Meet the new master of the Middle East

There are indications that Russia is planning a military intervention in Libya. On March 13, Russian special units and drones were spotted in the Egyptian coastal town of Sidi Barrani, just 100 km east of the Libyan territory that’s controlled by the Russia-supported Gen. Khalifa Haftar.

If Russia is really working to change the balance of powers in Libya as they did in Syria, Turkey’s positions in the Eastern Mediterreanean will be threatened (not to mention America’s). Establishing a military presence there is aimed to stabilise the Sisi regime in Egypt against the Islamists. That’s in line with the traditional Russian policy since the Soviet times when they were in alliance with Egypt. Now they’re conducting joint military exercises, and Russia is actively helping Egypt to guard its vulnerable western border.

These movements have the long-term goal to support Gen. Haftar in Libya, who’s facing Jihadist threats against the territories he controls, including the important oil ports in Ras Lanuf and Es Sider. Haftar is a former Gaddafi loyalist who’s now ruling from Tobruq and has been a key player in the Libyan civil war. He now controls most oil fields in Libya, with a daily output of 700K+ barrels.

Last month, the Russian oil giant RosNeft signed an agreement with the Libyan national oil corporation for the delivery of raw oil, plus some further investment in Libya. And last December, the Russian deputy foreign minister Gatilov harshly criticised the special UN envoy to Libya, German diplomat Martin Kobler, for his statements in support of Haftar’s opponents.

In January, Haftar was invited on board the Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov in the Mediterranean, where he had a video meeting with Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu. And a month later, Shoigu warned his British counterpart Michael Fallon against meddling in Russian affairs in Libya (“Don’t tell a bear what to do!”)

There’s no doubt at this point that Russia is trying to restore its previous military alliances.

Meanwhile, Turkey is not sleeping either. They’re also trying to assert their positions in Libya after the failed attempt to prop up the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt a couple of years ago. Last summer, during his visit to Libya, Turkish foreign minister Cavusoglu managed to snatch an agreement for the completion of 304 abandoned projects worth $18.5 bn. The deal was done with Haftar’s rivals, however. The Turks are concerned that after Syria and Egypt, Libya could be Russia’s next prize, and Putin might be trying to create a Russian ring to control the southern flank of the Eastern Mediterranean – which would practically mean the encirclement of Turkey, and its geopolitical isolation.

Let me remind that vast new oil deposits have been found off the Cyprus coast, conveniently situated well in range of at least half a dozen countries, so the scramble for access to that new treasure will be very fierce. Some have even argued that this is at the core of all the recent conflicts in the region, including the string of Arab Spring events across the Maghreb and the Levant. Iran is also a factor, trying to establish a Shia-controlled corridor spanning Iraq, Bahrain and Syria and allowing them to gain access to the Mediterranean and control the crucial trade and pipeline routes crossing the region. And Saudi Arabia wouldn’t allow that. So there are more than 4 or 5 big players, plus about a dozen other secondary participants involved in this whole mess. And the knot doesn’t seem likely to be untied any time soon. Worse, it’s only just beginning to get tightened.

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