Turkey is getting what it wants in Libya, but it will not end the war

The landscape of the Libyan civil war is suddenly in flux. On June 4, with decisive military support from Turkey, the United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) ended the grinding 14-month offensive on Tripoli by Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) and they didn’t stop there. Keen to break Haftar’s blockade on Libya’s lucrative oil industry, GNA forces are now fighting to take Sirte, the strategic gateway to Libya’s eastern oil fields.

Meanwhile, on June 6, the massive Sharara oil field south of Tripoli restarted production following a four-month blockade by the LNA, after local Tuareg units abandoned support for Haftar to realign with the GNA. However, several shutdowns by LNA units in the days since demonstrates the fragility of GNA influence over the southwest.

“The GNA is galvanised at the moment to try to end Haftar’s project of returning the country to authoritarian rule and of trying to destroy any form of dissent whether through political, social, or military means,” Anas El Gomati, the director of the Sadeq Institute, told Ahval. “The GNA and its armed groups have galvanised and unified around a common threat. Pushing Haftar back all the way to eastern Libya will help that.”

The rapid redrawing of the battle lines may indicate that Moscow, one of the LNA’s key backers, coordinated the retreat of Russian mercenaries with Ankara at Haftar’s expense. The sweeping victories by GNA-aligned forces, however, will not bring a quick end to the Libyan conflict. Neither the GNA nor the LNA are unitary entities and both rely on their international benefactors to appease and organise their domestic coalitions of Libyan politicians and militia leaders.

Nominal political control of Libya is divided between the Tripoli-based GNA produced by a U.N. attempt to form a national unity government in 2015 and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives aligned with the LNA that formed following heavily contested elections in 2014. However, neither political body has ever possessed consolidated governmental capacity even within their respective regions.

The Turkish and Russian interventions in Libya have protracted and enflamed the fighting, but both have an interest in a de-escalation of the hostilities that would allow them to reap the economic benefits of their involvement, primarily in the oil industry. As such, Ankara and Moscow have made several joint calls this year for a ceasefire and support for the U.N. peace process, only to see Haftar spoil their efforts.

Reflecting the complex internationalisation of the conflict despite a U.N. arms embargo, Haftar was able to ignore the multinational effort to kickstart a political process at January’s Berlin conference by calling upon his other sponsors, primarily the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to supply his continued military campaign.

Following his recent defeats, it is not clear whether Abu Dhabi will continue to back Haftar. What is clear, El Gomati said, is that: “The UAE may have given up on Haftar but not the project and the project for the UAE is to return Libya to authoritarian rule. They’ve shown no interest in allowing Libya to transition peacefully politically nor have they shown a desire for an inclusive politically pluralist project in Libya.”

Haftar’s long Tripoli offensive would have been impossible without Emirati-provisioned supply lines, air support from Emirati-piloted Chinese-made Wing Loon drones, and later reinforcements from the Kremlin-linked private military contractors of the Wagner Group. Although it also supports the LNA, Egypt has offered comparatively minimal aid to Haftar and its new diplomatic initiative signals Cairo may prefer other eastern Libyan politicians.

Russia also appears to be adjusting its Libya strategy. Prior to the Turkish airstrikes and GNA advances, Wagner forces evacuated the LNA’s Tripoli positions, falling back to reinforce Sirte and the al-Jufra airbase where the United States says Moscow sent fighter jets last month. The jets were reportedly transferred via Syria, where they were disguised to shield Russia from potential sanctions for violating the U.N. arms embargo.

By abandoning Haftar’s Tripoli offensive, Russia may be signalling a shift of support to Haftar’s rival, the Tobruk government’s Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh, who supports a political resolution to the war. As his forces were being routed from the west, Haftar was in Cairo alongside Saleh on Saturday to endorse Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s calls for a ceasefire and national dialogue, highlighting the commander’s diminished standing with his domestic and international partners.

The GNA, however, has little incentive to resume talks until its military advance stalls. While the LNA was driven from Tarhuna last week, its last foothold in Tripoli’s suburbs, the GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj was in Ankara meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who pledged Turkey would increase its support for the Tripoli-based government.

“We will not give [Haftar] the opportunity to negotiate in the coming process. We will continue our fight until we completely eliminate the enemy,” al-Sarraj said in Ankara and later rejected the calls from Cairo for a ceasefire.

The GNA says it intends to seize Sirte and the al-Jufra airbase despite alleged Russian warnings, but protracted fighting in Sirte suggests the GNA counter-offensive may have reached its limits. Whether negotiations are next remains an open question.

Turkey would prefer a complete victory for the GNA and it will be wary of any national reconciliation process that could nullify the controversial maritime border treaty it signed with the GNA in November. That agreement is the only international support Turkey has for its maximalist exclusive economic zone (EEZ) claims in the eastern Mediterranean, claims that are rejected by the European Union, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and Israel.

Moscow and Ankara may join international calls for a national reconciliation process under the auspices of the U.N., but they may be more likely to pursue a tacit partition of their spheres of influence in order to protect the geopolitical and commercial interests that accrue from their interventions. This would, however, only perpetuate the humanitarian catastrophe of the conflict and forestall the development of effective governance in Libya.

Haftar’s declining potential to distribute patronage with each successive loss raises the likelihood of defections from his camp, either to align with the GNA or to fend for themselves. If the GNA can successfully remove the existential threat of Haftar’s offensive, fissures among the GNA-aligned political factions and militias will also open up given Libya’s pluralism.

There are many opinions on how to run Libya, but the GNA-aligned groups, “don’t seem intent on building an authoritarian patronage structure,” El Gomati said. “None of them have demonstrably shown that they want to return the country to authoritarianism.”

Whether the Turkish- and Russian-backed sides come to a new arrangement or a serious national reconciliation process begins, shifting hierarchies will likely release latent grievances, fuelling violent competition and retribution among Libya’s fragmented armed groups. Reports of revenge crimes and looting in Tarhuna since the LNA abandoned it have already emerged.

“The GNA is in a very difficult position,” El Gomati said. “They need to do more, clearly, because many of the forces that entered Tarhuna began to enact revenge, specifically on Mohammed al-Kani’s house, which they blew up. Mohammed al-Kani was the leader of the militia fighting on behalf of Haftar’s forces.”

Mass graves were also uncovered in Tarhuna. For the GNA to demonstrate it can be responsive to issues of injustice and hold guilty parties accountable, El Gomati said, “there is a clear need to do more than just policing and law and order. There have to be war crimes investigations to establish what’s taken place there.”

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