Marshal Haftar, whose armed forces hold most of Libyan territory, has not signed the ceasefire agreement accepted by his rival, Fayez al-Sarraj, at the head of the “government of national unity (GAN), recognized by the UN, but which now controls only the capital, Tripoli, and its surroundings. “We will never hesitate to inflict the putschist Haftar the lesson he deservesThundered Turkish President Recep Erdogan, GAN’s main supporter, after Haftar’s refusal to sign the agreement overseen by Moscow and Ankara.
Pending the Berlin summit on January 19, it is a diplomatic failure, at least temporary, for Russia, which seems to have asked too many concessions from its protégé. But this twist does not change the balance of power in Libya, where Moscow and Ankara always impose themselves as the two protagonists of a strategic duel. Le Figaro explains the reasons for the interest of these two countries, already rivals and partners in Syria, for Libya.
● Hydrocarbons, a major economic issue
Traditionally, Libya is the African country with the largest oil reserves – some 41 billion barrels, 9th in the world – which are mainly located in the south of the country. At the same time, Libya has off-shore reserves of natural gas off the coast, discovered over the past decade in the entire eastern Mediterranean. On the Turkish side, on November 27, Ankara signed a maritime delimitation agreement with the government of Sarraj which allows “Maximize (…) joint exploration activitiesIn Erdogan’s own words. This agreement sparked the wrath of Greece and Cyprus, which claim part of these territories and consider that Ankara is illegally trying to grab natural gas from the Mediterranean.
Turkey has historically been a transit point for hydrocarbons – a subject on which it collaborates with Russia – but is not a producing country. “Beyond the maritime agreement, Turkey has been trying since the 1970s to buy oil from the Libyan Sahara, which would allow it to be less dependent on Russia in this area.Explains to Figaro Jalel Harchaoui, researcher at the Clingendael Institute. At the same time, Moscow would view Libya as a competitor, particularly to supply Europe, and prefer to make it a partner. “The Russians are not the only ones on the spot, but, as of 2017, Russian public group Rosneft has already signed a preliminary agreement with the Libyan national company“Says historian Igor Delanoë, deputy director of the Franco-Russian Observatory.
● Commercial issues
Hydrocarbons are far from covering all Turkish and Russian interests in Libya. Overall, the same logic is at work: Moscow and Ankara are betting on the resumption of the contracts signed before the fall of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 and which have since been frozen. “The Turks estimate them at 18 billion. In the 2000s, with money from petroleum, Libya launched major construction and infrastructure projects. Turks were the primary beneficiariesExplains Jalel Harchaoui.
Same story on the side of Russia, which has also launched a major offensive, including economic, throughout Africa. By its wealth potential, Libya is a client of choice for the traditional products sold by Moscow. “There is of course armament. The market is estimated between 5 and 10 billion, but Russia is also a great agricultural power, especially in cereals. She needs new markets to sell his wheat“, Specifies the researcher who recalls that, under Gaddafi, “A high-speed train project between Sirte and Benghazi had even been envisaged”.
● Geopolitical interests
The economy is not everything. On the Turkish side, some speak of President Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman project. “I don’t like that term very much, there is no romanticism or nostalgia in Erdogan. His projects are cold, à la Poutine“, Says Jalel Harchaoui. According to him, Turkey, but also Egypt and the Gulf countries have a common diagnosis over the next one or two decades: “They observe two converging movements. Firstly, the disinterest of the United States in the Middle East. On the other hand, the lack of foreign policy and resources of European countries. They therefore consider that the region needs a big brother“. The main players in the region would thus see Libya as a laboratory, which “can stain oil“. “It is hard to imagine today, but it is a country with great wealth, a small population, which is not divided religiously, it is an ideal place for any ideology which wants to develop“, He specifies. In its rivalry with Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, Ankara overwhelmingly supports the path of political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood. “This channel is the Arabic version of the Turkish AKP [Parti islamoconservateur d’Erdogan]. The Muslim brothers in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia have a real admiration for the Turkish president, whose populism, supported by the lower middle classes, serves as a model“, He says again.
On the Russian side, these political issues are less important. “Libya is not Syria for Moscow. We can also see it in the military engagement, which is incomparable between the two“Argues Igor Delanoë who nevertheless points out that Libya could”train a russian outpost on NATO’s Mediterranean front“. “Considering having air or naval facilities in this country could also be advantageous, including as a bridgehead to the rest of the African continent, where Moscow’s security involvement is increasingAdds the researcher.
● A means of pressure against Europe
A final element which justifies the interest of both Russians and Turks in Libya actually concerns Europe. The Maghreb country is one of the main points of migratory transit to European countries. Controlling Libya therefore means acquiring leverage over Europe when European-Russian and European-Turkish relations have been difficult for several years.