UAE aims to mire Turkey in Libyan war of attrition

The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) has been racking up victories on the ground and in the political sphere in recent weeks, thanks in large part to Turkey’s increased military backing.

Since last December, when Ankara signed a widely challenged maritime borders deal with the GNA, Turkey has sent new weapons and air defence systems, Turkish military advisors and thousands of Syrian mercenaries to fight with the GNA.

Though in violation of a United Nations arms embargo on Libya, the reinforcements have enabled the GNA to push back the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, which had made major advances since launching an offensive to capture Tripoli in April 2019, and retake sizable chunks of territory in west Libya.

“It’s completely illegal, but it’s overt and it’s going according to plan,” Jalel Harchaoui, research fellow at the Hague-based Clingendael Institute, told Ahval in a podcast, referring to the Turkish intervention.

“It’s not over yet, the battle hasn’t been won,” he added. “But it’s being executed pretty well.”

On Monday, Harchaoui confirmed in a tweet that the GNA had retaken the key strategic air base in Watiya, an area southwest of the capital, which he said Haftar’s main backer, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), had been protecting as a vital asset. An anxious Haftar has begun bombing almost indiscriminately, regularly killing civilians, including four last week in an attack on diplomatic missions and a GNA-controlled airport.

Also last week, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg pledged the alliance’s support for the GNA, which is already recognised by the UN, while European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called for the two sides to lay down their arms and begin to negotiate a political resolution.

On Monday, Yahya Bostan, a columnist for Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah, wrote that that Ankara’s confidence had increased to the point that Turkey no longer sought merely to bring Haftar to the negotiating table. “The new mission is to put this source of instability, this murderer of Tripoli’s civilian population, out of business,” Bostan said.

Yet that objective is likely beyond Turkey’s reach, at least for the time being. Ankara’s first hurdle is the determination of its main foe in Libya, which is not Haftar.

Harchaoui told Ahval in a January podcast that the Libyan war was set to intensify largely because the UAE’s objective is to defeat Turkey. In recent weeks the UAE has shown its commitment to that objective, staunchly supporting Haftar and urging him to continue with the war despite battlefield setbacks.

Harchaoui said the number of civilian casualties was rapidly rising, adding that the increased attacks on civilians meant that the conflict had evolved for the UAE. “It means that you’re now involved in an ideological campaign as opposed to a proper military battle.”

Turkey’s second hurdle is the lawlessness of the conflict due to the unwillingness of Western powers to play any real role or even enforce international resolutions.

“There’s real anarchy,” said Harchaoui. “We are basically in the 19th century. There is no UN. There’s no international law. Turkey is grabbing a piece of territory on the other side of the Mediterranean and the Europeans cannot do much about it.”

Led by France, Harchaoui said Europe had essentially outsourced North Africa security to the UAE, giving it carte blanche across an unstable region. Thus, he said, the UAE was spending large sums of money on the war and violating international law while France provided diplomatic cover.

This willingness to test international laws and throw petro-dollars at regional conflicts has turned the UAE into a significant military player, despite having a population of less than 10 million.

“Their combat record has earned them that title of ‘Little Sparta’ because they can do things that Western powers have been unable to,” Ryan Bohl, Middle East and North Africa analyst with the consulting firm Stratfor, told Ahval in a podcast.

A fourth hurdle for Turkey is the UAE’s newest pal, President Bashar Assad of Syria, who is no friend of Ankara. A delegation from Haftar’s Libyan National Army visited Damascus in late April and announced the opening of an embassy as part of joint efforts to combat Turkish aggression.

“The Emiratis went to Assad and promised some sort of rehabilitation, a reintegration in the Arab world, for example the Arab League, and all kinds of other goodies,” said Harchaoui. “In exchange the Emiratis have been literally begging for fighters, so basically we started seeing a flow of fighters.”

Assad has sent less than a thousand soldiers so far, and not his best fighters, who he still needs to finish his war at home, according to Harchaoui. But the Syrian soldiers continue to trickle in, increasing Haftar’s fighting force.

Assad is far from alone in his willingness to stand against Turkey. Last week, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, France and the UAE issued a joint declaration denouncing as illegal Turkey’s drilling efforts around Cyprus, its military intervention in Libya and its maritime borders deal with the GNA. In response, Turkish officials labelled the group a new alliance of evil and blamed the UAE for chaos and instability across the Middle East.

“Turkish actions are creating a soft power coalition that are looking for ways to contain Turkish influence and Turkish expansion in areas of mutual interest,” said Bohl. “It’s putting together a coalition that doesn’t really have much else in common besides an antagonism toward Turkey.”

This antagonism dovetails with a long-running clash between Turkey and Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt on the other, with the former duo supporting political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, and the latter bloc seeing Islamists and the Brotherhood as terrorists and a threat to regional security.

In addition to a Gulf blockade against Qatar that has lasted almost three years, the dispute has led to media censorship, tourism disinformation, and tit-for-tat accusations in the case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and bled into the wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, where Turkey’s influence is on the rise.

As Western powers stay out of the fray, such low-level, long-lasting conflicts may be the new normal in the Middle East. Regional powers like Turkey, Iran, Egypt and others will likely be left to fend for themselves.

“They can’t call in the big guns of their allies from outside the region like they used to,” said Bohl. “They’ll have to sort these things on their own and they’ll have to absorb the costs on their own.”

That last part is particularly hard to stomach for Turkey, which has massive international debt and is mired in an economic crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. Bohl said COVID-19 had made Turkey more risk-averse in places like Syria and Libya. Harchaoui pointed out that the UAE has a sovereign wealth fund of more than $800 billion.

“The economic impact of COVID-19 is much tougher on Turkey than on the UAE,” he said, adding that this meant the UAE is likely willing to continue fighting a war it has all but lost.

“You have this thinking that, ‘Yeah, Turkey is kind of shining right now, but all we have to do is be persistent, lash out and we’ll wake up and we’ll hear some good news that Turkey is collapsing due to economic reasons’.”

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