By Irina Tsukerman
The US is At Risk of Alienating Other Allies
The Turkey-Russia Standoff: To the Victor, the Spoils
Neither vacillating on the issue of which side to support nor landing on a symbolic backing of Turkey & Qatar financed and armed Tripoli government is helping US relations with countries like Egypt, which have been consistently against the expansion of Islamism in the region and which view Turkey’s presence in Libya as an illegal and dangerous escalation, and a potential national security threats. What happens after the US elections, when the kid gloves come off for all the parties? Blocks, alliances, and hints of strategic regrouping are already visible; the United States risks being left out in the cold should it fail to take an active position in the conflict.
On the one hand, Russia is willing to confront Turkey head on in Libya by bring in MiGs, which Erdogan and Tripoli regard as an escalation to the conflict. While this step will be to the Benefit of Egypt, UAE, and others who have sided with Khalifa Hafter’s forces, Russia’s willingness to take this step cements its role and presence in the region, with Hafter, who in the past been willing to draw a red line on Moscow’s overtures, being seen as increasingly dependent on Russia’s protection against Turkey’s increasingly ingressive involvement. This does not bode well for the future, regardless of which faction ultimately prevails. Russia’s military expansion in the mineral-rich Africa is simply not the kind of development that best serves US interests, and having Russian mercenaries spreading out from C.A.R. to the Sahel and North Africa, and potentially funding anti-American factions and taking control of precious resources should most certainly be seen as a threat.
On the other hand, Turkey has demonstrated that at least in Libya, Russia has met its match. Having outmaneuverd the mercenaries to grab hold of Russia’s Pantsir missile defense system, Turkey finally managed to deliver some moral relief to its own backers after a series of failures and military and political miscalculations which had high political and financial costs for Ankara. One observation worth noting is that Turkey managed to outplay Russia at its own game – fourth generation “gray” warfare, which involves a combination of electronic jamming, asymmetrical combat strategy, and by using long endurance UAVs, while learning and watching from other conflicts involving both the use of that specific system and Russia’s strategy in general. Indeed, Turkey and Russia already had a run-in over these systems in February and Syria.
So why is Russia not learning from the previous experience of using same weapons unsuccessfully against Turkey’s more advanced UAVs? Perhaps the reality is that it has limited options. A better question is why has Russia NOT used its famous S-400s in either place to demonstrate the effectiveness of the controversial missile defense system Turkey has purchased and which Russia has been tryitng to sell to just about anyone willing to listen? There are a few possible reason. The first is the cost. Russia is already stretched thin; the fact that only the mercenaries are dispatched to Libya speaks for itself. The same group has had to supplement Russian forces in Syria, where Russia once again is resorting to airstrikes against rebel groups and Turkey backed FSA in Idlib.
A secret agreement or a looming war?
Libya is of interest to Russia but it is a never-ending conflict and expending the precious S-400s may simple not be worth it. Another issue is technical. S-400 is not, in fact, battle tested it. Having it tried and failed or deliver unpredictable outcomes after a series of embarrassing losses is not something Russia can afford from PR perspective. It will be costly in terms of future credibility; furthermore, Russia cannot afford to discover this vulnerability during its stand-off with Turkey. It prefers to wait to see whether Turkey is willing to put the system to the test, or whether some other country will take advantage of it and try it out in some unrelated conflict while Moscow scrambles to advance the S-500s to combat readiness. Few defense specialists are raising questions about the real quality of S-400 under pressure, but perhaps Russia’s losses point to Moscow’s doubts about its own product.
Another possibility is despite the seeming hostilities between the countries, both realize that ultimately they will need to cooperate to some extent in the near future, and if they let the conflict get out of hand, the path off the ledge and back to coordinating their agenda to thwart Western/American interests will be that much narrower. It is certainly not in Turkey’s interests to be forced to sacrifice significant numbers of its own troops for a fairly nebulous cause which is unlikely to pay off anytime in the near future. Indeed Turkey’s best chances would be to work closely with Russia to backstab Hafter and to coopt some of the key tribes back into the GNA fold, and then agree on sharing the profits. Whether or not that is what is actually going on remains to be seen.
Third likely scenario, which is not necessarily in direct conflict with the second, is that Russia and Turkey are preparing for a major war in Syria. Now, that does not at all mean that there is in fact going to be a “large scale war in Syria” between these two countries. In fact, this apparent build up may be a sign that both sides want to come to a resolution and are using psychological warfare to get to the point when it becomes acceptable for them to get back to the negotiating table. In other words, the seeming escalation may be nothing more than a diversion.
A few days ago, Turkey began mobilizing heavy weapons, including self-propelled artillery mounts M110, in Syria. If Turkey were to strike Russian positions, it would be violating the terms of the agreement with Russia, which currently preclude the two sides from engaging in direct hostilities. Will Turkey be cornered into taking a desperate and foolhardy position of contracting the Syrian army backed by Russians, and essentially being forced to fight on multiple fronts when Assad is now better positioned to seize control? Erdogan lost face to Putin after heavy losses of Turkish soldiers in Idlib, and was forced to sign a ceasefire agreement in Idlib in what was described and viewed as a humiliating encounter with Russia’s president. All of that happened after a successful Syrian offensive which recaptured about half of the Idlib territory, while Turkey responded by increasing the number of its troops in the area.
With the Russian return to a confrontation with the rebels, it appears that neither Moscow nor Ankara is anywhere ready to backdown. Indeed, being forced out of Syria, would be a serious defeat and loss of face for Erdogan which would likely significantly undermine his morale and credibility to recruit for Libya. Will Assad take advantage of the West’s preoccupation with the corona virus pandemic, economic slowdown, riots and the election year in the US to set stage for a major showdown?
Whatever the case may be, what happens in Syria will have a direct bearing on the events in Libya. If Erdogan wants to have even a chance of prevailing in Libya, he will have to find a way of outmaneuvering Assad or coming to an agreement over the control of that territory. For Turkey, the situation is a Catch-22. Turkey has a slight edge over Russia in Libya, and if it does not actually cut a deal with Moscow as in the scenario outlined above, it may still be able to force the Russian mercenaries out of Libya if it succeeds in continuing to outmaneuver the Russians, even with the pending jets coming into the picture. While that alone will not solve Erdogan’s Syrian troubles, it may give him enough leverage to force Russia into some kind of a compromise which could ultimately change the calculus and at the very least allow him some limited and face-saving role in Idlib.
Whether Russia prevails or loses, US interests suffer
However, whether Russia ultimately makes a deal with Turkey in Libya and Syria, or whether Turkey prevails in one but not the other, or whether Russia comes ahead in both cases, none of these scenarios bode well for the US. Indeed, if US was hoping that Turkey could come to an understanding with the US over the Kurdish role in Syria, if Turkey is ultimately forced out of Syria, it will not be in any position to do anything but make matters worse for its own Kurdish population, while if Turkey feels its role in Syria is safe, it will not have an incentive to accept any of US demands or requests in that regard.
Furthermore, by backing Erdogan symbolically without taking any active measure towards resolving the issue in Libya, US positions itself in a no-win position overall, aggravating other allies in Libya who are now forced to draw closer to Russia, while being seen as a bad ally to both sides in Syria despite trying to play a constructive diplomatic role. Erdogan will not appreciate that US did not come to his aid in Libya even if this is the White House’s calculus in terms of leveraging its symbolic backing into pressuring Erdogan into concessions in Syria. Moreover, the stand off between Assad and Turkey is on some level to US benefit. If Assad gains completely control of Idlib, this also means that Russia will play an even greater role in the strategic area, and Iran, too, despite its tensions with Russia, will become further entrenched. For now, all of the parties are busy trying to outmaneuver one another; any factor that strengthens one of these powers against the rest damages US ability to maneuver the situation.
The Montreaux Convention Coming back to Haunt the Freedom of Navigation Stalwarts
The worst case scenario if the conflict between Russia and Turkey comes to a head in Syria is that Turkey may take the drastic step of changing the Montreaux convention which governs the regulations of passage in the strategically important Turkish straits. IT limits the number and the type of ships that can pass through these waters, which has caused countries, including Russia, to change the way they classify their vessels, while others, including Ukraine, have complained bitterly and called for other types of revisions. While the legal and technical ramifications of any changes to the convention can be diverse and complicated, the worst that Turkey can do is present a challenge to freedom of navigation in the nearby waters, which would have a detrimental effect on trade and relations in the region.
Erdogan who has thus far been managing to play off his trade interests against populist rhetoric and action on security fronts, will surely wish to avoid shooting himself in the foot by taking drastic action with no accounting for the outcome on this highly sensitive front. However, if he sees that this may be his own leverage over Russia and others and a potential saving grace on the two other war fronts he has already entangled himself, he may once again take unilateral action and go that route, increasing anger among his friends and enemies as well as potential for overall chaos. He may also choose to do that in response to the new Egypt-led alliance to protect the Eastern Mediterranean.
Does the new Egypt-led anti-Turkey bloc signal the beginning of the end of US leadership?
This new bloc is described as a new “anti-Turkey” alliance, although its only and specific purpose is to guard against Turkish ships delivering weapons to Libya. In addition to Egypt, the group includes Greece, Cyprus, the UAE, and France, all of which have a stake in preventing Turkish illegal drilling and other provacations in Libya and Eastern Mediterranean. UAE has a negligible navy; France has been gunning to return to a major neocolonialist role in Africa. Paris sees Libya and the Sahel as its sphere of influence of sorts. For Egypt, this is an opportunity to play a leading and distinct security role; emerging from the shadows of the unlikely MESA alliance which it had abandoned due to its lower prioritization of the conflict with Iran, and also creating a new bloc with UAE which does not formally include Saudi Arabia, which has backed Hafter in Libya but much more passively than with UAE. Does that signal to the United States and to others that Saudi Arabia is largely giving up on Africa?
Or, on the other hand, does that mean that both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are now playing increasingly mature roles as regional leaders in their own rights on distinct issues, and recognizing that success of each individual endeavor is much more likely with a focus on effective result than a fruitless race exclusively for the sake of boasting rights on primacy? Whatever the case may be, UAE appears to have heeded the recommendations of those who thought that the best way to get Egypt’s assistance on other priority matters such as Iran is by providing crucial assistance with regards to its priority security interests, including countering Turkey, Islamists, and terrorist threats and thus preventing Cairo from overextending its resources. Furthermore, from the perspective of the White House, this is a positive development in that it signals the bloc’s ability to handle certain specific threats without getting the United States involved in every aspect of planning, implementation, and funding of a conflict it wishes to be no part of. It signals growing military readingess and willingness of European and MENA countries to work together, improving coordination, and logistical readiness, and a more strategic outlook on problems.
On the other hand, the less US is part of these blocs, the less of a role it has to play in the international future, the less it has an opportunity to lead, and the less there is a need for US presence in the world, which may also mean that US positions, votes, and priorities may in the future be challenged by the very allies US wished to become independent from Washington. There is a careful balance to be had in having strong dependable allies which can take care of various threats without excessive involvement by the US, and ending up being excluded from important geostrategic processes of which the operation to counter Turkey’s threat will likely be only the first one. And with Egypt and UAE both unhappy with the US’s symbolic backing of their enemies, it is more likely than not to happen with increasing frequence that instead of bringing the United States into future projects and agreements, they will find themselves preferring not to deal with an unpredictable, unreliable ally and search for other partners and avenues. If that happens, US only stands to lose on all levels of interest – political, economic, security, and social/people-to-people.