Libya’s escalation tango

A Libya peace conference in Berlin ended on Sunday with apparent momentum towards ending the conflict in the North African country with global powers vowing to abide by a U.N. arms embargo and to push for a permanent ceasefire.

But this rosy outlook contrasts sharply with the complex reality on the ground in Libya, where external actors, particularly Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, and their warring proxies have created an escalating cycle of violence. 

Just before the Berlin talks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Turkey would start sending its own troops to fight in Libya, while General Khalifa Haftar, whose forces hope to push the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) out of Tripoli, blockaded most of Libya’s crucial oil exports.  

“Haftar still believes that he may have a path to victory,” Alexander Clarkson, lecturer on German and European Studies at King’s College London, told Ahval in a podcast. “This puts the GNA side and its external backers like Turkey under a lot of pressure to ensure the GNA survives.”

It all started back in 2015, according to Clarkson, when arms and cash sent by France and Italy likely contributed to the dysfunction. Then in 2018, the Italians played a key role setting up the GNA. 

Italy and its European allies envisioned the U.N.-recognised GNA pulling factions away from Haftar and weakening his position, potentially ending the violence. But they under-estimated the commitment of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and its impact. 

“The UAE had invested so much, and Egypt had invested so much in Haftar, that they weren’t willing to see him outbid,” said Clarkson. “They increased their support for him to ensure he held these factions and gave him the power to escalate.” 

In April 2019, Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an all-out assault on Tripoli. A stunned Italy and France pulled back, and Turkey filled the void, along with Russia.  

Since the overthrow of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, Turkey, ruled by an Islamist party, and Muslim Brotherhood-friendly Qatar have been in a regional tussle with Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, all of which have labelled the Brotherhood a terrorist group. 

Turkey’s Libya involvement is in part an effort to revive some $18 billion in construction deals dating from before Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011. But analysts say it also reflects a neo-Ottoman drive to promote Islamists across the region, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood.

Michel Cousins, editor of the Libya Herald, said the Brotherhood presence within GNA militias was often overstated, as Islamist militants in Libya tend to be Salafist. But he said the group had a significant presence in Tripoli. 

“The Brotherhood is important politically,” Cousins told Ahval in a podcast. “The Muslim Brotherhood politically has clout within the GNA.”

As Haftar’s forces neared Tripoli last year, Turkey saw itself getting squeezed out of potential gas riches in the eastern Mediterranean due to increasing cooperation between Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt, and spied an opportunity. In return for more robust military support, Turkey urged the GNA to sign a maritime borders deal that significantly expanded Turkey’s maritime claims. 

“Striking the agreement with the legitimate government in Tripoli means that Turkey reserved a seat for itself in the negotiation table over gas in the Mediterranean,” Ahmet al-Burai, a Palestinian-Turkish journalist and visiting researcher at Leicester University, wrote last week for pro-government Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah. 

But the maritime deal - signed in November, a week before Turkey’s parliament approved military intervention - had a negative side effect for the GNA. France and Italy share the Greek-Cypriot perspective on the eastern Mediterranean, mainly because Cyprus has made gas drilling deals with French firm Total and Italy’s Eni. 

Leading consulting firm Stratfor wrote in early January that European support for the GNA had plummeted since it signed the maritime deal with Turkey. But when he signed the deal, GNA leader Fayez al-Sarraj may have faced imminent defeat. 

“The GNA will argue, partly I think justifiably, that they had no choice. They needed the Turks to come ensure their survival,” said Clarkson. “The problem is in the long-term the GNA burned any support it had with EU member states.”

The GNA gave itself some breathing room, but created what Clarkson described as a diplomatic nightmare. “For Turkey it’s ideal. They now have the GNA in their grip and it gives the GNA very little for manoeuvre in terms of getting out of Turkish demands,” he said. “But the GNA has to get out of those Turkish demands if it wants to ensure its long-term survival.” 

On the other side, the UAE views Haftar as leading the all-important fight against the regional scourge that is the Muslim Brotherhood. Haftar has visited Abu Dhabi several times, where officials praise his efforts to defeat terrorism. 

“The UAE has sunk so much time and resources and effort into keeping Haftar afloat. Their whole strategy rides on him,” said Clarkson. “The difference between the UAE and Turkey is the UAE has not gone around provoking the Europeans everywhere else,” he said, referring to Turkey’s maritime deal and sending several drilling ships into waters claimed by Cyprus. 

Key factions remain loyal to Haftar largely because, thanks to this Emirati backing, they expect to be rewarded handsomely when he comes to power. Thus, any deal Haftar might make with the GNA would reduce his ability to distribute patronage, while any significant setback on the battlefield would erode these factions’ belief in his ability to win. 

“What keeps him on top is this promise that he’s backed by the UAE and willing to go all the way. But if he shares power, he can’t do that,” said Clarkson. “To stay on top, he has to keep escalating. He’s like the guy on a bicycle: he has to keep pedalling and pedalling because if he stops, he’s going to fall into the ditch.” 

Haftar’s latest escalation is the blockade of several key ports, which has cut Libya’s oil exports from 1.2 million barrels per day just over a week ago to an estimated 72,000 today. The GNA has warned that this could lead to exchange rate collapse, force an exodus of oil companies and bring down the economy.

“By threatening the GNA’s life-blood, oil and gas revenues, Haftar’s backers have now upped the ante again,” Cyril Widdershoven, Middle East energy and risk analyst, wrote for OilPrice.com this week. “The crisis keeps on escalating as most real power players in the Libyan conundrum are not interested in changing their strategies.”

On Monday, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Turkey planned to send 6,000 Syrian rebels to fight in Libya, including the 2,000 or so already there. Two days later, Haftar’s forces bombed Tripoli’s Mitiga International Airport, a crucial commercial and military transport hub for the GNA, and shot down a Turkish drone after declaring a no-fly zone in the area.    

Turkey sees its invaluable eastern Mediterranean energy hopes tied to the GNA, which has lost its European allies and thus must cling to Turkey’s military backing in the face of the LNA assault. The UAE has tied its regional strategy of countering Islamists to Haftar, who, in order to maintain the support of crucial factions, must always appear on the verge of winning the war. 

In Berlin, Haftar and Sarraj both named five members to a military committee that will represent their sides at permanent ceasefire talks the UN is expected to convene in Geneva soon. Clarkson remained very sceptical about the violence ending anytime soon. 

“Until Haftar is pushed back in a way that makes it clear he cannot go forward, he has no choice but to escalate,” said Clarkson. “The diplomatic dilemma is how to get this guy to make a deal when any deal threatens his own position automatically.”