Analysis |

The Major Powers’ Latest Middle Eastern Playing Field

Libya, which has two governments, two legislatures and dozens of militias, is feeling the brunt of the competing interests of a number of countries

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Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, with Fayez al Sarraj, head of Libya's internationally recognized government, in Istanbul, December 15, 2019.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, with Fayez al Sarraj, head of Libya's internationally recognized government, in Istanbul, December 15, 2019.Credit: PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/ REU
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Update: Erdogan just landed Tunis for surprise talks on Libya

From afar, Libya looks like just another wrecked playing field that has been abandoned by the top teams. It’s a country that is split apart, ruled by rival militias and managed – if the chaos that has prevailed there since 2011 can be called management – by two governments, two legislatures, two central banks and dozens of militias. But Libya is sitting on a piece of strategically and financially important real estate, among the most important in the world. And like any empty playing field, it is seeking to attract international players to come and develop its resources.

The map of foreign intervention in Libya is enough to make any observer’s head spin: In the east of the country, there are forces from the United Arab Emirates. Aid coming from Saudi Arabia and Egypt supports General Khalifa Hifter, the separatist who heads the Libyan National Army, which is not the country’s national army. Arrayed against them are Turkey and Qatar, which support the recognized government headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, but his government is not supported by the legislature.

Then there is Russia, which is playing both sides. It has (unofficially) dispatched militia forces known as the Wagner Group, which have carried out operations in Syria and are operating in several African countries – and support and assist Hifter’s forces.

France has joined the group of countries that support the rebel general, while Italy backs Sarraj’s recognized government. As it has done in Syria, the United States is so far refraining from any intervention, clinging to the position of an outside observer ready to offer advice and futile diplomatic assistance to resolve the Libyan crisis.

The catalog of interests motivating each of these countries is not hidden from view. Russia, which seeks to expand its influence in the Middle East, in North Africa and south of the Sahara, has firmly established itself in Syria and now views Libya as a potential strategic base that could ensure it a solid foothold in the Mediterranean in addition to its base at the Syrian port of Tartus. Since no one can predict how the Libyan crisis will end, it is cooperating with both sides.

If the recognized government is victorious, Russia will gain important standing in the country, but even if Hifter is successful in removing the government or if he agrees to become a partner in whatever government is formed, Russia could carry out agreements it signed years ago with the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi – deals worth billions of dollars. That’s because in return for the military and economic assistance that Russia is providing to Hifter, the Libyan National Army leader has pledged to revive the agreements.

The neighborhood bully

Turkey, which signed a military and economic accord with the Libyan government in November, is seeking to achieve several objectives. The accord includes an agreement on the demarcation of the marine economic boundary between the two countries, significantly expanding the area in the Mediterranean where Turkey can explore for oil.

This agreement, which was quickly ratified this month by the Turkish parliament, could deprive Greece and the Greek Cypriots of large swaths of their oil and gas exploration areas and force Egypt and Israel to negotiate with Turkey over the installation of natural gas pipelines to Europe.

Security members inspect the site of an overnight air strike, which hit a residential district in Tripoli, December 10, 2019. Credit: ISMAIL ZITOUNY / REUTERS

Israel and Greece, as well as other European Union countries, oppose the agreement, viewing it as a move that violates international law with the hostile intention of harming their interests. So far, however, other than expressing condemnation and criticism, none of the countries seem to be planning to take forceful action against the agreement or against Turkey and Libya.

Ties with Turkey are important to Europe due to Turkey’s control of the flow of refugees from Syria toward EU countries, and Turkey often threatens the EU with the prospect that Ankara would open the floodgates to refugees heading west. Greece has been trying to enlist Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Israel into a coalition against the agreement and even expelled the Libyan ambassador in Athens.

For his part, however, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz has said: “We have no desire, and Turkey has no desire for a confrontation with Israel.”

Although Turkey can play the role of neighborhood bully against its Middle East rivals and in the face of European criticism, its main problem is actually with Russia.

On the Syrian front, there is close cooperation between the two countries, and their trade ties are flourishing. Turkey’s military acquisitions from Russia are about to reach into the billions, thanks to its purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems. The figure could grow further if Turkey decides to purchase new Sukhoi airplanes instead of American F-35s, the sale of which to Turkey was suspended by the American administration due to Ankara’s purchase of the Russian missile systems.

Opposing interests

But Turkey and Russia have opposing interests in Libya. Not only do they both seek to obtain licenses to develop and produce oil and gas in the Libyan fields. They may also end up competing for influence in the countries of the Mediterranean basin.

Turkey wants to neutralize its Arab rivals – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – in the Libyan theater and at their expense to strengthen the coalition it formed with its ally Qatar. According to reports from Tripoli, Turkey and Qatar not only provide diplomatic support to the Libyan government. They are also funding the radical Islamist militias upon which the government relies.

What opposition figures including General Hifter fear is that Turkey and Qatar want to establish an Islamist state in Libya. They also believe that only General Hifter can prevent that.

That there is a threat of a radical Islamist ideological takeover of Libya is particularly easy to sell to Western countries, but the real threat to the fractured parts of Libya actually comes from Hifter’s militias, from the thousands of volunteers who have come from Sudan and are fighting at his side as mercenaries and from the tribal militias that don’t recognize the government.

Beyond its diplomatic recognition of the Libyan government, Turkey’s understandings with the government permit it to send military forces of any magnitude to help the government take control in the country. Erdogan said several times this week that he was ready to send military forces if the Libyan government requests it.

Rebel Libyan commander Khalifa Hifter, August 14, 2017.Credit: Ivan Sekretarev,AP

If reports from Libya are to be believed, Turkey is not waiting for an invitation. Instructors, equipment and Turkish special forces are already operating in Libya alongside pro-government militias. Erdogan says Turkey would also be willing to send aerial and naval assistance if circumstances require it.

Hifter’s Arab allies

These statements are primarily directed at the Arab countries that are assisting Hifter, but are also directed at Russian President Vladimir Putin. If a military conflict erupts between government forces and Hifter’s forces, Russian militia fighters are also liable to get hurt. Russia is not ignoring this threat and has clearly stated that it opposes Turkish military intervention in Libya.

The renewed Russian assaults on the Syrian city of Idlib, which have sent many thousands of frightened Syrian civilians fleeing toward the Turkish border, may also have been meant to signal to Erdogan that he is shaking up a fragile and volatile situation.

Libya currently finds itself trapped in the middle of an arm-wrestling match among competing powers and countries, but it can do no more than play host. The mediation efforts of United Nations envoy Ghassan Salamé and the multilateral talks that American representatives are holding with General Hifter and the Libyan government seem more like empty chatter than a realistic channel for a diplomatic solution. As with Syria, it appears that the solution will be dictated in Moscow, Ankara and the Qatari capital of Doha, and not in Tripoli or Benghazi in Libya itself.

In the meantime, no one – with the exception of Libya’s civilians – is feeling any urgency to get to the finish line.