, despite Moscow backing Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad and Ankara Syrian rebels.
“It’s a tentative marriage of convenience,” said Ogutcu, “even though Russia-Turkish relations are good now, tensions are high in Syria and also Libya.”
The last-minute cancellation of a high level Russian-Turkish diplomatic meeting in Istanbul last month to discuss Syria and Libya underscores growing differences.
Return to Washington?
Ankara is now giving signs it could be ready to look once again to Washington. The indefinite delay of the activation of the billion-dollar S-400 missile system averted threatened U.S.-Turkish economic sanctions.
Trump’s removal, last month of Richard Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, played well in Ankara. Berman was leading the prosecution of the Turkish state-owned Halkbank for Iranian sanction busting.
Turkey’s increased purchases of American liquefied natural gas is also likely to be well received in Washington.
“40% of our LNG comes from American, second only to Spain in Europe. We are trying to reduce our dependency on Russian gas to a manageable level,” said Ogutcu.
In recent months, Erdogan has also quietly dropped his harsh anti-American rhetoric, which he routinely employs until recently to whip up his Islamist nationalist voting base.
Money is also a powerful impetus for Ankara’s softening stance toward Washington, with the COVID-19 epidemic hitting hard an already weak Turkish economy.
“To keep the economy going, Erdogan needs financial assistance,” said Uzgel. “There are debt repayments this year, tourism is going down like everywhere, the economy is really in serious trouble, so Erdogan needs money. I don’t think it will come from Beijing or Moscow. So the United States is the only country that the Erdogan government can rely on.”