The Libyan front looks bleak for Erdogan, writes Turkish journalist Fehim Tastekin in Al Monitor. Tastekin notes that Turkey is far from achieving its stated objectives in the two wars in which it is currently entangled. In late February, 36 Turkish soldiers were killed in Idlib, but Turkey’s response on Syrian forces was not convincing, and Turkey has agreed to a Russian ceasefire.
Tastekin goes on to describe Turkey’s military efforts in Libya as more secretive, with Ankara working to keep the Turkish public in the dark. It is already trying to downplay its losses in Libya to avoid a public backlash, although this does not seem to be working. Only recently did Erdogan acknowledge Turkish casualties in Libya, doing so in an obscure reference that angered many. Erdogan referred to a “few martyrs”, and only after the news of one officer’s death made the rounds on social media. There are further reports from Haftar’s forces of more Turkish soldiers having been killed.
It is also leading to a backlash in the Arab world. Just last week, the Tobruk government signed a series of agreements with Damascus and will reopen Libya’s embassy there instead of the Tripoli government. Haftar is aligning with the Syrian government in Idlib over Turkey. Basically, Turkey’s intervention in Libya pushed Damascus to formalise its alliance with Haftar. Some observes believe it was the UAE and Russia, as well as Egypt who may have pushed Assad to expand his anti-Turkey alliance with Haftar. The UAE reopened its Damascus embassy only two months prior.
All these moves are not occurring in a vacuum and signify a growing isolation and antagonism of Turkey in the Arab world, and with it Tripoli. The viability of Erdogan’s involvement in Libya is also in doubt. Turkey’s assistance, including the Syrian mercenaries, has kept the GNA afloat in Tripoli. But the LNA attacks continue, including over 120 missiles fired in February alone with Mitiga airport having had to be shut down numerous times. Basically, by bringing in Turkey, the GNA created a military balance and an impasse to force Haftar into a dialogue.
But Haftar too has received a surge in foreign support. Air traffic from the UAE to eastern Libya has increased noticeably since January. There are reports of over 3000 tonnes of military material having been sent to Haftar in late January – equivalent to all the UAE’s military assistance throughout 2019.
Turkey has escalated as well. It is said to have sent some 5000 Syrian fighters, with almost 2000 being trained in Turkey. Turkey also sent two vessels off the Tripoli coast, and another Lebanese flagged cargo ship of arms, seized by Italy in early February. To be sure, Turkey’s drones and anti-aircraft guns have denied Haftar aerial superiority over Tripoli, which is why he now resorts to shelling Mitiga from dozens of km away. However, achieving more meaningful results may require a greater military presence, and it is not clear Turkey can commit to such an effort.
But for now, it seems Haftar has the stronger backing to continue escalating as needed. According to one Turkish analyst interviewed, Erdogan seeks considerable economic and strategic gains for his investment and wants to take the fight into Haftar-held territory. However, it cannot commit the requisite force to do so, especially as the Syrian front escalates. Erdogan hoped to achieve a partnership with Moscow over their involvement in both Syria and Libya and used Russia’s militia strategy as well. However, Erdogan didn’t count on Russia having a relatively limited role with greater influence in the hands of the UAE and Egypt.
Algeria has recently taken a renewed interest in Libya, and adopted a far more assertive policy. Algerian Foreign Minister Sabri Boukadoum recently travelled to eastern Libya to meet Haftar. This led to a spike of interest and anger in Tripoli as it offered a measure of legitimacy to the parallel Tobruk government. So what is Algeria’s interest in Libya? And has it changed recently?
Neighbouring Algeria has long worked to establish stability in Libya, working since 2014 on the tribal level to create trust and dialogue between groups. However, a series of domestic upheavals and increased international intervention in Libya took Algeria out of the picture for a time.
In December 2019, Algeria elected a new president who set involvement in Libya as a diplomatic priority. Tebboune’s first international trip was to Berlin to attend the Libya peace conference, and he soon met with Turkish president Erdogan to discuss the matter. So far, Algeria has maintained relations with both sides and continues to position itself as a broker in North Africa.
This position Tebboune is seeking to carve for himself is bound up with domestic challenges to his power. Thus, aside from genuinely seeking to maintain stability in the neighbourhood, Tebboune might use the ongoing crisis next door to distract from demonstrations against the government’s legitimacy while improving his regional stature. The formula is well known – “this is not the time for a new government” and “look how well we are doing”.
Algeria having a key role in Libya is by all means important, and if it aides Tebboune and the current Algiers regime in maintaining stability, then everyone comes out a winner. However, Algeria must be sure not to partake in any risky behaviour to maintain its position as a stabiliser and independent mediator in Libya.
Turkish state-owned TRT World is calling on the US to take a bigger role in Libya in line with Turkey's policy. This means, of course, by fully backing the Tripoli GNA government. The news-site mentions that the GNA recently invited the US to open a military base in Libya in order to counter Russia’s growing influence; Russia backs Haftar and the LNA and has supplied thousands of mercenaries with aerial, artillery and other advanced capabilities.
According to TRT, Washington recognises Libya’s strategic importance and Russia’s increasing attempts to take over the Libyan theatre, in order to gain leverage over Europe and NATO, but does little to enforce its interests. Trump, the news site claims, sees Libya more as a European problem and thus has taken a back seat. This allows Russia to strengthen its presence and exploit the political and military vacuum for its own interests.
TRT calls for Washington to fully back the GNA and use its diplomatic power to oppose international powers – especially Russia and the UAE – from intervening, while pushing Haftar to cease his assault – choosing the “democratic path” over “military dictatorship”.
It is clear that the state-owned Turkish news site has a clear agenda: to convince the US to back its side of the conflict and limit Haftar and his foreign supporters.
Turkey is, of course, half correct. A more concerted American effort to limit ALL foreign intervention would be helpful, including Turkey’s backing of the GNA. The US should take a stronger role in pushing Europe and the UN to clamp down on all arms shipments and mercenary activity in Libya. Although the US is seeking to limit its foreign military interventions, there is much it can do with diplomatic and economic tools without resorting to applying military force. Drying up the foreign assistance on BOTH sides would indeed be a major step to achieving stability in Libya.
On February 28, a senior State Department official (unnamed) offered a press briefing on the US’ engagement in Libya. Following are the key points given, including from the q/a session with reporters, and our take.
The US seeks to help bring an end to the conflict in Libya, and sees the key to this as minimising “toxic” foreign interference. The US seeks to foster a stable, unified democratic Libyan state that will one day partner with the US to fight terrorism and stabilise global energy output.
The US meets regularly with all sides and leaders in its efforts to deescalate, and show that the underlying drivers can best be solved through political negotiations and not war. The front lines have not moved since April, further backing this point. The US is concerned Libya is quickly becoming an out-of-control proxy conflict, as both sides have foreign backers and the war over Tripoli is being taken over by foreign actors seeking to raise their own political and economic clout in the region.
The US ambassador and State Department continue to support the UN efforts to bring the sides together, and coordinate regularly with the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Egypt, the UAE and Turkey. The US is involved in the dialogue process that followed the Berlin conference.
The US calls on Haftar and the LNA to immediately suspend their military efforts in Tripoli, which risk escalating the fighting even further, and in order to give the political dialogue a chance. The US stresses that Haftar can have a role in Libya’s future but needs to achieve this at the negotiating table.
The US will continue to support the UN as it convenes military, political and economic talks, and calls on all sides to support these efforts.
Lastly, the US is determined to reopen its Tripoli embassy as soon as is it safely can, in order to improve its engagement with Libya’s leaders and people. The ambassador has operated until now from outside of the country and has only been able to visit the country a handful of times over the past year.
Questions and Answers – in Brief:
We can learn from this that while the US is keen on acting as a convening figure and supports the diplomatic UN-led process, it has no intention on taking the lead on Libya, preferring to leave this to the Germans or other European powers. We further get a clear sense that Libya remains low on the list of American foreign policy concerns, and certainly has no intention to get military involved, beyond its occasional efforts to take out ISIS, Al-Qaeda or other Islamist terror elements as they regroup. Russia’s increased role may have sparked some interest in Washington in the conflict, but it is difficult to see the US doing much more than it currently is doing.
UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame announced earlier this week, surprisingly, he was resigning after nearly 3 years in his thankless position. While the official reason sited was “health concerns”, this was clearly influenced by unending stress and frustration from both sides of the conflict constantly violating the ceasefire reached just weeks ago. The bombing and shelling over the weekend may have been the proverbial straw that broke Salame’s back.
Despite not reaching a concrete achievement, we should not overlook that Salame managed to spark a positive process. The Berlin Conference in January was followed by two meetings of the 5+5 military dialogue, three meetings of the economic dialogue which was far more successful and one less successful meeting of the political dialogue track.
The ceasefire, brokered by Turkey and Russia earlier in January, however, is strained, especially after the high casualties on both sides over the weekend.
The big question now – will all this survive Salame’s resignation? Will his departure collapse the shaky platform built up over the last month? The UN, Europeans, US and especially the regional powers must ensure that this framework holds together while the UN nominates a replacement, and fast. Turkey must press the GNA to hold fire, while the UAE and Russia must press on Haftar to do the same. Salame’s departure is a serious blow for sure. But it doesn’t have to be a death knell to the positive political process that still needs a chance.