Moscow and Ankara pulling strings…Syrians on both sides of Libyan conflict
Enab Baladi– Taim Alhajj| Mais Shtayan| Ali Darwish
An interim government supports a legitimate one, and another “legitimate” supports “an interim,” while the two mediators (Russia and Turkey) secure their interests in a troubled region where conflicts intertwine, and the international mechanisms and voices resemble.
Mutual support ranges from the military to the economic one. The government of the Syrian regime exports both fighters and goods to the Libyan interim government in exchange for its oil, whereas the Syrian National Coalition-backed interim government enjoys the legitimate Libyan government support a.k.a “al-Wefaq,” which in turn benefits from the services of the Syrian opposition fighters.
This map of mutual interests was imposed by the political alliances sponsored directly by Russia and Turkey that represent two attraction axes in the Middle East.
In this file, Enab Baladi tries to explain the nature of convergence between the Syrian and Libyan files, at the military, political, and economic levels, as well as the impact of the Russian and Turkish role and their aims based on facts, in-depth analyzes and historical backgrounds.
Syrian fighters on the Libyan soil…
A supply tank under Russian-Turkish management
By the end of 2019, there was news spread about the presence of Syrian fighters on the Libyan soil, with a Turkish consent, fighting alongside the internationally recognized government of “al-Wefaq”, which is under the attack of the retired Major General Khalifa Haftar’s forces, who controls eastern Libya including its oil sources.
Back then, most of the Syrian media outlets gave wide coverage to that news until tacked by international press networks, which started investigating the matter, which was quite a shock to Syrians, especially that it coincided with an attack by the regime and Russian forces on Idlib governorate.
Several investigation findings have been posted on this issue, appended with some video recordings showing Syrian fighters, speaking in several regional dialects, on the outskirts of Tripoli, controlled by the al-Wefaq government.
At the time, Enab Baladi contacted well-known figures from “al-Wefaq” government, including the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Muhammad al-Qiblawi, and Chief of the Military Council in Misurata in the Ministry of Interior, Ibrahim al-Rajab, who both categorically denied the presence of Syrian fighters coming from Turkey among their ranks.
They also asserted that the right information is that the Syrian fighters in Libya are working side by side with the forces of Major General Khalifa Haftar, who enjoys the Russian support.
Pointing out that intelligence services affiliated to al-Wefaq government monitored, in the last months of 2019, the arrival of several flights from Damascus to Libya onboard the “Wings of the Levant” company, owned by the “Shammout Trading Group,” known for its closeness to the Syrian regime.
They also confirmed that the nationalities of these fighters transferred by the “Wings of the Levant” pro-government airline company remain unknown to them since they have no solid information in this regard. However, they said that these fighters could be either members in the regime’s army, the Russian forces, or affiliated to the Iranian militias.
Among those who denied this information was the spokesman for the Syrian National Army (SNA), Major Yusef Hammoud, who told Enab Baladi on 25 December 2019, that the provided information concerning a Turkish offer to send fighters to Libya is incorrect, asserting that “no offers were made to the SNA in this respect.”
Al-Wefaq government in Libya
It is an internationally recognized government, headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj, a member of the Government of the National Accord (GNA) headquartered in the capital of Libya, Tripoli. GNA was formed in February 2016 under the Skhirat agreement, a peace deal signed by Libyan parliamentarians, on 17 December 2015, under the auspices of the United Nations in the Moroccan city of Skhirat.
The Interim Government
Also called the “Tobruk Government,” the interim government emanated from the dissolved Tobruk parliament in September 2014, and it is headed by Abdullah al-Thani, who supports forces of Major General Khalifa Haftar.
Turkey…the starting point
Turkey supports “al-Wefaq” government, in both its political and military sections, as well as the Syrian National Army (SNA), which includes several political and military opposition factions, to which those Syrian fighters, of whom arrived in Libya, it is said they belong to.”
The question of the Syrian participation in the Libyan conflict remained unanswered for a few months, until the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, tackled it on five last January this year and talked about the assistance of non-Turkish soldiers to the al-Wefaq government in Libya.
Erdogan did not disclose the nationality or the number of these fighters at that time, to reveal later on 21 February that SNA members linked to the Syrian opposition, are working alongside the Turkish military trainers in Libya.
Erdogan responded to critics about his intervention in Libya by referring to the presence of more than 15,000 fighters consisting of the Russian Wagner group and the Sudanese militias, which he both described as “terrorists” fighting in the ranks of Khalifa Haftar’s forces.
The Turkish President also confirmed casualties among Syrian fighters in Libya, while certain Syrian accounts on Facebook published pictures and names of the dead.
Enab Baladi tried to reach out to one of the families of the deceased fighters but was unable to contact them. One family, from the Damascus Countryside Governorate, seemed reluctant to talk about the killing of their son. At the time, there were reports about SNA giving instructions to prevent families of the deceased, under penalty of arrest, from talking about their loss.
Russia opens the gates
The situation is almost the same with the Syrian regime and the conflicting reports on the arrival of its fighters to Libya to back up the ranks of Major General Khalifa Haftar’s forces. However, the regime has not commented on the news yet, although it is attempting to restore its political ties with Libya through Haftar, and in coordination with Russia.
Several Syrian and French press reports revealed the participation of Syrians affiliated with the regime through a Russian coordination in the ranks of Haftar forces, the most recent of which was published by the French newspaper “Le Monde” on 5 March.
The newspaper said that Haftar and Bashar al-Assad decided to act jointly against the Libyan government of “al-Wefaq”, and that “mercenaries affiliated with the later recently arrived in Libya to join the ranks of Haftar militias,” however, without specifying their exact numbers or the arrival date.
The local Suwayda 24 website revealed last February that the Syrian National Youth Party (SNYP), licensed by the government of the Syrian regime, was involved in mercenaries recruitment from as- Suwayda city and other governorates, with the support of the Russian company Wagner Group to be sent later to join the fight in Libya.
The same website published information and documents (including voice recordings) which confirms the party has started working on collecting mercenaries since the beginning of this year, pointing out that SNYP branch secretary in as-Suwayda, Shibli Al-Shaer, is the one responsible for recruiting mercenaries in the city to be sent to Libya for the support of Haftar’ brigade forces.
As-Suwayda 24 did not give specific numbers of the fighters who went from the Syrian regime-controlled areas to fight in the ranks of Major General Khalifa Haftar’s forces.
Last January, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, talked about the presence of “mercenaries” fighting in Libya which were transferred from Syria, denying any affiliation of the Russian ones to his state.
In response to the presence of Russian mercenaries in Libya, Putin said, “even if there are Russian citizens, they do not represent the interests of the Russian state and do not receive any money from it,” as he put it.
What brought Russia and Turkey together in the Syrian and Libyan files?
The Libyan and Syrian files are not interrelated only at the military level, but also at the political one, due to the Russian and Turkish involvement that was translated by a cease-fire agreement in both countries on the same day. Since then, both files have undergone political and military changes in accordance with Moscow and Ankara’s interests.
On 10 January, the Russian and Turkish presidents chose to set a date for stopping hostilities between the conflicting parties in Libya and Idlib governorate, northern Syria, in a statement issued at the time by the Turkish Ministry of Defense.
However, this agreement did not last long in both countries, and the effect was lesser in Libya than Syria, where the Russian forces and Iranian militias, with Russian support, continued their attacks against the opposition factions held areas, and by the current March controlled vast areas of Idlib and Aleppo countryside.
While breaching the agreement in Libya was limited to some sporadic attacks by Haftar’s forces, without controlling new positions from the al-Wefaq government, which still holds control over the capital, Tripoli, Haftar’s ultimate goal.
Opinion Poll: Are the Syrian and Libyan files interrelated?
Enab Baladi newspaper conducted an opinion poll through its website and official page on Facebook, where the following question was asked: Do you think that the Libyan and Syrian files are interrelated? If yes … What is the reason behind it?
Opinions converged on both platforms;69 percent of 677 Facebook respondents answered positively, while only 31 percent did not think that both files are connected somehow.
As for the site, 162 users participated, 68 percent of them answered yes, and 32% said no.
Differences and similarities
Despite the similarities in the way Russia and Turkey deal with the Syrian and Libyan files, the Palestinian Syrian researcher and General Coordinator of Maseer Assembly, Ayman Fahmy Abu Hashem, believes that certain complications in the Syrian file have obliged both countries to use different political, military and security mechanisms.
For Russia and Turkey, each country has its own geostrategic understanding of the undergoing changes in the Arab region, which resulted from the Arab revolutions and uprisings.
According to Abu Hashem, Libya is an essential arena in the field of global energy, and one of oil and gas-rich countries, other than being a market for goods and products’ consumption, and weapons purchase. Therefore, both countries understand the importance of enhancing their political, military, and economic influence in Libya.
This is done by investing in the internal conflicts of the Libyan parties fighting for power, where each of them (Russia and Turkey) supports a party that secures its interests and influence, according to Abu Hashem.
As for the last agreement to the cease-fire, “it is part of managing the game and controlling it in a way that prevents one of them from imposing its agenda at the expense of the other. This situation is similar somehow to what both countries have experienced in Syrian, taking into account the nature of the conflict in Libya differs from that in Syria.”
Saad Wafai, a Syrian political expert specialized in international relations, talked to Enab Baladi about the economic, historical, and religious reasons, which drive both Russia and Turkey to intervene in the Libyan and Syrian files.
Historically, Russia is a successor to the Soviet Union and has had influence in both Syria and Libya for more than half a century, at a time when Syria and Libya were an integral part of the Ottoman Empire and an extension of the Turkish demography. Therefore, there is competition for influence in Syria and Libya between Russia and Turkey to claim what they deem to them to their lawful right.
From a religious point of view, the Sunni-Turkish influence in Syria and Turkey poses a real threat to the Western Christian influence in the region, according to Wafai, who thinks that all the previous reasons make the competition between Russia and Turkey fierce.
At the beginning of this month, the government of the Syrian regime announced reopening the Libyan embassy, affiliated to the government run by Haftar forces without international recognition, also known as (the Libyan national army), in Damascus, to be the first embassy to represent Haftar, outside Libya.
This came after signing a memorandum of understanding between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of the Syrian regime and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation affiliated to Haftar, according to what was then reported by Syria’s official state news agency SANA.
On the other hand, both the al-Wefaq government and the Syrian political opposition have no apparent links between them, even if they both enjoy Turkey’s political and military support.
Enab Baladi tried to contact some figures in the Syrian opposition precisely at the National Coalition for Revolution and Opposition Forces (NCROF) and the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) to understand the nature of the political relationship that might have brought them together with the Libyan al-Wefaq government, and no clear answer was offered in this regard.
Stations in the history of Syrian-Libyan relations
After the fallout and decline of the Ottoman Sultanate, Syria and Libya underwent the western colonial rule, as was the case for the rest of the areas previously held by the Sultanate.
Syria gained its independence from France in April 1946, and lived through a period of political instability due to multiple coups until the Socialist Ba’ath Party came to power and gained firm control of it in the late 1960s.
While Libya gained its independence after the exit of the coalition forces (France and Britain) from its territories in 1951, to become a state with a federal constitutional and hereditary monarchy under the leadership of King Idris al-Senussi, until a coup led by former President Muammar Gaddafi in 1969. At that time, signs of rapprochement between Syria and Libya began to appear.
Gaddafi was influenced by the Arab thought of Nasserism and stood with the so-called “axis of resistance” adopted by the Syrian leadership at that time. Gaddafi’s first visit to Syria coincided with the coup of 16 November 1970, which Ba’ath regime called the “corrective movement”, and he justified his sudden visit by the ambiguity that prevailed on the Syrian stage and the inconsistency of news reports.
The former Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat along with Gaddafi, and the former President, Hafez al-Assad, signed an agreement and a constitution to form the Union of the Three Countries in what was called the “Union of Arab Republics” in April 1971. In September, of the same year, a public referendum on unity was held and resulted in the approval of the majority of voters. It was planned to implement it the following year, but it did not see much success due to the divergent views between the three heads of state.
Hafez al-Assad and Gaddafi reached a settlement during the Iraq-Iran war between (1980 and 1988), and decided to support Iran against Iraq and the Gulf countries, back then Gaddafi supported Iran with ballistic missiles (long-range missiles).
He also gave funds to President Hafez al-Assad in the 1980s in response to the conditions of Rifaat al-Assad to leave Syria, following the military confrontation between the two brothers, which almost led to a military coup to topple Hafiz.
Gaddafi gave $ 200 million to Rifaat al-Assad and solved the matter between the two brothers to maintain Hafez’s rule in Syria.
The Syrian-Libyan relations persisted in harmony during the 1990s, even with Hafez Al-Assad’s death, they remained stable, to reach another phase of economic cooperation under the aim of paying Libya’s deposit in Syria during the reign of Hafez al-Assad.
Syrian regime sets its eyes on Libyan oil
Haftar uses “sanctioned” oil in Syria
After being cut in 2012, diplomatic ties between the government of the Syrian regime and the government supporting the Libyan National Army led by Haftar are gradually getting back to their previous status, through the exchange of economic delegations’ visits and exhibitions.
In August 2017, the head of the Syrian Exporters Federation (SEF), Mohamed al-Sawah, paid a visit to Benghazi and returned accompanied by a Libyan delegation consisting of 70 businessmen to participate in Damascus International Fair.
This participation was followed by the signing by the Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade affiliated to the Syrian regime government, Muhammad Samer al-Khalil, with his Libyan counterpart in Haftar’s government, Munir Asr, in February 2018, a trade exchange agreement, during the latter’s visit to Syria.
In March of the same year, the Syrian Exporters’ Union announced that the first cargo ship to arrive in Libya carries about 300 tons of Syrian products, including clothing, shoes and food under the agreement.
In May 2018, the “Made in Syria” economic exhibition was held for the first time in Benghazi, Libya, with the participation of 100 Syrian and Libyan companies specialized in foodstuffs, while the “Libyan Business Owners Council” in Benghazi participated in the 60th edition of Damascus International Fair of June 2018.
Earlier this year, the Syrian Ministry of Transport announced Libyan Airlines’ return to flying over Syrian airspace after a hiatus of years due to the war, this was followed by the reopening of the Libyan embassy in Damascus.
After reopening the embassy, the Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade of the Syrian regime, Muhammad Samer Al-Khalil, said that Libya has become accustomed to Syrian goods and that “we are forming delegations from the business sector to communicate with their counterparts in Libya under the aim of developing mutual trade and investment cooperation”
Libyan Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation in the government of Haftar, Abdul Hadi Al-Hawij, confirmed that Libya, with its new economic decision, has redirected its economy towards Syrian products, Syrian companies and the Syrian labor force, as stated by al-Watan newspaper.
The newspaper quoted the Libyan Deputy Prime Minister, Abdul Rahman al-Ahiresh, during his visit to Syria at the reopening of the embassy of Haftar’s government, as saying that he and his delegation talked to the President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, about trade and especially oil derivatives.
He added that the Libyan market is “thirsty” for Syrian products, stating that “historically, Syria was in control of the Libyan market.”
Libyan oil is a breather for the Syrian regime
Minister of finance and economy of the SIG, Abdel-Hakim al-Masri, considered the return of trade relations between the Syrian regime and Haftar’s government as an attempt to form an alliance against Turkey’s presence in Libya, and the existence of mutual interests regarding Libyan oil.
Al-Masri said in an interview with Enab Baladi that the presence of Turkey in Libya will hinder many deals for the government supporting Haftar and its collaborators, referring to the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia and Iran.
In addition, the Syrian regime used this convergence as an outlet for importing oil from Libya, whereas Haftar’s government found a market to dispose of “sanctioned or besieged” oil.
Al-Masri indicated that 85 percent of oil sources and 55 percent of the gas fields in Syria are out of the regime control, where the agricultural production areas for (grains, cotton, olives) and livestock are in the northern part of the country or in Jazira region, which makes all these zones outside of its control and justifies its need for Libyan oil.
Controlled by Haftar forces
Libya relies for most of its revenues on oil, it is also a member of OPEC, and the government supporting Haftar controls most of the ports and oilfields in Libya.
These ports are affected by the ongoing conflict between the “Libyan National Army” led by Haftar, and forces affiliated to al -Wefaq government, as Haftar forces impose a blockade on these fields from time to time.
The blockade imposed by Haftar loyalists on the Libyan oil ports, in January, caused a drop production to 91,221 barrels per day on 17 March, according to a statement by the National Oil Corporation (NOC) in Libya.
This has caused financial losses exceeding $ 3.36 billion, since 17 January, after some groups loyal to Khalifa Haftar, based in eastern Libya, closed ports and oil fields, according to Reuters.
Exporting to Libya?
Despite news on the continuous exporting from Syria to Libya, al-Masri doubted an increase in its value in the future, pointing out that the gross domestic product decreased significantly over the years of the war, leaving the regime unable to conduct commercial exchange with Haftar’s government, due to its lack of sufficient resources.
The continuous exporting from Syria to Libya also depends on the US and European sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime, the most recent of which is the Caesar Law recently approved by Washington. Caesar Law imposes additional economic sanctions on the regime and all those dealing with it in the field of energy, finance and transportation.
If this law is applied, it will increase the difficulty of commercial exchange between the regime and “Tobruk government” in Libya, and all the countries involved in commercial relations with it, as al-Masri put it.
Syrian Interim Government seeks ties with al-Wefaq
Al-Masri denied any economic relations or commercial agreements between the SIG and the Libyan GNA, which supports the Syrian revolution, due to the international conditions and restrictions, amid the lack of products needed by Libya in areas held by the Syrian opposition factions.
However, al-Masri asserted the desire of SIG, as a minister of finance, to conduct future commercial exchange agreements with the “al-Wefaq” government, “whenever possible, especially after taking control of areas such as Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn”. He also pointed out the possibility of establishing production projects in these areas able to provide goods for exportation purposes.
In case these relationships are accomplished, the economic factor will help set the whole picture of a Syrian-Libyan rapprochement unhampered by semi international recognition, and paves the way for a diplomatic one that our allies continue to sponsor and those relationships will remain temporary until reaching a solution for both Syria and Libya.
Economic relations with Libya in the reign of Assad dynasty
Extensive investment agreements to settle the Libyan deposit
The Syrian-Libyan relations witnessed various commercial and investment agreements during the era of Hafez Al-Assad, mainly trade exchange between the two countries and maritime transport agreements. These ties continued after Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000.
In 1978, the Syrian-Libyan Company for Industrial and Agricultural Investments (SYLICO) was established in Damascus, and its main activity is well drilling. The company joined the International Bank for Trade and Finance in Syria in 2013 as a member of the Board of Directors.
In 2008, an agreement to settle the Libyan deposit, which amounts to $ 200 million, was signed in the Central Bank of Syria.
The Syrian Minister of Finance, Muhammad al-Hussein, said at the time that the agreement stipulated the cancellation of the accumulated interest accrued on the deposit since 1982, which amounts to $ 350 million. He added that the original deposit will be invested completely in Syria through the establishment of a cement factory by Libyan investors, who will benefit from for a specified period before the full transfer of its ownership to the Syrian government.
The agreement also provided facilitating and developing the Syrian construction companies work in Libya, as well as making the establishment of joint companies of the General Company for Roads and Bridges, the Syrian Networks” and Libyan partners easier, along with exchanging documents of the land and maritime transport agreements between both countries, in preparation for signing them.
In addition to signing a joint cooperation agreement between the Syrian Commercial Bank and the Libyan Jamahiriya Bank, and the establishment of a Syrian-Libyan Businessmen Council before the end of 2008, as reported by the governmental newspaper, al-Thawra.
In the year 2010, these relations witnessed further development, after a meeting held by the joint Syrian- Libyan Higher Committee, under the leadership of the Syrian Prime Minister, Mohamed Naji Otri, and the Secretary of the General People’s Committee in Libya, al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi. At that time, it was agreed upon 17 additional articles including promotion of trade exchange.
These agreements included facilitating the flow of national goods and commodities through road transport to the markets of both countries and transit to third countries, as well as developing land and air transport, along with the joint cooperation in the sectors of agriculture, oil and mineral wealth.
The agreements provided also established joint businesses between public and private sector institutions in both countries, including the establishment of the “Syrian General Company for Building and Construction”, housing units in the Libyan Tandmira area, and infrastructure projects in other Libyan regions.
Besides exempting Syrian businessmen, who possess passports indicating their profession as businessmen, or accredited cards from the federations of the concerned chambers (trade, industry, agriculture, tourism, navigation), from any restrictions upon entering Libyan soil, the agreement activated the role of the private sector in both countries through the establishment of a Syrian-Libyan businessmen council.
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