Into the Libya Vortex

 In Iran, Egypt, GDI, Infrastructure, Air, Energy, France, Israel

Jalel Harchaoui is a research fellow in the Conflict Research Unit of the Clingendael Institute based in The Hague. His work focus­es on Libya, in par­tic­u­lar the country’s secu­ri­ty land­scape and polit­i­cal econ­o­my. Harchaoui has a Master’s degree in geopol­i­tics from Paris 8 University. He has pub­lished widely in online and print pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing Foreign Affairs, Lawfare, Politique Étrangère, War on the Rocks, and Small Arms Survey. Diwan inter­viewed him in early January to get his per­spec­tive on the Libya sit­u­a­tion, options open for the Libyan Government of National Accord, and the motives of the main out­side actors involved in the Libyan con­flict.

Michael Young: What is the main reason for why the gov­ern­ment of Fayez al-Sarraj has built up a mil­i­tary alliance with Turkey?

Jalel Harchaoui: Turkey’s mil­i­tary sup­port for the inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized Government of National Accord (GNA) is not new. In west­ern Libya, Ankara began sup­port­ing mil­i­tar­i­ly pro­po­nents of polit­i­cal Islam and also rev­o­lu­tion­ary actors, includ­ing pri­mar­i­ly those of Misrata, in the second half of 2014.

Weapons ship­ments were noth­ing like what’s being inject­ed into Libya today, how­ev­er, but they did occur, par­tic­u­lar­ly during the 2014 – 2017 war for Benghazi. In con­tra­ven­tion of the United Nations’ arms embar­go, ammu­ni­tion and weapons flowed from Turkey into Misrata and then from there would be passed on to Islamist groups fight­ing Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s armed coali­tion in Benghazi. Even after Benghazi fell to Haftar’s forces in late 2017, Turkish inter­fer­ence con­tin­ued. For exam­ple, in January 2018 Greece inter­cept­ed the Tanzanian-flagged ship Andromeda loaded with 29 con­tain­ers full of explo­sives and det­o­na­tors while it was trav­el­ing from Turkey to Misrata.

All this is to say that Ankara, on a clan­des­tine basis, has been prop­ping up anti-Haftar groups mil­i­tar­i­ly for over half a decade. Although that ille­gal assis­tance never stopped alto­geth­er, it notice­ably dimin­ished over the last two years prior to Haftar’s April 2019 offen­sive against Tripoli. The field marshal’s frontal assault last year trig­gered a sub­stan­tial revival of Turkey’s inter­fer­ence. In fact it was more than a revival. Between May and October 2019, Turkey sent a total of 20 combat drones into Tripolitania, along with approx­i­mate­ly 60 Turkish offi­cers to oper­ate them. Then, in October 2019, for diverse rea­sons, Turkey’s clan­des­tine mis­sion in Libya stopped for sev­er­al weeks, resum­ing in December. In addi­tion to such covert action, today Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is attempt­ing to insti­tute an overt, offi­cial mil­i­tary pres­ence in Tripoli.

MY: What have been the Turkish moti­va­tions for doing so?

JH: Turkey has sup­port­ed the anti-Haftar fac­tions in Tripolitania for three prin­ci­pal rea­sons — com­merce, mar­itime issues, and ide­ol­o­gy. Before 2011 already, as many as 25 per­cent of the Turkish cit­i­zens expa­tri­at­ed in the Arab world were living and work­ing in Libya. Right now, the amount of Turkish con­tracts out­stand­ing in Libya exceeds $18 bil­lion. This rep­re­sents an enor­mous volume of con­struc­tion, infra­struc­ture, and ser­vice busi­ness that would likely never be imple­ment­ed and paid for if Haftar were to topple the GNA and take power. Indeed, the exclu­sion­ary vision of the Haftar fac­tion and its Emirati spon­sors means that Turkey would be shunned as a trad­ing and busi­ness part­ner. Ankara doesn’t want that.

On the mar­itime front, a Turkish motive for involve­ment in Libya relates to the ter­ri­to­r­i­al waters in the east­ern Mediterranean. Because Greece has about 3,000 islands in the Aegean Sea, inter­na­tion­al sea con­ven­tions cannot pos­si­bly apply there. As a result, Turkey and Greece must work out an arrange­ment not in line with stan­dard con­ven­tions. In this con­text, Ankara is deeply inter­est­ed in resum­ing its long­stand­ing, unre­solved talks with Greece. Ankara also wants to defend its own inter­pre­ta­tion of ter­ri­to­r­i­al waters con­ven­tions.

Apart from the Aegean, you also have the dis­putes asso­ci­at­ed with the ter­ri­to­r­i­al waters sur­round­ing Cyprus — a divid­ed coun­try whose Turkish-con­trolled north was invad­ed by Turkey in 1974 and which is rec­og­nized by Ankara as an inde­pen­dent state. Very large amounts of nat­ur­al gas have been dis­cov­ered across the east­ern half of the Mediterranean over the last seven years or so. This has engen­dered a much higher level of sol­i­dar­i­ty among Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, and Greece, as well as France and to some extent Italy — all united against Turkey. Such increased geopo­lit­i­cal cohe­sive­ness has squeezed Turkey’s energy inter­ests in those waters.

Within this con­text, Ankara feels it must try and ensure the sur­vival of the GNA in Tripoli, the only Turkish-friend­ly gov­ern­ment in the area from a mar­itime per­spec­tive. All this explains why Ankara has insist­ed since October 2018 on the GNA sign­ing an exclu­sive eco­nom­ic zone deal, cre­at­ing a sea cor­ri­dor between west­ern Turkey and east­ern Libya. By late November 2019, the GNA, facing mil­i­tary pres­sures, had become des­per­ate and caved in to Turkish demands that it sign a mar­itime accord. In return, Ankara resumed pro­vid­ing Misrata and Tripoli with weapons and other mil­i­tary aid.

MY: How does the third moti­va­tion you men­tioned, ide­ol­o­gy, come into play?

JH: From an ide­o­log­i­cal per­spec­tive, the sur­vival of pro­po­nents of polit­i­cal Islam in Tripoli holds immense value for Erdoğan and his sup­port­ers. Moderate polit­i­cal Islam wield­ing some degree of power in a wealthy North African coun­try rep­re­sents an impor­tant symbol. There is no ques­tion that the GNA is pro­found­ly flawed and cor­rupt. Yet, it is a plu­ral­is­tic arrange­ment in which Muslim Brothers and non-Islamist politi­cians coex­ist. For that reason, the pro-Erdoğan fac­tions in Tripolitania do in some way rep­re­sent a pop­ulist form of par­tic­i­pa­to­ry pol­i­tics. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are com­mit­ted to erad­i­cat­ing that gov­er­nance style, and indeed any form of plu­ral­ism, from the Arab Sunni uni­verse. Their regimes prefer a strict form of dic­ta­tor­ship.

Compared to Denmark or Canada, Turkey’s model is deeply author­i­tar­i­an of course. But from the point of view of Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, Turkey’s model leaves an exceed­ing amount of room for bottom-up dynam­ics and offers too much leeway in terms of cit­i­zen ini­tia­tive. Erdoğan’s own ver­sion of author­i­tar­i­an­ism is pop­ulist in nature, and that small flex­i­bil­i­ty rep­re­sents a polit­i­cal threat for many regimes in the Sunni world.

Within this clash between two forms of author­i­tar­i­an­ism in the Sunni-major­i­ty coun­tries of the Middle East, Erdoğan’s suc­cess­ful­ly help­ing the GNA to sur­vive aggres­sion would send a strong polit­i­cal mes­sage to con­stituen­cies in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Somalia, Sudan, and many other coun­tries across the region. That is deemed intol­er­a­ble to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, because it threat­ens his pre­ferred gov­er­nance style. Plus, Erdoğan’s ide­o­log­i­cal aura could form the basis for Turkey to build a sphere of geopo­lit­i­cal influ­ence over the years. Abu Dhabi has every inten­tion of pre­vent­ing such a sce­nario.

MY: How impor­tant are oil pol­i­tics to the Libyan side in the Libyan-Turkish rela­tion­ship?

JH: Let me answer by noting that the late Libya leader Mu‘ammar al-Qaddafi had sup­port­ed Ankara’s inva­sion of Cyprus in 1974. He did so mainly by pro­vid­ing Turkey with oil during a period when Turkey could not trust Iran, Saudi Arabia, or, of course, the Soviet Union. Today, the dynam­ics are some­what sim­i­lar. Right now Turkey hap­pens to be pur­chas­ing very little oil from Libya. However, it would love to buy much more to strength­en its energy inde­pen­dence, espe­cial­ly know­ing that Turkey exports more than $1 bil­lion in com­mer­cial goods to Libya annu­al­ly. If it does manage to carve up a piece of west­ern Libya and some­how ensure the sur­vival of a Turkish-friend­ly gov­ern­ment there, Turkey will be very likely to import more crude oil from Libya in the years ahead.

MY: What is the best-case sce­nario for Sarraj as the Libyan sit­u­a­tion becomes more com­plex and dan­ger­ous?

JH: President Vladimir Putin’s Machiavellian prag­ma­tism is Sarraj’s best hope at this junc­ture. The Russians have been involved in the Libyan civil war since 2015, but thus far have invest­ed rel­a­tive­ly little in it. Yet, Moscow does wield some influ­ence from a mil­i­tary per­spec­tive. Its influ­ence is ampli­fied by the fact that Haftar’s armed coali­tion lacks strength on the ground, despite the tremen­dous amount of air sup­port it receives from the UAE. The powers-that-be in Moscow are acute­ly aware of this weak­ness. They see in Khalifa Haftar a sup­posed “strong­man” who’s been strug­gling for over nine months just to move into down­town Tripoli, with­out any suc­cess so far. Unlike the Emiratis or the French, the Russians know that years of urban war­fare will be nec­es­sary even if Haftar’s army does enter cen­tral Tripoli and even if the GNA does crum­ble tomor­row.

The Russians may very well decide to increase their sup­port for Haftar by send­ing addi­tion­al mer­ce­nar­ies and other means. But, at this minute, the Kremlin also has the option of qui­et­ly reduc­ing Russian sup­port on Haftar’s side. If that hap­pens, it is quite con­ceiv­able that Moscow would deepen its part­ner­ship with the Libyan author­i­ties in the east of Libya while, in par­al­lel, accom­mo­dat­ing a Turkish pres­ence in west­ern Libya in sup­port of Tripoli’s inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized gov­ern­ment. This is one pos­si­ble sce­nario where­by Sarraj’s gov­ern­ment, or some­thing sim­i­lar to it, could sur­vive in Tripolitania.

MY: How likely is the ten­sion in Libya to turn into a region­al proxy war, or even a region­al war?

JH: The region­al proxy war is already taking place. On top of these proxy dynam­ics, for­eign states have been inter­ven­ing direct­ly in Libya. The reason we don’t real­ize it is because of a dis­tort­ed per­cep­tion through deeply politi­cized optics. Indeed, both U.S. and French diplo­mats believe that the UAE’s full-blown mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in the Tripoli area over the last nine months should never be men­tioned. Most Western cap­i­tals are afraid of alien­at­ing an Arab Sunni state that is dis­ci­plined, mil­i­ta­rized, dynam­ic, and will­ing to spend money. That blind spot has effect­ed the way media out­lets have cov­ered the war for Tripoli since April 2019, and is the main reason why we have this illu­sion that the proxy war is begin­ning only now that Turkey has become more vocal.

Should one expect a direct war between region­al or global powers in Libya? I was going to say, “No, unfor­tu­nate­ly.” No direct clash between for­eign states is likely to occur there. Libyans will do most of the dying, not the for­eign med­dlers. Yet, a coun­try like Tunisia could end up being seri­ous­ly desta­bi­lized this year.

Source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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