Libya set to explode again as foreign players go all in

Seen as nearing a conclusion several times in the last few years, Libya’s long-running civil war looks set to flare up yet again as Turkey-backed forces of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) zero in on the crucial eastern city of Sirte.

“Everything is moving towards a massive escalation around the city of Sirte,” Tarek Megerisi, a policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Ahval in a podcast, also pointing to the nearby airbase of al-Jufra. “These two locations and the axis between them is likely to be the next battleground.”

Since 2015, two rival factions and governments in the east and west have been battling for control of Libya. Turkey and Qatar support the United Nations-backed GNA headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, which is fighting the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by the United Arab Emirates, France, Russia and Egypt.

In April 2019, Haftar launched a major push to take Tripoli and made significant gains.

But late last year Turkey signed a military cooperation deal, as well as a maritime borders deal, with the GNA, and began dispatching Turkish military advisors, thousands of Syrian rebels and major weaponry including advanced drones and air defence systems. This soon turned the tide and Haftar’s forces have fallen back from Tripoli in recent months as GNA forces have retaken these areas.

Turkey-backed GNA fighters moved east toward Sirte this weekend, while Haftar’s LNA bolstered its Sirte defences in preparation for a major battle. The GNA has vowed to retake the crucial al-Jufra airbase and Sirte, which provides access to Libya’s main oil ports, from Haftar and his LNA.

Egypt has vowed to respond to any GNA assault on Sirte with its own military intervention, while Russia has reportedly begun sending fighter jets and additional mercenaries in support of the LNA. Turkey has dispatched more than 16,000 Syrian rebels to fight on the GNA side, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, including 2,500 Tunisian members of the Islamic State (ISIS).

Meanwhile, with Russian backing, Syrian President Bashar Assad has sent some 2,000 Syrian soldiers and mercenaries from his side of the conflict to fight in support of the LNA. Ankara has said these fighters are war criminals.

“We’re already in a fundamentally bizarre place when we have the Syrian civil war taking place on Libyan shores,” said Megerisi. “The fact that it keeps exacerbating, it keeps getting worse, does not augur well for the future of the Libyan conflict.”

France has been denouncing Turkey’s role in Libya at least since a June 10 maritime incident in which a Turkish warship thought to be carrying arms to Libya refused to allow a French frigate to carry out mandatory inspections as part of a NATO and United Nations arms embargo. Paris says the Turkish vessel’s targeting technology locked in on the French ship, while Ankara has denied any wrongdoing.

France’s European Union partners, particularly Italy, which has significant economic interests in Libya, have offered little sympathy. But last week, the United States backed the French view, a day after U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke on the phone and, according to Turkey, agreed to cooperate more closely on Libya.

“France, after the failure of their guy in Libya, they’re trying to focus on Turkey as the font of all problems and destabilisation in the country,” said Megerisi, also pointing to issues linked to domestic politics and refugees. “It’s part of a wider disagreement with Turkey.”

The leaders of Turkey and Egypt have friendly relations with Trump but not with each other, mainly because of Turkey’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood and former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted in a bloody coup led by Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in 2013.

Analysts say Turkey has invested so much in the GNA, from reconstruction contracts to maritime drilling rights and Islamist influence, that it feels it needs to be able to impose its will on any resolution, to ensure the GNA stays in power. To do that it needs to further weaken Haftar, and the best way to achieve that, Ankara seems to believe, is to take Sirte.

Cairo, on the other hand, fears a permanent Turkey-backed government in Libya - a real possibility if the GNA takes Sirte - would create a Muslim Brotherhood hub that would seek to undermine the Sisi regime via activism and possibly terror attacks. Due to deeply entrenched positions on both sides, many observers fear a significant military confrontation between the two regional rivals.

“It seems like an increasingly likely scenario,” said Megerisi. “If Sirte falls and Turkish-backed forces move further east, Egypt’s hopes are lost...Each side is operating from a zero-sum perspective; there are certain pillars to their policy they can’t afford to give up.”

Last week Sisi said Egypt could decisively change the military reality in Libya, yet questions remain about the look and size of an Egyptian intervention, which could range from significant airstrikes and arms deliveries to a massive ground invasion. Megerisi acknowledged that a case could be made that Cairo is merely negotiating, as Egypt and Turkey are said to be holding back-channel talks.

But Egypt’s parliament on Monday approved a bill to deploy troops to Libya in support of the LNA.

The U.S. military and its African Command Centre have in recent weeks been quietly egging on Turkey, encouraging GNA plans to take Sirte, according to Megerisi, who said Washington is concerned that Russian President Vladimir Putin is looking to use the local air and naval ports to establish a Russian beachhead in Sirte and expand his Mediterranean influence and access to Libyan resources.

“That gives Turkey a second wind, it gives them this impression that they can tell the rest of the NATO alliance that they’re doing their dirty work because they’re going to stop Russia embedding in Sirte,” said Megerisi.

Washington has been mired for months in a pandemic, a massive protest movement and a looming presidential election, so any further Libyan commitment seems unlikely. Yet Megerisi said European Union states have been slowly increasing their involvement in Libya.

Germany organised a Libya peace summit earlier this year, launching the so-called Berlin Process for a resolution. He also pointed to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s vision for a Geopolitical Commission that would craft EU policies on major foreign issues like Libya.

“The ingredients are there but there’s nobody who has cooked them up to create a European policy for Libya that can drive progress on the ground,” said Megerisi.

Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya analyst at the Brussels-based Clingendael Institute, believes patience could be a virtue for those looking to counter Turkey in Libya, particularly France and the UAE. “The number of EU countries committed to joining France & hurting Turkey will increase slowly over the years,” he said in a tweet on Monday.

For now, the persistent lack of U.S. and EU leadership on Libya has enabled a variety of actors to put their finger on the scale to gain some advantage. The presence of Turkish military officials, Emirati weaponry and Russian, Syrian, Tunisian, Chadian, Sudanese and possibly Somali mercenaries has fostered the image a bloody free-for-all.

Rear Admiral Heidi Berg, the top intelligence officer at U.S. Africa Command, said last week that proxy forces in Libya “now have almost become the principal interlocutors”. As a result, Libyans have largely lost grip of their own conflict.

“The more mercenaries that come into the country, the more this internationalisation and this proxy war facet becomes stronger than the civil war dynamic that was taking place before,” said Megerisi.

“Turkey was involved in Libya in 2015 and 2016 but nowhere near the scale it is today. Similarly, since 2015 the UAE has invested - the amount of armaments, mercenaries and so on - probably goes into the billions of dollars,” he added. “Sometimes when you put too much on the table it becomes very hard to back down.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.