The Libyan Crisis as a Reflection of the Shifting Power Relations in the Middle East
By Dr. Moshe Albo | August, 2022
|Photo: remix - maxpixel.net|
Over the past 12 months, the regional system has witnessed various camps’ efforts to bridge rivalries and military confrontations via diplomacy, and avoid deteriorating into direct conflict. Iran’s strategic dialogue with Saudi Arabia, in which Iraq is acting as mediator, and the turnaround in Turkish regional policy have reduced the areas of friction and tension in the region, contributing to the establishment of the historical ceasefires in both Libya (October 2020) and Yemen (April 2022).
The present paper focuses on Libya as a case study for analyzing the shift in regional dynamics. The fact that the opposing regional forces are promoting diplomacy channels, while advancing economic and security partnerships, undoubtedly reduces the risk of overall military escalation. Nevertheless, the struggles between the internal forces, rooted in a history of tribal rivalries, competition between geographic groups of power (east vs. west), and a religious-ideological conflict (political Islam / institutional Islam) could drag Libya into another bout of escalation, even if such a development runs contrary to the interests of regional and international forces.
As for Israel, the regional shift and dynamics presents an opportunity for it to bolster its strategic ties with Turkey (Türkiye), and form an overall Middle Eastern policy based on the economic, technological, and military-security strengths that enhance Israel’s valuableness in the region, in addition to the Abraham Accords framework. The “empty half of the glass” pertains to the change in the Gulf states’ policy vis-à-vis Iran: The strategic dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran with Iraq’s mediation, coupled with the tightening of diplomatic, commercial and economic ties between the UAE and Iran, which could challenge Israel’s regional strategy in future.
Libya: Situation report
|Photo: National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency|
The political stagnation alongside aggravating polarity between political rivals, tribal interests, and struggle over power between armed militia groups have led to a violent clash (22 July) that claimed the lives of 13 victims and left dozens injured, causing great concern about the possibility of slipping toward yet another round of this bloody civil war in Libya.
A ceasefire was declared in October 2020 between the Government of National Accord and the Libyan National Army following regional and international pressure. As part of it, all foreign forces were to leave Libya, and an interim unity government established in preparation for presidential elections. This step was sanctioned by the UN, international community and United States, and aimed to bring stability to Libya, enabling the establishment of a political system acceptable to all local parties of national power. Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh was appointed as Interim Prime Minister in Tripoli, and was supposed to lead the country to elections in December 2021.
The elections were postponed due to a series of fundamental disagreements between the two candidates, but above all, because neither party was willing to accept the prospect of losing the campaign, and thus preferred to keep the status quo over risking deterioration into violence. In response to the postponed elections, the House of Representatives in Tobruk called for the dissolution of the “presidential council” in Tripoli, appointing the former Minister of the Interior, Fathi Bashaga, as the new prime minister. However, Acting Prime Minister in Tripoli, al-Dbeibeh, has refused to accept the House of Representatives’ resolution to appoint an alternative interim government and resign. The latter is still considered Libya’s legitimate prime minister by the UN and international community, but not by Bashaga’s government.
In the game of thrones over Libyan leadership, interests cause shifts in loyalty. In his former capacity as minister of the interior in the Tripoli government, Fathi Bashaga played a significant role in curbing the attack led by General Haftar to take over the Libyan capital back in 2019; the very same General Haftar and his forces now support Bashaga, demanding that he replace al-Dbeibeh.
There is growing concern over Libya getting dragged back into the 2014–2020 civil war in view of the dire economic situation that is causing a violent public uprising against the state leadership (both al-Dbeibeh and Bashaga). Although Libya is among the countries with the greatest access to oil and natural resources in the region, the stagnation and corruption that dates back to the time Gadhafi was in power, alongside the extensive damage caused by the civil war, have led to a deep economic crisis that is further exacerbated by the global crisis and domestic political one that are inhibiting any progress. Thus, in early July, mass protests filled the streets of Tobruk, setting the parliament building on fire, whereas in Tripoli, thousands had demonstrated against the armed militia groups, soaring prices of basic food products, long power cuts in the summer heat, unemployment and poverty, as well as the lack of political prospects to lead the public out of this difficult state of affairs.
The regional game in Libya
The external involvement of regional and international forces was a key factor in the eruption of hostilities between the fighting parties in Libya. The rival camps were divided between Turkey (Türkiye) and Qatar who supported the Tripoli government, and the UAE, Egypt, France, and Russia who were in favor of the Tobruk government and General Haftar. The two camps are quarreling over natural resources and energy, strategic waterways, border security, and the ability to impact the future Libyan government. The UN has failed to enforce the arms embargo, allowing military advisors, mercenaries and advanced weapon systems to flow to both Libyan fighting parties, feeding the fire.
The tightening of relations between Turkey (Türkiye) and the UAE manifest in Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed’s visit to Ankara in November 2021 (during which a UAE investment of USD10 billion was signed), reciprocated by President Erdogan’s visit to the UAE last February, has served as an opportunity to expand the two countries’ commercial, economic and security collaborations and, in the Libyan context – an opportunity to promote a formula that would stabilize it and prevent another military flareup.
Furthermore, the renewal of diplomatic ties between Turkey (Türkiye) and Egypt 9 years after they were severed, leading to the appointment of a Turkish ambassador to Turkey (April 2022), statements made by Erdogan on several occasions with regard to his desire to strengthen the relations between the two countries, as well as their collaboration on energy (gas) and commerce (a 32.6% rise in 2021 which continued into 2022) have substantially reduced both parties’ motivation to support the promotion of a military option in Libya by way of securing their goals in the area.
Turkey (Türkiye) has even started to interact directly with the Tobruk government in recent months, advancing the opening of a consulate in Benghazi. Egypt’s contribution to stabilizing Libya is its direct dialogue with both Tripoli and Tobruk governments in an effort to remove all foreign forces from Libya (particularly the Turkish military advisors), enable Egyptian workers to return to their places of employment in Libya, and win its rehabilitation and development tenders. Should the civil war in Libya be rekindled, the Egyptians would have to intervene for fear that terror and Islamic Brotherhood-affiliated organizations take positions on its border (1115km), harm be caused to the rehabilitation and development projects as well as the Egyptian workers’ return to Libya, and any possible impact be made on its strategic relations with Turkey (Türkiye), particularly in commerce and energy.
The Israeli perspective
Turkey (Türkiye) signed two agreements of long-term strategic importance with the Tripoli government in November 2019: One marking the maritime borders between the two countries, and the other – a military partnership agreement. Both have allowed Turkey (Türkiye) to establish itself militarily in Libya, develop gas and water reserves in the EEZ, and expand its influence on Africa and Europe using its regional foothold. The Turkish move aimed to establish Ankara’s status in the Eastern Mediterranean, and prevent unilateral steps by regional forces such as the Israeli-Greek-Cypriot EastMed Pipeline that increased the overall tension vis-à-vis the Turkish Republic.
When the United States withdrew its support for the project (January 2022), it was subsequently cancelled, raising the future possibility of exporting natural gas from the Leviathan rig directly to Ankara, thereby enhancing the energy partnership between the two countries. This untapped potential forms a key component in the “recalibration” of Turkish foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel.
In recent years, the East Mediterranean has become the setting of intense friction over energy resources between regional and international forces that has fueled the Libyan Civil War, as well as each side’s desire to determine the nature and support sources of the future Libyan government. A “turning point” in Turkish regional policy presents an opportunity for mitigating the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, and promoting economic, energy and security collaborations between all actors, including Israel. Maintaining Libyan stability is a precondition for realizing this potential.
- The regional forces are actively preserving the fragile Libyan stability; however, the destabilizing internal forces, profound political disputes between Tripoli and Tobruk, tribal and ideological rivalries, as well as acute economic crisis, could drag Libya to yet another bout of violence.
- Turkey (Türkiye), Egypt and the UAE seek to maintain Libya’s overall stability in view of the global crisis as well as the need to enhance economic and security collaborations. The international system, however, is focused on the war in Ukraine and paying its tolls, diverting no attention to promoting political or economic stabilization processes in Libya. At this point, the internal tensions have not consolidated into full-fledged escalation, primarily due to the regional forces’ restraining effect.
- Libyan stability enables the furthering of ties established between Turkey and both the Gulf states and Egypt, providing a platform for strategic collaborations between them all. More importantly, stability neutralizes “strategic explosives” that could lead to further friction between these countries as part of the struggle over Libya’s national character, as well as the exhaustion of its resources. It is in Israel’s best interest to regulate its state-security relations with Turkey (Türkiye), and doing so greatly depends on neutralizing conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin, as well as Turkey’s (Türkiye) integration into the regional system as a pragmatic force, instead of an oppositional one.
 A project for an underwater gas pipeline amounting to USD7 billion that plans to connect the natural gas resources from the Eastern Mediterranean Basin directly to Greece, and from there, to Italy and Europe. The agreement was approved by the Israeli government in January 2020, and subsequently cancelled in January 2022 as the United States had announced the withdrawal of its support for the project.
Authored by Dr. Moshe Albo, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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