What cooperation between Syria’s Assad and Libya’s Haftar means for Turkey

Turkey may face additional obstacles to its military interventions in Syria and Libya as a result of increasing cooperation between its adversaries in these two war-torn countries. 

As Turkey was bombing Syrian forces in Idlib earlier this month, a delegation from General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), which is fighting the Turkish-backed Libyan administration in Tripoli, visited Damascus. The LNA delegation announced the opening of an embassy in the Syrian capital as part of joint efforts to combat what it called Turkish aggression in the two countries. 

This was the latest sign that the Syrian and Libyan conflicts are, in some ways, becoming intertwined.

In January, Turkey began to deploy Syrian militiamen it had previously used as proxies in Idlib to Libya to fight on the side the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. A few hundred Syrian contractors have also reportedly been hired from Syrian militias loyal to President Bashar al-Assad to fight alongside the LNA.  

Unlike in Syria, the coronavirus pandemic has not affected Turkey’s military operations in Libya, which reported its first confirmed case on March 24. On the contrary, its GNA ally recently launched a counteroffensive against the LNA that it named Operation Peace Storm. 

Fighters on both sides continue to battle wearing gloves and masks in a bid to avoid contracting the disease.

Cordial relations between Damascus and the Benghazi-based LNA in eastern Libya have not yet translated into any substantial military cooperation against Turkey. They do, however, have the potential to become a significant obstacle in the way of Ankara’s military objectives in both countries.

“With advice and help from Moscow, Abu Dhabi and Cairo, it is likely that both Benghazi and Damascus will increase their cooperation against the Turkish presence in both countries,” said Mohamed Eljarh of Libya Outlook, a research and consulting firm based in eastern Libya. 

“This could be in the form of joint diplomatic efforts, but also an exchange of knowledge, intelligence, and expertise.” 

Benghazi and Damascus could coordinate attacks against the Turkish military and its militia proxies in both countries to divide and stretch Turkey’s attention as well as its resources. 

“In addition, both sides could also cooperate by sending their own troops one way or the other given that they consider their fight against the Turks to be a unified front spread over two countries,” Eljarh said. 

Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, said Haftar and Syrian President Bashar Assad presented themselves as the secular option for their countries, invariably portraying their opponents as Islamic State-like fanatics. 

Both leaders are also allied with Russia and “hope to find ways to leverage their new relations against Turkey”. 

The establishment of formal representations between Damascus and the LNA raises the possibility of diplomatic and economic, as well as military, cooperation down the road.

The LNA can help Damascus economically, since it controls Libya’s oil reserves, and diplomatically, through its connections with the Gulf states that oppose Turkey’s policies in the region.

Business cooperation between Benghazi and Damascus has already begun, as exemplified by the opening of the private Syrian Cham Wings Airlines route between the Syrian capital and the LNA stronghold. 

Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow at the Conflict Research Unit of the Clingendael Institute who focuses on Libya, believes that the LNA delegation’s visit to Damascus on March 3 revealed the increasingly close ties that now exist between the United Arab Emirates and Syria. 

“This dynamic is true diplomatically, but also financially and, perhaps, militarily also.”

The UAE reopened its embassy in Syria in December 2018 and normalised relations with Assad’s government. 

Abu Dhabi is also a leading backer of the LNA in the Libyan conflict, supplying the group with armed Chinese-made Wing Loong II drones that have bombed Tripoli. 

Ankara also sent military advisors to help the GNA repel LNA sieges of Tripoli and delivered armoured vehicles and armed Bayraktar TB2 drones to help give its ally an edge over its Benghazi-based adversary.

Harchaoui believes the new arrangement reached in March means that Abu Dhabi has committed itself to reward Damascus and Haftar against Turkey.

However, relations between Benghazi and Damascus are not very tight now given Assad’s preoccupation with the recent flare-up in Idlib. Nevertheless, the Syrian president has agreed to provide technical advice to the LNA on how it can effectively combat the Syrian fighters that Turkey deployed in Libya.  

“As Assad becomes more used to Abu Dhabi’s financial largesse, he will undoubtedly become more comfortable fitting into a regional order wherein the UAE is utterly determined to play a greater role as a leader; the leader of the Arab world,” Harchaoui said.

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