Why is the Arab world becoming more involved in Libya? Because the Libyan conflict is increasingly becoming a showcase for the two competing visions of governance in the Arab world, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Libyans and the Arab world are caught between a vision of illiberal democracy, in which Islamists use democratic tools to reach power and gradually overtake various institutions of governance, or autocracies led by military strongmen. One model resembles Turkey, the other Egypt.
According to Libyan analyst Mohamed Eljarh, the Libyan conflict was initially an internal Libyan conflict. But as “regional powers (are) sending foreign fighters to settle scores on Libyan soil using Libyan money and Libyan factions”, the conflict has become internationalised. Moreover, the west, which helped remove Gaddafi and defeat ISIS, seems content with stopping the flow of migrants into Europe and little else.
This vacuum has led regional powers to flood in, competing on Libyan soil for their vision of the region to dominate. Qatar and Turkey back political Islam while the Gulf States back a strongman intent on cracking down on militant and political Islam. Libya expert Frederic Wehrey adds that “unresolved fissures and continuing proxy struggle for influence that started from the Arab Spring…(the) vacuum left behind by the west, the paralysis of the Europeans, and the ambivalence of the Americans has allowed the space for Arab states and Russia to step in and reopen them”.
Indeed, Turkey is seeking to expand its foothold in the Arab world, seizing an opportunity to back an Islamist government. The Saudis and UAE seek to prevent another Islamist government from taking hold and seek to protect their growing influence in Africa. Egypt similarly fears an Islamist government on its border, as well as any country beholden to regional rival Turkey. Jordan too, quietly one of Haftar’s biggest supports, is concerned Libya will turn into another ISIS hotbed like in Syria.
Other powers, like Russia, France and Italy, are also involved, each with their own interests in mind and backing opposing sides.
In the meantime, it seems that Libyans have to make an unenviable choice – democracy with weak institutions dominated by Islamists or an authoritarian one-state party dominated by the military. One seeks democracy first, the other stability over democracy. Eljarh explains that the GNA claims that security and stability are just code words for dictatorship, while Haftar is quite open in his claim that the country is simply not ready for democracy so long as the government does not have a monopoly on the use of force, and that this can only be established by armed force.
And yet, no actor can guarantee that Haftar would cede power to a democratically elected government were he to have full control. If anything, the signs point to moves he is making already to bring more aspects of the economy under his control. On the other side, the Monitor notes that the Islamist rhetoric on the radio in Tripoli sounds increasingly like Erdogan’s talking points. In the meantime, analyst Claudia Gazzini reports there is no progress on elections, no parliamentary oversight and rampant cronyism and embezzlement plaguing the country.
To be sure, Haftar’s model is not as anti-Islamist as he makes himself out to be. Rather, the article suggests, taking a page out of the Saudi playbook, Haftar could make a deal with extremist Salafists who eschew political involvement. Like in Saudi Arabia, the Salafists get fully dominance over the religious sphere while they remain entirely loyal to the political leadership.
Libyans must decide their own fate. However, it increasingly seems this is not being left up to them.
Libya analyst Jalel Harchaoui warns that the current lull in the violence is the “quiet before the storm” and expects “The next phase of the war… to be much more intense,” Harchaoui points to the “The physical amount of foreign weaponry and foreign manpower injected into Libya over the last five to six weeks, on both sides, is absolutely without precedent.”
Indeed, it seems, from looking at flight traffic from Syria to Benghazi in LNA-held territory that Russia is sending additional mercenaries. At the same time, there continued reports of Syrian fighters being shipped in to Tripoli by Turkey, as well as the advanced capabilities Turkey is bringing with it (air defence systems, jamming systems, etc.) meant to ensure the continued survival of the GNA.
While the rationale of Turkey might be to de-escalate and force Haftar to reach a political solution, Harchaoui warns this might lead to an opposite effect. He suggests the UAE, Haftar’s main backer, could push for a “shock and awe kind of assault from the air, to overwhelm whatever Turkey has been able to install since December. It could also use heavy artillery, which hasn’t really been used in the last 10 months”.
In light of these reinforcements, US Africom commander General Townsend commented that the escalation through the interjection of foreign troops from Turkey and Russia is leaving the international community paralysed. The US itself plans on further reducing its already small commitment of 6000 troops stationed across the African continent, a further sign of decreased US influence in a chaotic region.
Harchaoui notes he does not “see any effort that is genuine and forceful in terms of diplomatic push from any Western nation….The U.S. has clearly shown that it doesn’t care. Russia is very limited, and the EU is completely caught in a very binary, simplistic and mostly false depiction of what is about to happen.”
Perhaps more than just indifference, other experts point out that European states especially France and Italy, have even played a destructive role in Libya for years. They also point out that Turkey initially entered the conflict to protect billions in investments and contracts signed during the Gaddafi era, along with its natural affinity for Islamist-leaning regimes. Erdogan has said multiple times he sees no military solution for Libya. However, at the same time, he is sending thousands of Syrian fighters, including Islamic extremists, to prop up the GNA. This in turn, makes some European supporters of the GNA think twice, such as Germany, and when taken together with Turkey’s moves in the Eastern Mediterranean, has already caused Cyprus and Greece to shift their support to Haftar.
In the meantime, Harchaoui points that out everyone seems hesitant to call out the UAE for its backing of Haftar, along with France and Russia. While the various international actors calculated their increased support for their proxy was meant to deescalate, the end result might be only further escalation, death and destruction. In this scenario, it will be the Europeans who will be held partially responsible for not working harder to end the foreign involvement in the conflict.
Libya expert Frederic Wehrey writes that the international community must stop Haftar in order to end the bloodshed. Wehrey notes that continuing support for Haftar from the UAE, Russia and even tacit support from the United States is worsening the suffering of average Libyans. Imediately after the Berlin conference, Haftar’s militias killed 11 GNA fighters near Sirte, breaking what was already a shaky ceasefire and continues his attack on Tripoli.
Wehrey describes Haftar’s initial success in light of the GNA’s lack of popularity and it being “inept and beholden to corrupt militias”. However, Haftar’s move to take control of Libya torpedoed what looked to be a promising process underway led by the UN to bring into power a functioning government and address the “militias menace”. Haftar has managed to portray himself as an authoritarian and anti-Islamist, thus gaining support from key Arab states like the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The French as well, seeking to contain Islamic terrorism to Africa, also see Haftar as a stabilizing force and provide him with clandestine military aid.
However, due to Haftar’s ineffectiveness, he was not able to take Tripoli, even with significant foreign military backing. After tens of thousands were displaces, and thousands killed, including hundreds of civilians, Russia, sensing a geopolitical opportunity, began sending in mercenaries in September to help break the stalemate. With each move, Wehrey describes, Russia gradually increases its control over Haftar and pushes him into a ceasefire that suits Moscow’s interests more than anyone. That is, until Haftar walked out of Moscow without agreeing to a truce.
Russia’s increased involvement led Turkey to up it’s own involvement, forcing Libya to back its controversial claims to Eastern Mediterranean energy stores.
Wehrey concludes that the “much hyped” Berlin summit failed to formalize the ceasefire, and emboldened by arms from his backers, continues his offensive and shut down a big part of Libya’s oil exports, risking the country’s economic stability.
Wehrey calls on the international community to stop Haftar in order to “avoid catastrophe”, noting one GNA commander told him that “Haftar will not accept a ceasefire unless America twists his ear”. Wehrey specifically called on the United States to clarify its policy and apply its “unique leverage” to stop Haftar from illegally selling oil on the global market and not through the NOC, get the UAE and other backers to cease their shipments of arms, and back the UN Security Council’s ceasefire resolution with punitive measures against those who break the arms embargo and who abuse human rights.
Middle East expert Ethan Chorin warns that the international community may be condemning Libya into solidifying the split between east and west, LNA and GNA. Chorin blames the international actors pushing for various power-sharing agreements based on their own interests, whether halting the flow of migrants or stopping ISIS, and not necessarily finding what is best for Libyans.
Chorin explains the Berlin conference failed because the two sides to the conflict are irreconcilable, the product of faulty handling of post Gaddafi Libya that left the country vulnerable. As the US and Europe then failed to finish what they started, Turkey and Qatar rushed in to “engineer an Islamist counter-revolution”, backing the GNA.
Chorin suggests that in order to bring stability to Libya, the European powers must finish what they started: disarm Tripoli’s militias. Haftar, he says, defeated ISIS and Al-Qaeda and proceeded to consolidate power over the east and south of the country. However, the continued failure of the Europeans and Americans to play a constructive role left room for Moscow and Ankara to sweep in, and push their own interests, which include undermining the West.
As the region’s leaders are distracted by Turkey’s moves in the Mediterranean, it continues to send “planeloads” of Syrian militia fighters, many of whom are Islamists, as well as sophisticated arms to counter the LNA’s advantages.
Chorin predicts that what could result is a permanent division of Libya into Turkish-controlled West and a Russian-influenced East, something each country can live with. Both regions have energy reserves, Russia could establish a military base on the southern reaches of Europe, and both would see their regional influence rise, with Turkey solidifying its role as the patron of Islamist regimes. Meanwhile, Russia sells advanced arms to NATO Turkey, and Turkey helps Russia bypass the Ukraine and pump its gas into Europe, all in efforts to undercut the EU, NATO and the US’ influence. As this happens, Tripoli will be controlled by Islamists and Haftar will move closer to Russia and Egypt, becoming another regional strongman. In all of this, Russia and Turkey will be able to influence and pressure Europe as they see fit, through controlling the flow of migrants and terrorists into the continent.
Libya expert Emadeddin Badi writes that foreign powers such as Russia and Turkey are fuelling the Libyan civil war, and have no real interest to help the sides reach a power-sharing agreement. Despite assurances and promises made in Berlin, the UN warns that virtually all the actors supplying the warring sides with arms prior to the cease-fire efforts are still doing so. The truce has, essentially, collapsed and the conflict has become fully internationalised. Turkey’s efforts to connect its moves in the Eastern Mediterranean to Libya have now dragged Athens into the conflict, indirectly, leading the EU to becoming increasingly critical of and distant from the GNA, as France has long backed Haftar to begin with. Badi claims that due to this dynamic, Europe has lost all credibility as a mediator for the Libya crisis at a time when Europe’s involvement is crucial.
The lack of European and American commitment and consistency has allowed Turkey and Russia to step in and fill this void, while the UAE sends more arms for Haftar, working to balance Turkey’s increased efforts. Libya’s future, he writes, has really been hijacked according to Turkish, Russian and Emirati interests and not Libya’s or Europe’s.
At this time, he points out that Turkey and Russia’s interests have converged and they are pushing a cease-fire that suits their own interests, turning their military and political investments into economic and strategic gains. The UAE’s own interests must also be taken into account. We will add that this goes along with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, who prop up Haftar as a force willing to take on Islamists – ISIS, Al-Qaeda and others.
Badi suggests that what could result is some temporary stability in which the foreign powers agree to apportion Libya’s various assets, essentially spheres of influence - basically split up the country. This would grant economic contracts, energy infrastructure, naval ports and air bases to each foreign power in their part of Libya. With this possible outcome in mind, the Libya crisis will never truly be solved as the various foreign powers don’t see a need to end it, quite the opposite.
We agree with Badi’s assessment. We have written multiple times on this site that the European powers and United States, working with the UN, must take a firm lead in ending the Libya crisis. Those powers currently involved in Libya, and who are increasingly expanding their role at the expense of the European powers, must reinvest in Libya, using much stronger diplomatic and economic tools to pressure Turkey, Russia and others to cease their interference. Sanctions on those breaking the arms embargo or on those sending mercenaries would be a useful and necessary next step in this regard.
Perhaps if the fighting parties realise their international backing is going down and not up as it currently is, they would be more induced to return to the table and reach an equitable solution for all Libyans.
A feature article in the New York Times takes on the “toothless UN embargo” that allows “foreign states” to “meddle with impunity in Libya”. The article references the recently released report of an errant airstrike in July on a migrant detention centre that killed 53 civilians. However, the UN report only identified the perpetrator as a “foreign state” without specifically identifying which one. As UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salame has previously said, this risks the UN embargo becoming a “cynical joke”. The New York Times calls out the UN’s reluctance to name names as part of a bigger problem of the international community’s inability to take concerted action over Libya.
At least 6 foreign nations are currently actively involved backing one side or the other in the conflict, despite the embargo. Of these, Turkey now openly provides arms and military advisers to the GNA in Tripoli. Others provide arms, logistical supplies and even supply mercenaries.
The air strike that killed 53 is most likely from a UAE fighter plane. The UAE backs Haftar’s LNA with heavy airpower and drones, among other means. But due to the UAE’s close ties with the US and EU countries, nobody calls it out for its behaviour. Its not the only one. Russia sends mercenaries, Egypt provides logistics support, Sudan mercenaries, Jordan sends arms and France reportedly has been offering clandestine aid to Haftar for years. Turkey, the main backer for the GNA, provides arms, training and now, also thousands of Syrian mercenaries.
The fact that all these continue to supply arms and fighters to the conflict as they all sat in Berlin just two weeks ago is almost comical if it weren’t tragic. That is, since average Libyans and helpless refugees are the ones caught in the process, often paying the price. Just last week, Turkish warships were spotted off the coast of Tripoli, and over 2000 Syrian mercenaries are said to have flooded into Libya recently (we have seen reports of close to 5000 Syrians in Libya already), while the UAE reportedly sent dozens of cargo plans filled with arms for Haftar.
Salame responded by describing the various countries as “unscrupulous actors” who “cynically nod and wink toward efforts to promote peace and piously affirm their support for the UN” as they “double down on a military solution, raising the frightening spectre of a full-scale conflict and further misery for the Libyan people.” He did not specify to whom he was speaking, but we can be sure his words were especially aimed at Ankara, Moscow and Abu Dhabi.
If the Berlin process, or any diplomatic process, has a chance of surviving, the international community, with the EU countries, Arab League, African Union and the US, all working under the UN, must specifically call out and investigate those violating the embargo, to which they are all signed on to and committed.
Moreover, the UN must reopen its investigation into private military contractors, or mercenaries in other words, who have grown increasingly influential in the Libyan conflict. A UN report conducted during the summer of 2019 and released towards the end of the year called out Sudanese and Chadian militias fighting for Haftar. This was a step, although nothing was done to remove these fighters from the conflict.
Since September, Russia has thousands of mercenaries fighting for Haftar, even as it denies their presence. And, since early January, Turkey has reportedly shipped well over 2000 and growing Syrian militants to fight for the GNA.
These forces are supremely destabilising, perhaps more than any other force at this time. The UN should immediately launch a new investigation into those countries employing mercenaries, especially and including Russia and Turkey. And, unlike the current “toothless” sanctions, these must have punitive measures to make them enforceable. Otherwise, Libya risks becoming the fully internationalised and full-blown civil war we all hope it doesn’t become but fear it might.
It’s not too late, but the UN must step up.
france reasserts itself in libya: russian meddling drew the us back in, did turkish meddling draw in france?
Turkish President Erdogan and French President Macron are in a war of words and accusations over their intervention in Libya, each accusing the other of pushing the ongoing fighting and instability.
Erdogan blamed his counterpart for backing Haftar. Turkey’s foreign ministry claimed France was the “main (actor) responsible for the problems in Libya since the crisis started in 2011”. “It's no secret that this country has given unconditional support to Haftar in order to have a say regarding natural resources in Libya". The foreign ministry blamed Macron for “trying to set the agenda with fanciful claims”. It said France was helping to attack Libya’s “legitimate government” and added that ““if France wants to contribute to the decisions of the conference being applied, it should first end its support for Haftar”.
Meanwhile, Macron accused Erdogan of failing “to keep his word” to end the intervention and uphold the embargo after the Berlin conference on January 19. Speaking together with Greek prime minister Mitsotakis, Macron referenced Turkish warships spotted off the coast Tripoli, “accompanied by Syrian mercenaries arrive(ing) on Libyan soil…a serious and explicitly infringement of what was agreed upon in Berlin”.
The strained ties as of late between Paris and Ankara extend beyond the sands of Libya, into the gas fields of the eastern Mediterranean and the Syrian civil war, where Turkey has accused France of welcoming Syrian Kurds to Paris.
It seems after taking a hiatus from having an active role in Libya, France is seeking to reassert itself in the conflict and, more importantly, the diplomatic solution. Perhaps it is Turkey’s increased involvement in recent months, backing the opposing side, and even Russia’s entrance into the conflict, that awakened Paris.
What drive’s France’s interest in Libya? And why does Paris seem to back Haftar and the LNA, despite the EU’s official position to back the UN-recognised GNA in Tripoli?
Despite the EU’s more-or-less agreed upon position, France seems to follow its own, more narrow, national interests in calibrating its Libya policy. This has led to a collision of sorts with its neighbour Italy, who has taken the EU lead in backing the GNA, for its own reasons. France’s Libya calculus seems to be predicated on a mixture of a few elements: oil and energy interests, its efforts to stop Islamic extremism from reaching Europe, and its larger picture of geopolitical and economic strategic relationships. France’s ambiguous double-game in Libya goes back to 2015.
All of these happen to stand in direct contrast to Italy’s Libya calculus.
Oil and Gas
As it turns out, France’s national oil giant Total has considerable interests throughout Libya, Africa’s largest oil and gas producer. Total’s acquisitions and interests, however, lie in Haftar-held territory, while Italy’s Eni’s interests lie primarily in GNA-held territory. Thus, France’s Total recently purchased a 16% share of the Waha oil concern, at an investment of over $600 million.
Stability and Extremism
However, beyond the obvious driver of securing energy sources, Paris seems especially intent on preventing the emergence and spread of radical militant Islam in its backyard. It has especially focused on this as a foreign policy and defence priority since the major attacks in 2015 that killed over 100 in Paris. This thinking has traditionally led France to place its weight behind strongmen who can impose order, especially ones like Haftar who at least pay lip-service to secularism and take on Islamists. (Many a critic points out that within the LNA are Islamist elements and Haftar only flies the banner of taking on Islamists to curry favour with the west.) With this view in mind, the human rights and democracy of these nations takes a back-seat to preventing Islamist terrorism in France.
Thus, France is especially invested in the Sahel and out parts of the Sahara region, where it employs special forces in Niger, Chad and Mali, and in the southern parts of Libya (which Haftar controls) fighting Jihadist elements and helping support fragile governments. While never openly admitting to it, it is within this context that France has reportedly provided intelligence, technology, training and special forces to aid Haftar’s LNA in fighting Islamic extremists. French-made advance arms have been found in LNA territory.
By contrast, Italy’s top priority is stemming the flow of illegal migrants into Europe. The Libya-Italy corridor had become a common avenue in recent years. Therefore, Italy reached an agreement in 2017 with Tripoli, whereby Italy and the EU would offer military aid, naval vessels and training and Libya would help block the flow of migrants into Italy.
Geopolitics and regional alliances
When Macron took office in 2017, one of the first major foreign policy files he took on was the Libyan crisis. Almost immediately, Macron thought he could bring Sarraj and Haftar together in Paris to hammer out a power-sharing agreement. Critics have claimed he either over-estimated his charisma and diplomatic pull, or under-estimated the complexity of the crisis.
The intra-Europe rivalry between France and Italy spills over into Libya. Here, Macron can be seen as representing the liberal, welcoming European-Union ideal, while Italy’s new government can be seen as more of a nationalist conservative force. It only adds increased tension when Macron left Italy, Libya’s former colonizer, out of the meeting.
It is also important to see France’s military-economic relations with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in this context. France sells billions in advanced arms to these countries, the same countries that happen to be backing Haftar for their own interests.
Complications and Turkish Wrenches
France’s plans to maintain and increase its influence in Libya have been challenged of late. Its ongoing rivalry with Italy has jumbled and slowed the EU’s efforts. Moreover, as the EU focuses on Brexit, Libya slipped from its collective mind. Within this confusion, Russia on the LNA side and Turkey on the GNA side were able to insert themselves and become increasingly crucial to either side. As we have pointed out in previous articles, the Turkish-Russian plan seems to be to edge out other foreign powers, then push for a peace-process in which they are indispensable, thus providing them with first dibs at energy and infrastructure contracts, not to mention enhanced regional prestige.
Paris’ bet hasn’t really panned out so far. Strongmen can be risky investments, even if they provide stability in the short term, and Haftar himself is 75 and reportedly ailing, without a clear successor in place. He also hasn’t succeeded in taking Tripoli, Misrata or other major population centres as promised.
Can France reconcile its differences with Italy long enough to form a unified EU front regarding Libya? The Berlin conference seemed to be a good start. But if France and Italy seek to maintain their influence at the Libyan table, they would be wise to start cooperating, and prevent Turkey and Russia from edging them out.
Calling out Turkey’s enhanced meddling is a good start.
Turkey’s strategy in Libya should be seen as a part of its wider African strategy, according to Turkish history professor Barin Kayaoglu. Libya is not the only place where Turkey is active. Kayaoglu recalls a plan concocted by Turkey’s foreign ministry regarding Africa in 1998 that drew little attention at the time, but seems to have been adopted by Erdogan and the AK Party since. It includes spreading Turkish influence throughout Africa by means of state building, security assistance, spreading Turkish commercial connections and infrastructure and an educational network.
One success of this is Turkey having become Somalia’s “big brother”, after it helped the country overcome famine in 2011 and assisted in the reconstruction effort. Turkey today maintains its largest foreign military base in Mogadishu where it trains a significant portion of Somalia’s national military. Turkey also maintains a Red Sea port in Sudan and is active in the UN’s anti-piracy efforts around the horn of Africa.
Turkish trade with Africa stands at around $20 billion today, only a small part of its roughly $400 billion in global trade, but a massive increase from a decade ago. However Turkey maintains 4 free trade agreements in Africa and is working on securing additional ones. Even its main rival, Egypt, is also its largest trade partner on the continent, showing that Turkey knows how to juggle trade and regional rivalries rather well. The AKP, according to Kayaoglu, seems content on its African strategy as a part of Turkish overall economic and diplomatic growth. Turkey has opened a dozen embassies on the continent and Turkish Airlines has flights to every major African city and every capital. Turkey is also taking advantage of highly educated English and French speaking African migrants, and is working to change immigration laws to allow them to integrate into and boost the Turkish economy.
In many ways, Kayaoglu points out, Turkey is taking a page out of China’s global expansion playbook, which itself now has over 40 bilateral free trade agreements in Africa. Despite the many challenges to this strategy, especially given the lack of proper financial infrastructure in Africa, Turkey is moving ahead with Africa, and its Libya efforts should be seen as a part of this.
We will add that Turkey also sees Libya as a part of its previous Ottoman-era holdings, adding an element of historical and nostalgic connection.
What does this mean for Libyans? What does this mean for other international and regional powers involved? It means that Turkey's cost-benefit analysis employed as it considers its moves related to Libya are fare more entrenched and complex than other actors, perhaps. If Turkey indeed views its long-term economic and foreign affairs future in the African continent, the Libyans themselves and the Western powers involved have to carefully consider Turkey's strengths and weaknesses. Where can Turkish potential be useful? How much can Turkey be pressured to reduce its military involvement.
Such a view opens up as many questions as it does answers that the other parties involved in Libya would be wise to take into consideration as they move forward.
Two weeks ago Russian President Putin invited the heads of the two warring parties in Libya to initiate a cease-fire jointly-sponsored with Turkey ahead of the Berlin conference. This was a part of Putin’s plans to edge out the Europeans and Americans in Libya and carve out a bigger role for Russia (and Turkey) when the fighting stops. According to Bloomberg news, Putin did not take into account Haftar’s legendary stubbornness. Having sat in a waiting room in Russia’s foreign ministry, rather than receiving a presidential welcome, Haftar reportedly lost his temper, refused to sign the cease fire document and left for Amman.
Thinking he can coerce his supposed proxy into falling in line, Putin may have underestimated Haftar’s confidence and just how unpredictable the Libyan conflict as become.
Putin is said to be losing his tolerance for Haftar. According to Kirill Semyonov, a Russian expert on foreign affairs, “This won’t be forgotten by Putin…Haftar practically ran away when he was expected to sign the document. This showed a lack of respect to his hosts and is a blow to Russia’s reputation.”
Although relatively minor actors in Syria and Libya when those conflicts began, Russia and Turkey have managed to take over, or at least carve out significant roles for themselves, edging out a disinterested US and uncommitted and divided Europe. Sometimes coordinated and sometimes adversarial, the two have shown they can work together to secure their interests in a changing region. Bringing a peace deal to Libya will secure much prestige for both countries and billions in energy and reconstruction and infrastructure projects.
However these plans seem to be stalled and delayed by the various competing interests in Libya also. The Bloomberg article notes that Arab and Western diplomats familiar with Haftar and Libya are not surprised. Haftar has, time and again, shown himself to be unpredictable and often a destabilizing force, such as when he launched his move for Tripoli during a visit by the UN and ahead of scheduled peace talks.
The question is, will Putin and Erdogan allow him to get away with this? Haftar was useful to Russian interests so long he played his role and could serve as a strong leader in the midst of the chaos. However, now Haftar seems to be upending Putin and Erdogans plans – whereby the two edge out the Europeans and push for a ceasefire in which they are dominant, much as they did in Syria.
The surprising Turkish- Russian ceasefire announcement was reportedly, a surprise. The sides did not consult with the Libyans themselves, nor with the UAE, Egypt, the UN or any of the parties involved. Only later did the two work to get everyone on board, but this had little success. Most of the parties are aware of what Turkey and Russia are trying to achieve. Only the GNA and Sarraj play along due to their desperation for allies and arms. Sarraj’s backing for Turkey’s eastern-Mediterranean moves are linked to this.
Russia seems to have over-estimated its ability to influence Haftar and the conflict, for now. A few outcomes can result:
Despite the bluster and posturing in recent weeks, including pushing forth a controversial bi-lateral agreement to send troops to Libya, there are signs Erdogan actually may be seeking a diplomatic way forward rather than a military one.
Erdogan has accused Haftar of pushing the conflict and breaking the ceasefire multiple times. Most recently, Erdogan noted about Haftar “he says he agreed to a cease-fire but two days subsequent he bombed the airport. So how can we trust him?”.
Erdogan insists on continuing to support the GNA, despite the UN embargo, claiming Turkey is training the GNA’s forces only. "Our soldiers are there to assist in the training [of GNA forces]. We have a history of 500 years, and we have an invitation [from the GNA] that gives us our right," he added. Turkey’s defence minister Aktar has also noted that the main goal of Turkey’s forces is training, and that there are only a few dozen in the country. Aktar and Erdogan did not mention, of course, Turkey having sent some 2000 Syrian mercenaries to Libya in recent weeks.
Many were initially concerned that Turkey’s increased military involvement could trigger a wider regional conflict, especially with Turkey’s traditional regional rival Egypt, which happens to back rival Haftar and the LNA. Erdogan’s initial comments seemed especially bellicose, mostly his vowing to “teach Haftar a lesson” should he break the ceasefire. However, military experts, including from Turkey, have pointed out that Turkey actually has only a limited capability to send significant combat forces, given that it is 2000 km away, given the lack of Turkish allies en-route, and that its forces are already stretched thin in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, were Turkey to begin taking casualties, it would make the move even more unpopular domestically.
All this, and given Haftar’s current military superiority and Turkey’s increasing regional isolation, it only makes sense that Erdogan is quietly changing his tone from war to diplomacy. His challenge now will be to convince other regional and international powers to change their tune from backing Haftar to pressuring him. However, Erdogan might find some difficulty in achieving this challenge, showing perhaps, just how much the other regional powers are wary of growing Turkish (and Russian) influence in the region.