Via Financial Times

Russia and Turkey have called for a ceasefire in war-ravaged Libya, as the two powers sought to deepen their influence in the north African country where they back opposing sides.

The call for an end to hostilities came after talks in Istanbul between Vladimir Putin, Russian president, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his Turkish counterpart. Moscow and Ankara have sent military support to their proxies in Libya, where the internationally recognised government in Tripoli has been fending off an offensive led by the military strongman Khalifa Haftar.

“Seeking a military solution to the ongoing conflict in Libya only causes further suffering and deepens the divisions among Libyans,” Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan said in a joint statement on Wednesday.

The talks came just hours after Iran fired missiles at US bases in Iraq in retaliation for the assassination of the country’s military commander, ratcheting up tension in the Middle East where Turkey and Russia have sought to take advantage of an American retreat across the region.

Turkey just days ago began sending troops to support the internationally recognised Tripoli government. Fighting has intensified since the signing late last year of a military deal between Ankara and Tripoli. Forces loyal by Gen Haftar, who is backed by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, have been besieging the Libyan capital since April.

All sides should “immediately come together around the negotiating table in order to restore peace and prosperity to the country and end the pain of the Libyan people,” Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan said as they called for the ceasefire to begin on Saturday.

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However, analysts viewed the ceasefire call as a means for both Ankara and Moscow to deepen their influence over oil-exporting Libya. The US continues to take a back seat over the multi-layered conflict while Europe remains divided over policy towards the north African country.

“Turkey never made it a secret that it wants to strike a deal with Russia to divide up control over Libya,” said Jalel Harchaoui, research fellow at the Clingendael Institute, a think-tank in the Netherlands. “By being involved militarily the two countries have been creating leverage to protect their influence when they go to negotiations.”

Wolfram Lacher, a Libya specialist at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said it was an attempt by Turkey and Russia to further edge out the Europeans and take over the diplomacy on Libya.

Ahmad al-Mesmari, spokesman for Haftar's forces, addresses the media in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on January 6, 2020. - Forces of Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar announced they had taken control of the coastal city of Sirte from factions loyal to the Tripoli government. Sirte, some 450 kilometres (280 miles) east of the capital Tripoli, had been held by forces allied with the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) since 2016. (Photo by Abdullah DOMA / AFP) (Photo by ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP via Getty Images)
Ahmad al-Mesmari, spokesman for Khalifa Haftar’s forces, addresses the media in Benghazi on Monday after the LNA took control of Sirte © Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty

The UN has been trying to organise a conference in Berlin this month to secure the adherence of countries meddling in Libya, including Russia and Turkey, to a 2011 arms embargo. “This is an attempt to steal the initiative from the Europeans and make the Berlin process irrelevant,” Mr Lacher said.

The approach by Moscow and Ankara is an echo of their dealings in Syria, where Turkey and Russia, along with Iran, have also set up negotiations that are separate from UN-led efforts to end the fighting.

Mr Lacher said he doubted whether Russia and Turkey had sufficient influence over the belligerents in Libya to make them end hostilities. He also said that neither Russia nor Turkey have admitted the real extent “of the assets” they have in Libya.

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Russia has not acknowledged the presence of hundreds of mercenaries from the Wagner Group, the private security contractor, that have been fighting alongside Gen Haftar’s forces. Turkey has not revealed that it has supplied Tripoli with drones.

The Libya agreement underscores the rising clout of Mr Putin in the region as well as his increasingly strong relationship with Mr Erdogan, despite Turkey’s membership of Nato and the two countries’ support for opposing sides in the Syrian civil war.

Sergei Lavrov, Mr Putin’s foreign minister, said he and other senior ministers from Russia and Turkey would remain in contact over the next few days “to advance” the ceasefire agreement.