The Crisis in Libya: Conflicting regional and international interests
By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | June 15, 2020
In recent weeks, Libya has become the focus of attention in the Middle East, due to dramatic developments in the crisis in the country. These strategic developments, have broken the stagnation that has characterized fighting on the ground over the past year, heralding a deep change in the situation and in the nature of outside intervention in the Libyan arena.
In early May, the Government of National Accord (GNA) supported by Turkey and Qatar, won a series of gains in the battle field against the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar of the Libyan National Army (LNA) supported by Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. The Government of National Accord's military forces registered swift and surprising military victories in western Libya and to the west and the south of the capital Tripoli, including take over of the Al-Watiya Air Base (approximately 130 kilometers southwest of the city). Al-Watiya was the only airbase at the disposal of Haftar's air force in the course of the LNA's year-long siege of the capital Tripoli, in an attempt to take over it. In recent weeks, the GNA took advantage of the momentum, liberating the city Tarhuna east of the capital and launching an offensive on the strategic city Sirte which in January had fallen to Haftar's forces.
The change in the balance of power on the ground was made possible thanks to weapons systems supplied to the Government of National Accord by the Turks - which began to arrive by sea in January, a breach of the UN arms embargo on Libya. Turkey deployed attack drones in Libya ('Bayraktar' TB2 class). air defense systems, armored personnel carriers (APCs) and thousands of mercenaries, most of them operatives from militias transferred from the Syrian theatre.
The government's military victories cut the supply lines of Haftar's forces, erased their gains over the past year, and constituted a blow to Russia, and Russian-made air defense systems deployed in the arena. A number of SA-22 systems ('Pantsir') were captured in the Al-Watiya Air Base and paraded through the streets of Tripoli; others were destroyed by the Turkish drones. Russian mercenaries (from "Wagner Group", and operatives from various militias, including from Syria) subsequently withdrew from the fighting around Tripoli.
These developments have placed the ball in the Russian court. Moscow chose not to wait and abandon the Libyan arena to the Turks, and aligned itself in force behind General Haftar. The objective: To assist Haftar in the fighting and prevent the contingency of a breakup of the eastern coalition within which Haftar operates that continues to control the majority of Libya's territory.
The U.S. Africa command (Africom) made public satellite photos that verify that Russia has transferred advanced combat jets to Libya. The American command rejected Russian denials, and clarified that Moscow had deployed at least 14 SU-24 and MIG-29 aircraft to the Al- Jufra Air Base in the center of the country. Africom exposed that the aircraft had left Russia, with a stopover at the Khmeimim Air Base in Syria where they were repainted to mask their identity, before continuing on their way to Libya.
Following the landing of the Russian aircraft, it was reported that Ankara was also considering deploying aircraft in the airport retaken by GNA forces at Al-Watiya.
In face of the deterioration in the situation, President of Egypt el-Sisi initiated a move for an immediate ceasefire, renewal of talks to solve the crisis and withdrawal of all mercenaries from the country. In recent days el-Sisi went further and warned that Cairo has a legitimate right to intervene in Lybia and ordered his army to be ready.
Assessment, Forecast and Implications
Developments in Libya throw into relief the country's importance as an arena of struggle and a proxy war between conflicting forces and interested parties competing for regional influence and access, and control of energy resources in Libya and the Mediterranean.
Turkey came to the rescue sending forces to Libya to support the government in Tripoli following the signing of a Maritime Boundary agreement between the two, in the end of last year. From Turkey's standpoint the strengthening of the GNA validates the agreement and gives Ankara additional leverage in the dispute over the gas resources rights, and legitimacy to challenge the sovereignty of Cyprus, Greece and Egypt in their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) around Cyprus, and south and southwest of Crete.
It appears that Turkey's military move in Libya is also designed to extract itself from its isolation that reached a peak in the blows its forces sustained in Northern Syria in March (some 60 killed-in-action in the fighting in Idlib, against Assad's forces supported by Russia). The United States turned down Turkey's request for Patriot missiles to protect its forces, and against the backdrop of apprehensions of a direct confrontation with Russia, Ankara signed a cease-fire agreement with Moscow that was problematic from the Turks' perspective. In the terms of the ceasefire Assad's forces are not required to withdraw from territories they gained in the Idlib province; there is no commitment by Assad to give up his 'liberation' campaign of Idlib; and no safe zone was designated where hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who left their homes -- heading towards Turkey, could safely take shelter.
Russia has shown that the grave Cronavirus crisis it has grappled with at home and the serious blow to its economy due to the pandemic (facing an estimated negative growth rate of 5.8 percent) have had no effect on Russia's foreign policy. Russia's determined move to deploy air forces in Libya is reminiscent to many of Russia's military appearance in Syria in September 2015 - signaling that Russia doesn't abandon its allies and that it has no intention of giving up the clout it has gained in the Middle East. Just the opposite, it intends to expand its influence beyond Syria.
The United States has accused Russia of fueling the conflict in Libya, and has expressed open apprehensions that Russia seeks to establish a "bridgehead" in Libya that will allow it to amplify its influence and power projection towards Africa and southern Europe. The Pentagon and Africom believe that deployment of Russian combat aircraft in Libya is liable to be the first stage on a path to establishing a permanent Russian military presence in Libya that eventually will encompass deployment of long-ranged Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2AD) capabilities, as well. Against this backdrop, the Africom announced the United States is weighing sending forces to Tunisia to block the "Russian threat".
In an attempt to curb Russian influence in the region and to keep Turkey, a core member of NATO, on the 'right side', the United States supports in principle Ankara's moves. At the same time, a number of points of dispute between Washington and Ankara cloud relations - the most outstanding is the acquisition of advanced S-400 Russian air defense systems by Turkey. The Congress has exhibited an hostile attitude towards Turkey: The Congress has criticizes Turkey's policies in Syria, looked into imposing sanctions on Turkey, and in December 2019 the Senate even passed a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide. In addition, the Administration has taken issue with Turkish aspirations in the Mediterranean, and warned Turkey in the past about "illegal drilling" in breach of international law.
The attitude in Europe towards the Libyan question is also complex. France and Greece support Haftar, while Italy supports the GNA. In any case, apprehension is growing in Europe that strengthening the status of the Government in Tripoli, with Turkish support, is liable to push Ankara to power projection in the Mediterranean Sea and give additional leverage to the Turkish-Libyan Maritime Boundary agreement. This is liable to take the form of increased violations of the EEZs of Greece and Cyprus (that have continued in recent months) as part of disagreements over energy reserves on the Mediterranean Sea.
Egypt is deeply concerned about the increase in Turkish clout in its backyard, as are the United Arab Emirates who are very hostile to Erdogan - nemesis of President el-Sisi - due to the Turkish leader's total identification with and support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt is therefore threatening to intervene in Libya militarily, and declared an alliance of the Emirates, Greece, Cyprus and France in opposition of Turkish moves in the country.
The fluid situation in Libya could develop in a number of directions ranging from an acute escalation of the conflict and military friction between Turkey (and NATO?) and Russia/Egypt (a scenario neither side is interested in), and attempts to arrive at an understanding similar to those signed in Syria. In the latter case, Russia and Turkey would work to restart the diplomatic process between the sides in Libya, perhaps on the foundations of the el-Sisi initiative. Such a move would require heavy Russian pressure on Haftar, who in April declared he was walking away from the 2015 Skhirat Agreement brokered under UN auspices, upon which the power-sharing Government of National Accord arose in Tripoli.
In the jungle of conflicting interests of all the actors with power and influence in Libya, and in the face of the basic conditions that exist within Libya, rife with ethnic-tribal geographical, political and religious divisions, stabilizing the situation in the counrty and finding a stable solution to the crises can be expected to encounter serious difficulties.
From Israel's perspective, Turkey's strategic achievements in Libya of late are liable to fuel Turkey's long-term aspirations in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Basin, even if it appears that the urgency of the issue is dropping in the face of falling global prices of energy. In the circumstances forged, there is the possibility that motivated by increasing self-confidence, Ankara will act to expand its drillings (under an umbrella of the Turkish Navy) in the sovereign economic waters and natural gas deposits of Cyprus, Greece and Egypt - Israel's allies and partners in the energy domain.
Israel must leverage its cooperation with these countries -- anchored in their joint membership in the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, and focus an effort in Washington to formulate a forceful international stand against Ankara's challenge to the EEZs and its threats to unfettered production of energy and its shipping through the waters of the eastern Mediterranean.
At the same time, Israel needs to recognize the growing interest of the American administration to support Turkey in the face of Russian entrenchment in Libya, and aspire to prevent avoidable military friction with Turkish forces in the air and in the waters of the Mediterranean Basin. To this objective, it is important to take steps to refresh safety procedures and deconfliction mechanisms between the IDF and the Turkish military.
Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental
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