Since the fall of former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has been gripped by civil war between two main belligerents while extremist and rebel groups interfere. Even if a solution were found between the main warring parties in the near-decade long conflict, instability on the country’s southern border will remain.
The Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez Al-Sarraj and recognized by the United Nations, is challenged by General Khalifa Haftar's forces that are fighting to gain power. The GNA is supported by Turkey and Qatar, and Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is backed by Russia, Western countries, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. The latter does not want the Muslim Brotherhood or extremists on its border, and is prepared to fight them with the support of other Arab countries.
Saudi Arabia’s Cabinet reaffirmed on June 23 that the security of the Arab Republic of Egypt is an integral part of the security of Saudi Arabia and of the entire Arab nation, and that the Kingdom stands by Egypt’s side in defending its borders and people from extremism, terrorist militias and their supporters in the region. As for Tunisia, the country is confronted with the same threat on its western border with Libya.
Turkey’s involvement in the Libyan crisis is a game changer. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sent thousands of former extremists to fight in Libya, and these mercenaries are unlikely to return to Turkey after the fight.
The main justification cited for the turn of events in Libya is Turkish ambition to reconnect with its glorious past when the Ottoman Empire reigned over the Middle East. Erdogan claims that Turkey’s influence spreads beyond its modern borders. He cares little about international agreements, and Turkey’s wish for membership of the European Union has all but vanished.
And many Arab countries have distanced themselves from the Turkish ruler who is supported by the Muslim Brotherhood that is now headquartered in Qatar, making Turkey’s involvement in Libya a delicate issue for many Arab states.
Turkey’s involvement in Libya is also linked to its economic interests and need for gas from the Eastern Mediterranean for its own consumption. In November 2019, Turkey signed an agreement with Tripoli to determine the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of the two countries at the expense Cyprus and Greece. The planned EastMed gas pipeline would bypass Turkey to export gas from Israel, Cyprus and Greece to Europe. Now, Turkey can block the project in its claimed maritime zone.
Under the new agreement, gas fields are to be shared between Libya and Turkey, and the two countries are currently discussing potential Turkish use of the naval base in Misrata and of the air base of al-Watiya, with a clear long-term goal of controlling the Libyan EEZ.
Turkey imports 84 percent of its energy, and with ambitions to become a major gas actor, it covets Eastern Mediterranean gas. To achieve its goal, however, it must gain Libya’s support where other countries have been openly hostile toward Turkey. It also needs to strengthen its economy to reach its dreams of greatness. Today the growth rate of the Turkish economy is decreasing, and the Turkish lira lost 30 percent against the dollar in 2018; unemployment and inflation are high.
While Turkey looks elsewhere for allies, Europe and the US are divided and do not share the same interests in the area, and this is visible in NATO’s ambiguous attitude. The US, which holds de facto leadership of NATO does not want to upset their Turkish ally who has strayed further from NATO since the 2016 failed coup.
Now, Turkey turns a blind eye to offenses against NATO, and Turkish frigates under NATO cover escort cargo ships carrying arms into Libya in violation of UN Resolution 2526 that extended authorization to inspect ships to enforce the 2011 Libya arms embargo.
The European Union is calling for a ceasefire in accordance with the terms agreed upon in Berlin in January 2020, and such an initiative would be an opportunity to tighten links between the UAE and France.
But the EU is still divided on Libya. Italy, for instance, has been more supportive of Fayez Al-Sarraj’s GNA, because of his control on Sabratah, the main harbor of Lampedusa bound migrant smugglers. EU countries do not want Turkey to take control of migrant smuggling, nor of persons or organizations intent on infiltrating European soil.
Nevertheless, taking a common stand would give EU countries an opportunity of putting together a European defense structure, because the head-in-the-sand American policy does not serve European interests and is showing its limits. Ankara’s blackmail on NATO’s Incirlik Air Base, used for American operations and deterrence, is demonstrating that aircraft-carriers are preferable to an overseas air base. And Ankara is engaged in a lengthy process of procurement of Russian built S-400 missiles that are under the threat of American sanctions.
American strategies are not always global, and economic warfare does not always coincide with diplomatic or military pressures. But when it comes to smaller countries, they have to maintain coherence between their procurement policies of strategic assets and their alliances. So if it is established that Turkey is going against their national interests, they will have to stop all business dealings, even more so when public funding is involved. This is a good reason to start a discussion with the Turkish rulers.
It is also highly likely that an agreement will be found to establish a buffer zone to insulate the Egyptian border from Turkish influence to avoid war. There have been discussions between the American and Turkish presidents, and red lines have likely been defined.
As for Libya, the Turkish involvement has allowed the Tripoli-based forces to retake the capital’s airport and gain the upper hand against the rival forces.
It is probable that Turkey will extend its eastward push to ensure control of the EEZ agreement and the offshore gas field, but it is likely to be stopped in Cyrenaica by the tribes faithful to their leader and the militias and Russian mercenaries that have recently moved to the Al-Jufra air base to better protect the town of Sirte. But the main Libyan oil field is in this region, and it is probable that the GNA forces will try to control it.
The Middle East is riddled with many crises, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and maybe soon in the West Bank. Some of the protagonists of these crisis can use the civil war in Libya as a smokescreen to solve their issues in the shadow, adding fuel to the fire.
But Libya will endure long periods of instability, affecting the civilian population. And the Turkish involvement in Libya maintain, as long as Turkey will control the Mediterranean gas field. As for the links with NATO, as long as the US needs Turkey for their own interests, their love/hate relationship will continue.
- Turkey sends mercenaries, militants of different nationalities to Libya: Reports
- UAE working for ‘immediate ceasefire’ in Libya: Foreign Affairs Minister Gargash
- Turkey FM rejects ceasefire in Libya, says it would not benefit the GNA currently
- Libya crisis timeline: The battle for Tripoli, Sirte, and oil from November to today