The Libyan crisis, quo vadis?
Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean may have de-escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Libyan crisis continues to deepen. ExxonMobil, Total and ENI stopped drilling in blocks 6 and 10 due to dropping oil prices. That decision could contribute to the Turkish solution as Ankara offered to dispatch its navy and three drilling vessels to the Eastern Mediterranean for a fair distribution of local hydrocarbon reserves.
Meanwhile, in Libya, a key part of the Eastern Mediterranean equilibrium, tensions between the warring parties have been escalating. In recent days, warlord Khalifa Haftar’s forces stepped up rocket attacks on Tripoli, killing two police officers and a civilian near the Turkish and Italian embassies. The militias also shelled Mitiga International Airport to strike a civilian plane waiting for take-off.
In response to the latest developments, Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned that Ankara would consider Haftar’s forces a “legitimate target” if Turkish missions or interests in Libya came under attack. That statement reaffirmed Turkey’s commitment to actively support Libya’s U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) against Haftar and his foreign sponsors.
Turkey’s November 2019 agreements with the GNA and the resulting Turkish military support to Libya’s legitimate government tipped the balance of power in the civil war. In addition to stopping Haftar’s campaign to seize Tripoli, Ankara enabled the GNA to launch a counteroffensive. In recent weeks, Haftar’s forces lost almost all of the coastline between Tripoli and the Tunisian border. Their blockade on the Libyan capital is nearly broken. Although Haftar still controls the strategically important al-Watiya Air Base, he now faces an uphill battle. The Libyan warlord’s rush to declare himself head of state did not work either. Quite the contrary, local councils in Sabha, Murzuk, Ghat and Ubari rejected Haftar’s coup attempt and pledged allegiance to the GNA. Aguila Saleh Issa, the president of the House of Representatives in Tobruk, too, refused to endorse Haftar’s move by calling for a detailed examination of the process. He said the warlord had declared a cease-fire upon Russia’s recommendation.
The latest developments established that Haftar’s coalition in Libya is weaker than anticipated. Future military defeats may result in a loss of support from local tribes and other groups as well. Obviously, Russia, Egypt, France and Greece cannot be expected to let Haftar fail. The U.S. and European states, except France, would not wish Tripoli to fall, yet do not want the pro-Turkish GNA to control the entire country either. As the GNA forces prepare to break the blockade and take back Sirte and other provinces, Haftar’s forces plan a new offensive. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has been involved in a number of secret plots in the Middle East in recent years, desperately wants to keep the warlord on his feet. In violation of United Nations resolutions, Abu Dhabi helps Haftar sell oil extracted from LNA-controlled areas. At the same time, the country delivers weapons from around the world to Libya’s eastern provinces. Having nearly divided Yemen by intervening in the civil war there, the UAE assumes the same kind of destructive role in Libya.
Russia, too, has been in Haftar’s corner. Despite facing serious problems due to rapidly increasing COVID-19 infections and declining oil prices, Moscow continues to ignore the arms embargo and arm the Libyan warlord. Through the Wagner Group, the country deploys mercenaries to the conflict zone, as Russian military planes make deliveries to Libya’s eastern parts. According to media reports, Russian planes landed over 100 times at an airport under Haftar’s control. Experiencing problems at home, the Kremlin wants to pull off their plan in Libya to improve its reputation. To be clear, making such a move is quite easy, provided that the UAE is willing to foot the bill for military operations and weapon deliveries. Preoccupied with the upcoming presidential election, the U.S. response to Russia’s increasing engagement in Libya is deafening silence. Moving forward, critics will accuse Washington of having surrendered Libya to Moscow’s regional influence, as it did with Syria.
Destructive forces like the UAE cannot be allowed to shape Libya’s future. The international community must make fresh plans for peace.
This article was first published by Daily Sabah on May 14, 2020.