Forces of East Libya-based commander Khalifa Haftar

Significance in Libya for the Eastern Mediterranean conundrum

Another significant issue that is threatening the entire region is the escalating crisis in Libya.

Another significant issue that is threatening the entire region is the escalating crisis in Libya. Warlord Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) are openly threatening to bomb civilians and Libyan cities, and there has been almost no response from the international community in order to protect the legitimate government of Libya and the country’s civilians. Virtually all significant international actors are either actively or passively in support of Haftar’s forces as he vyes for control of Libya’s capital Tripoli. Massacres in Tripoli, Misrata, Zliten, Sirte, and Mseallata will most likely take place if Haftar, with the support of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, manages to control Tripoli. Another humanitarian crisis is mounting, as attempts to broker peace in Berlin stall and the Special Representative of the United Nations Special Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Ghassan Salame continues in a dysfunctional attempt toward a cease-fire. Unfortunately, international actors are providing ample time and opportunity for Haftar to complete his illegal and inhumane campaign against his people. War crimes committed by Haftar forces and his global sponsors are tolerated, giving him an upper hand in the bloody civil war.

Turkey’s Parliament has recently approved a defense and cooperation agreement between Ankara and the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya. This agreement will allow Ankara to provide training and resources to Libya’s legitimate government, in order to defend itself against the aggressions of Haftar forces. The Turkey-GNA agreement, for now, seems of higher significance symbolically than practically. It may take some time to see the more concrete consequences of the agreement on the field, but it may be a game-changer for the GNA side. The presence of Turkish forces in Libya may become at least as necessary as their presence in Qatar. The Turkish military presence in Qatar helped prevent an invasion of the country and a regime change in Doha backed by a joint UAE-Saudi scheme.

Turkey may be sidelined entirely in the reshaping of the Eastern Mediterranean region if Libya falls under the control of Haftar forces and their international sponsors. The UAE and Egypt, along with their European backers, are doing their best to install a proxy regime in Libya. Still, Haftar’s popularity is not high among the Libyan populace and the majority of Libyan people no longer wish to see the return of a Gadhafi-style dictatorship. Turkey is the only hope for those who are afraid of a “New Gadhafi” in Libya. Turkey’s military presence in Libya may deter the invasion of Tripoli and Western Libya by outsiders and may prevent massacres by Haftar’s forces. The GNA is getting more fragile as the intensifying attacks by Haftar’s forces increases, especially given the involvement of Russian mercenaries.

None of the external powers that are projecting their influence in Libya have long term plans regarding Haftar and the LNA. Indeed, many actors are aware that Haftar may not stay in power too long, even if he manages to take control of Tripoli. What those actors sponsoring Haftar seek in the short and medium-term is simply to benefit from a share of Libya’s natural resources. The authoritarian governance model supported by the ideology of Madkhali Salafism has little appeal to any international actor other than the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Haftar’s backers and the LNA are likely to get into a severe conflict of interest and competition in the aftermath of Haftar’s subsequent death or fall from power. However, for the moment, all sponsors of Haftar and the LNA seem to be working in coordination to topple the GNA in Tripoli.

The mounting humanitarian crisis and the escalating civil war in Libya is a challenge and may have a very negative consequence, especially for European actors. European powers seem to be OK with Haftar’s takeover of the entirety of Libya, having passively given him credit. If Haftar forces take control of Western Libya with the support of Russian mercenaries, this will mark an extended sphere of Russian influence in the Mediterranean. European powers’ energy dependence on Russia will no doubt increase. International actors are maintaining diplomatic negotiations with Haftar and his supporters in Berlin while Haftar’s forces bomb the Libyan people. Such a reckless policy encourages Haftar to act more aggressively to improve his de facto position.

Turkey’s recent agreement with Libya’s legitimate government about maritime delimitation line and defense cooperation deal is crucial for protecting Turkey’s and Libya’s rights in the Eastern Mediterranean region. These agreements were risky for the GNA as well, but they also desperately need Turkey’s support, especially in the military sphere, for their survival. Only a diplomatic deal can reduce tensions in Libya and lead to lasting peace. Still, such a deal seems to be far from reach for the moment due to a lack of strategy and coordination of international actors. It is, therefore, a priority for Turkey to prevent Haftar forces’ taking over of Western Libya if it wants to stay in a geopolitically competitive position in the Eastern Mediterranean region.

It would be much better if this could be achieved by diplomatic contacts rather than military means. Like all other significant geopolitical issues, European actors are unprepared to address the possible geopolitical fallout if Libya falls to Haftar. European diplomacy has always been, at best, dysfunctional in dealing with significant diplomatic crises such as that raging in Libya at the moment.

[Daily Sabah, 23 December 2019]

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