The War in Syria Is Moving to Libya, With New Players and Shuffled Alliances

Egypt and Turkey are the main rivals fighting for control in the North African country, but the conflict is also where the strategic interests of Arab countries, the EU, and Russia clash – as the U.S. watches from the sidelines

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
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From top left: Turkey's Erdogan and Libya's UN-backed leader Sarraj, Russia's Putin, U.S. President Trump, Italy's PM Conte, French President Macron, and Egypt's Sissi with Libya's General Haftar,.
From top left: Turkey's Erdogan and Libya's UN-backed leader Sarraj, Russia's Putin, U.S. President Trump, Italy's PM Conte, French President Macron, and Egypt's Sissi with Libya's General Haftar. Credit: Kayhan Ozer/Pool Photo via AP; Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP; Evan Vucci; REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo ; REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes/Pool ; Egyptian Presidency Media office via AP, File
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.

Egypt and Turkey are the senior rivals in the struggle for control in Libya, but they are definitely not the only ones in the battlefield, which over the past year has replaced Syria as an arena for international strife. The Arab circle of players also includes the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Algeria and Tunisia. Other participants include Russia, Italy and France, while on the sidelines is the United States, taking notes.

These countries are divided into those supporting Libya’s recognized government, headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, including Turkey, Qatar and Italy, and those that are backing and funding General Khalifa Haftar, who established the Libyan National Army in trying to oust the recognized government.

Haftar was a senior officer in the army of Muammar Gadhafi, and made his name by defeating ISIS forces and extremist groups in the country’s eastern provinces. He captured the city of Benghazi from them, later taking the city of Sirte and the Jufra province to its south as well. He has also tried to capture the capital city Tripoli.

Libya's UN-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (L) and Libyan General Khalifa Haftar.
Libya's UN-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (L) and Libyan General Khalifa Haftar.Credit: AFP

On the outskirts of Tripoli, forces loyal to the government, most of them banded in armed tribal militias, some of them constituting the national army, managed to block Haftar and even capture the important Watiya airbase. Recently, government forces have been joined by Turkish troops who were sent to Libya in order to defend the government and prevent further conquests by Haftar.

The term Turkish forces may be misleading. They do include drones, missiles, intelligence-gathering systems operated by Turkey and the information they provide, but the cannon fodder are Syrian civilians, numbering around 3,500 fighters according to the Pentagon. They belong to rebel Syrian militias which enjoy Turkish patronage, as well as ex-ISIS fighters. For wages ranging from $500 to $2,000 a month, they have moved to Libya in order to fight Haftar under Turkish command.

A Libyan man waves a Libyan flag during a demonstration to demand an end to the Khalifa Haftar's offensive against Tripoli, in Martyrs' Square in central Tripoli, Libya April 26, 2019.
A Libyan man waves a Libyan flag during a demonstration to demand an end to the Khalifa Haftar's offensive against Tripoli, in Martyrs' Square in central Tripoli, Libya April 26, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

A Turkish Bridgehead in Africa

Turkey’s military intervention in Libya is the result of a pact signed by the two countries last November, which included the demarcation of an exclusive economic zone as well as military assistance for the recognized government.

This agreement raised the hackles of Egypt, Greece and Israel, because it may impact their ability to export natural gas and oil directly to Europe, since any pipeline will have to pass through Turkey’s zone.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Fayez al-Sarraj, leader of the recognized government in Libya, pose during their meeting in Istanbul, November 27, 2019.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Fayez al-Sarraj, leader of the recognized government in Libya, pose during their meeting in Istanbul, November 27, 2019.Credit: AFP

Egypt has a different problem with this agreement, that Turkish presence and support for the Sarraj government could consolidate the power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, turning the country into a militant base against Egypt.

After amending the constitution and granting himself another term in office lasting at least until 2034, Abdel Faytah al-Sissi can now also use the army at his will. It appears, however, that the extended powers are meant to reflect Egypt’s willingness to engage in a military confrontation with Turkey in Libya, rather than granting the president power to deploy the army.

The hostility between Egypt and Turkey is not new. It began in 2013, after Sissi ousted Mohammed Morsi, the president elected with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood. He thereby blocked Turkey’s ambition to establish a diplomatic and military foothold in Egypt and a bridgehead in Africa. Furthermore, after Sissi declared himself president of Egypt, Turkey refused to recognize him, viewing Morsi’s removal as a military coup that established an illlegitimate regime in Egypt.

Egypt therefore views Turkey’s entrenchment in Libya as a threat similar to the one Israel sees in the Iranian entrenchment in Syria. Egypt’s perception is shared by the United Arab Emirates, which is helping Haftar with arms and money. The tactical question is whether Egypt will wish to embark on a war that will take place hundreds of kilometers from its border, and which will require it to dispatch ground forces if it wishes to prevent the removal of Haftar from Sirte and Jufra, areas Egypt has defined as red lines.

No less important is the animosity between the Emirates and the Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and Turkey on the other, due to its alliance with another supporter of the brotherhood, Qatar. Qatar has close ties to Iran, despite its close relations with the U.S. administration. For Egypt, blocking Turkey’s intervention in Libya is a strategic goal that far exceeds its military threat. It amounts to a reckoning with a political rival that is meddling in Arab and African spheres while relying on its ally Qatar, which for Egypt, the Emirates and Saudi, is a hostile state.

Fighters loyal to Libya's UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) celebrate retaking the town of Tarhouna, 65 kilometres southeast of Tripoli, from Haftar's forces, June 5, 2020.
Fighters loyal to Libya's UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) celebrate retaking the town of Tarhouna, 65 kilometres southeast of Tripoli, from Haftar's forces, June 5, 2020.Credit: AFP

Russia's many interests

Russia has also entered the Arab-Turkish melee, providing military assistance to Haftar, in whom it sees a potential ally which would serve Russian interests. These interests are focused directly on Libya’s oilfields and oil terminals, most of which lie close to Sirte or in southern Jufra. Beyond these interests, Russia wishes to establish a naval and military foothold in Libya in order to expand its operational potential in the Mediterranean basin, after ensuring its position in Syria.

Russia mainly wants to squeeze the United States out of the area. Washington is meanwhile watching these developments from afar, and it seems that the White House and its occupant are bored by this front. Trump did speak to Sissi and Erdogan last week, urging them to reach an agreement which would lead to a ceasefire, but he 0dd not propose any policy or plan to ease tensions.

The assumption is that if a war between Egypt and Turkey erupts on Libyan soil, Washington will observe it from a distance. In contrast, European Union countries, particularly Germany and France, clarified pointedly that the establishment of Turkish bases across the sea is not in their interest.

But beyond words, would the European Union impose sanctions as well? This would require an agreement by Italy and France, which are currently backing opposing sides. Italy supports the Sarraj government, which committed to prevent the passage of African asylum seekers to Italy through Libya, in exchange for generous concessions for Italian companies. France is allied with Haftar due to his control of many oil terminals and of the regions in which oil is produced.

Rescued migrants next to a coast guard boat at Khoms, Libya, October 1, 2019.
Rescued migrants next to a coast guard boat at Khoms, Libya, October 1, 2019. Credit: Hazem Ahmed / AP

If a European agreement is reached, it will not be implemented without Turkey and Russia also settling their dispute. These two countries are in the midst of distrustful and convoluted dialogue that begins with northern Syria and ends in Libya’s oilfields.

Russia and Turkey are cooperating in maintaining security zones in Syria’s Idlib province, with Russia demanding that Turkey withdraw tens of thousands of militia troops. Russia is a strategic ally of Turkey, through which the main Russian oil pipeline to Europe passes, and to which it sold S-400 anti-aircraft missiles. The irony is that the United States, which punished Turkey for that deal and removed it from the its F-35 stealth jet fighters program, approved the sale of these planes to Turkey last week.

In Libya, by contrast, the interests of these two countries clash. Russia supports Haftar while Turkey supports Sarraj. The two countries are holding intense negotiations in order to reach a ceasefire in Libya, but Russia is also committed to Egypt, Haftar’s crutch. Russia has made some serious investments in Egypt, such as the construction of a nuclear reactor for power generation, as well as selling Egypt Russian warplanes.

roops loyal to Libya's internationally recognized government prepare themselves before heading to Sirte, in Tripoli, Libya, July 6, 2020.
roops loyal to Libya's internationally recognized government prepare themselves before heading to Sirte, in Tripoli, Libya, July 6, 2020. Credit: Ayman Al-Sahili/ REUTERS

As a power intent on expanding its spheres of influence in the Middle East, Russia is caught in a web of Arab interests which oblige it to tread carefully in order not to lose allies it has already gained, as well as not upset its alliance with Turkey.

This is why the Libyan arena is so important internationally. In contrast to Syria, in which Russia managed to situate itself as an ally with no competitors, in Libya there is a competition between blocs of players, the results of which will have great impact on the new political map of the Middle East.

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