“The intervention of foreign powers in Libya is now the main obstacle to peace in the country,” said Ghassan Salamé, UN special envoy for the country last week.
A long time ago the civil war in Libya went on to become worldwide. To the opposing factions of the Government of National Agreement (GAN) supported by the UN and the self-styled Libyan National Army of rebel marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, and to the myriad militias of variable loyalty, in 2015 the Islamic State, which was intended to make the country the third province of its Caliphate. To combat the jihadists came special forces from the US, France, United Kingdom and Jordan, among others, all with their own agendas. The air forces of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have bombarded targets at will since 2012. Before last summer, Sudan sent a thousand militiamen in support of Haftar. In October, Russian contractors began fighting on that same side, to which Moscow has added state-of-the-art troops and military equipment in recent weeks. And in this scenario, already complicated in itself, Turkey now bursts in.
“We are going to protect the rights of Libya and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean. We are more than ready to provide Libya with the necessary support,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on December 15 after meeting with GAN Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj in Istanbul. Said and done: the next day the Turkish Parliament approved a security and defence cooperation agreement with the Tripoli executive. Until now, Turkey had delivered armoured vehicles and weapons to GAN forces and provided air support through its Bayraktar drones stationed at bases in northern Cyprus. With the new agreement, it will also send a hundred members of the special forces and military advisors. According to the Saudi Arabian newspaper Al Arabiya, the first Turkish fighters have already reached Libyan territory, adding a new factor to an increasingly complex conflict.
An international board
“The intervention of foreign powers in Libya, both diplomatic and military, is now the main obstacle to peace in the country,” said Ghassan Salamé, UN special envoy for the country last week, who complained that the divisions within the UN Security Council they have prevented even a call for a ceasefire, despite the fact that the matter has been dealt with 15 times in that institution. The arms embargo has been violated at least 45 times since the beginning of April.
Because April is, in fact, the main reference of many observers to explain the current phase of the war. In that month Haftar, whose supporters control the east of the country from the regional capital of Benghazi, launched an offensive that was definitely waiting for Tripoli, but its forces soon became bogged down outside the capital. The conflict soon drifted into what some observers called the first ‘proxy’ war using drones: while the two armies were beating without much success on the ground, unmanned aircraft provided by the United Arab Emirates to Haftar, on the one hand, and for Turkey to the Government of Tripoli, on the other, they struggled to dominate the heavens.
The tie was almost total, without any side having the necessary capabilities to impose on their adversary. Not even the arrival of about a thousand fighters of the Sudan Rapid Support Forces (a militia formed from the fearsome Yanyawid, largely responsible for the genocide in Darfur) to support Haftar managed to alter the balance on the ground.
Until two months ago Russia, which had previously maintained a calculated ambiguity – supporting Haftar while doing oil business with Tripoli – decided to play it all on one card. The presence of Russian mercenaries had been reported in the country more than a year ago, but it became impossible to deny in October, when 35 members of the private security company Wagner died in combat on the outskirts of the capital. However, the arrival of the Russians was a revulsion for the forces of Benghazi, dramatically improving the lethal capabilities of their snipers and sinking morale on the side of Tripoli.
The advantages of fighting with contractors
For the Kremlin, the advantages of these types of contractors are multiple: not only do they avoid the social protests that would result in the return of regular soldiers in coffins, but also allow a formal involvement in the conflict to be denied, ensuring that it is a private initiative. Actually, Wagner’s relationship with the Russian state is much closer. According to several experts, “they are special forces in everything but the name.” But Russia has not taken long to follow the same script as in Syria and much faster: mercenaries have been followed by sending advanced Sukhoi fighters and precision artillery and using coordinated missile attacks, and the arrival of regular troops. According to the ‘New York Times‘, in Libya, there are now approximately one thousand Russian fighters. And this week Russia has sent MI35 combat helicopters in support of the offensive against Tripoli.
This Russian irruption in the Libyan theater seems to have aroused the interest of some US until then scarcely interested in North Africa. In October, a bipartisan group introduced the so-called Libyan Stabilization Law into Congress, trying to clarify the US position on the country, and last month a high-level delegation met with Haftar to demand a ceasefire, without the Marshal has paid too much attention to them. Until now, what had dominated American policy had been passivity, despite Washington’s nominal support for the Government of National Agreement in Tripoli, formed with the support of the UN.
Donald Trump, in fact, even called Haftar on the phone two weeks after the start of the offensive against Tripoli to express his support “in the fight against Islamic radicalism” (an idea that according to the ‘Wall Street Journal‘, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, two of the main supporters of the forces of Benghazi) had put him in the head.
In other Western foreign ministries, there is not much enthusiasm for the Government of National Agreement, which, in practice, only has the active support of Turkey. The “anti-terrorism” cooperation with Haftar has been giving way to complicity, explicit in the case of France and somewhat more moderate in that of the United Kingdom. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan have also openly taken sides on their side, driven by hostility towards Muslim Brotherhoods who enjoy important powers in the Tripoli executive. Just the opposite reason why Turkey defends it.
What does Turkey want from Libya?
But the defense of the Islamists is only one of the motivations of the Turkish authorities, and probably not the main one. At the end of November, Ankara and Tripoli signed an agreement that redrawn the maritime borders between the two countries. In this new map, Turkey is made with an Exclusive Economic Zone that overlaps with those established by Greece and Cyprus, which would give it access to part of the gas fields discovered in recent years in the Eastern Mediterranean. If Tripoli falls, Ankara can lose everything.
“Turkey has decided to capitalize on the international isolation of the GAN, which has no other international support left to counter Haftar’s attempt to take power after April,” says Emadeddin Badi, a Libyan expert at the Washington Middle East Institute. Thus, “Turkey has instrumentalized the growing asymmetry in the relationship between the authorities of Tripoli and Ankara,” taking the opportunity to sign two memorandums of understanding that include the new maritime demarcations, says in an article for the Carnegie Fund for International Peace.
In that regard, several analysts believe that Erdogan is playing a larger game, which includes his relationship with Russia, the acquisition of Russian military equipment and the plight of Syria. Thus, Libya would be an important asset in a future negotiation with Putin, with whom the Turkish president will meet on January 8. Taking this position for granted, however, can lead to an error of catastrophic proportions. The prestigious Turkish journalist ‘Ragip Soylu’, who has very good connections in Ankara, explains that his sources assure him that “it is not a bluff” and that Erdogan is willing to get where it is needed.
“In the mind of Erdogan, its political decision-making associates and security bureaucracy, Libya is rapidly becoming a new Syria, and they don’t want to make the same mistakes as in Syria,” says former Turkish military officer and analyst Metin Gurcan “Turkey is going to commit preventively, including militarily if necessary, and support the Government of National Agreement until the end.”
And Libya, like Syria, is a huge vortex in which foreign contingents enter easily without knowing how they will leave.