The Libyan Winter
Nearly a decade after the bloody downfall of Muammar al-Gaddafi, passions of a revolution that once liberated the Libyan people have eventually soured into chaos and bloodshed. Reverberating the Syrian disaster, the promises and aspirations of the Libyan revolution never came to fruition in the form of a functioning, popularly elected central government, brand new national institutions and most importantly reconciliation for war-torn people.
Today’s Libya is dramatically different than Gaddafi’s prosperous and relatively stable Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, which was characterized by economic stability and a robust central authority. Despite a great many military and diplomatic blunders under Gaddafi’s mercurial rule, Libyans, for the most part, enjoyed a considerable increase in the quality of life — largely due to the social programs funded by the revenues of the nationalized oil sector. Yet marked with immense corruption and political repression, Gaddafi’s regime never deigned to match the increase in prosperity with a free, democratic agenda and non-controversial foreign policy.
As Libyan political scientist Mansour O. El-Kikhia once said: “The rules of the game in Libya continually change, and Gaddafi’s genius is his ability to maintain and manipulate this chaos because of the survival of his regime hinges on continued turbulence.” As Libya received its fair share of the anti-government protests during the early days of the Arab Spring, little did the protestors or the intervening powers know that they were opening pandora’s box in their struggle to dismantle an atrocious dictatorship. Once the Libyan chaos broke free of its wielder, it became evident that all hell would also break loose.
Long repressed by the ancien régime, far-reaching regional disputes and social divisions swiftly resurfaced, giving way to local and foreign powers, terrorist groups and ambitious warlords to fill the power vacuum created by Gaddafi’s demise. Once seen as the remnants of a distant past and largely disregarded by Gaddafi, tribes have been the first to reinvent themselves as well as their methods, transforming into focal points of authority. In the face of a near-absent state, towns quickly followed suit by forming armed militias and dominating key areas while terrorist groups utilized ungoverned districts as bases for radicalization and organized crime. As the central government’s legitimacy diminished and one transitional government after another failed not only to build the post-Gaddafi Libya but also to merely maintain order, indecisiveness and inaction led the country to a second, irreversible breaking point in 2014.
The current Libyan conflict or the Second Libyan Civil War was sparked when a dubious, violence-stricken election took place with the intention of establishing the House of Representatives (HoR), which was supposed to replace the transitional government of the day: The General National Congress (GNC). Reflecting growing disaffection with the authorities’ utter failure to govern, a very small portion of the electorate turned out to cast their ballots amid gunfights between Islamist insurgents and security forces, yielding a turnout of a mere 18%.
The electoral debacle quickly exacerbated as various Islamist armed groups claimed that the low turnout exorbitantly favored liberal and secularist candidates for the parliament, demanding the annulment of the election and the restoration of the GNC. The Gordian knot was cut by the armed militia of the western city of Misrata, which ousted the newly elected members of the HoR in an offensive dubbed Operation Dawn, reinstating the GNC rule in Tripoli.
In a turn of fate, exiled, defenseless members of the HoR had no choice but to flee to the eastern city of Tobruk and inevitably fall under the shadow of a maverick, renegade military officer who until after the election was considered an elusive putschist with furtive links to the United States.
Enter Khalifa Haftar
A former Gaddafi loyalist, regime insider and disgraced Libyan military officer, Haftar sought refuge in the United States following a failed military campaign in Chad in 1987 which had caused him to break ties with Gaddafi. Upon his return to Libya in 2011, he began courting the large eastern tribes which would begin fueling his then-covert military machine as early as 2013, allowing him to capture Benghazi under the banner of counterterrorism and later take control of the Libyan oil crescent, which treasures Africa’s largest petroleum reserve. Capitalizing on the turmoil and earning the support of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, Haftar emerged as the dark horse of the Libyan conflict and was appointed the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) – the armed forces loyal to the elected HoR.
In late 2015, the Government of National Accord (GNA) was established by the UN in order to unify the HoR and GNC but the Tobruk-based government’s refusal to participate in the compromise government despite their initial agreement fanned Haftar’s flame, permitting him to carry on fighting. To top it all off, the ostensible futility of a political solution led Haftar to dominate the HoR, allowing him to undermine future diplomatic initiatives.
Haftar’s striking military success and rise to prominence brought about his accumulation of extensive foreign assistance from states apprehensive about the instability in Libya. As Haftar represents the archetypical, secular Arab nationalist strongman who is capable of defeating the Islamists and maintaining stability, Egypt and the UAE, in particular, view him as a bulwark against the spread of violent extremism in the region – a national security issue both Cairo and Abu Dhabi deem an existential threat to their regimes. However, Haftar derives his real strength and international legitimacy from French and Russian support he garnered successfully. France aims to stymie illegal immigration in the Mediterranean and to protect its energy interests in Libya whereas Russia intends on expanding its influence in the region by establishing a permanent military base in Libya and landing on lucrative infrastructure contracts. Understandably, both countries consider Haftar as a shortcut to their respective goals.
Under these circumstances, Haftar launched an ambitious offensive to seize Tripoli in April 2019, which was the crescendo of his crusade to make himself Libya’s next military dictator. Although he was unable to capture the capital, Haftar’s territorial gains were encircling the GNA and legitimizing his control over eastern and southern Libya until early 2020, when an unexpected development turned the tide of the conflict.
Turkey’s Gamble: The Scramble for the Mediterranean
As Turkey’s soft power focused foreign policy strategy to become the dominant regional power in the Middle East stumbled and its “zero problems with neighbors” initiative collapsed following the Arab Spring, Ankara found itself extremely isolated among flourishing energy and security schemes in the Mediterranean. Remaining in an ongoing economic crisis as well as a never-ending conflict in Syria, President Erdogan recently rolled out an even more assertive and highly militarized foreign policy that resonates with the rising nationalist fervor at home, hoping to fix the ailing Turkish economy while undermining the budding energy partnership between Egypt, Greece, Israel and Cyprus.
In November 2019, Turkey’s growing interest in Libya and its outspoken support for the UN-backed Government of National Accord culminated in an unusual maritime delimitation and military cooperation agreement, demarcating a sizable chunk of the disputed waters of the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Libya. The treaty grants Turkey with extensive drilling and exploration rights throughout the shared maritime zone, allowing Ankara to theoretically lay claim on a gas-rich portion of the sea and likely hinder natural gas exportation through the intergovernmental EastMed Pipeline project.
Erdogan’s double-barreled approach to the Libyan conflict demonstrates that the treaty was conceived through mutual desperation. Turkey possesses the military prowess to ward off Haftar’s relentless offensive while the dilapidated Libya offers much-coveted infrastructure contracts that have the potential to reanimate Turkey’s waning construction complex in addition to the maritime delimitation agreement that allows Erdogan – on paper – to fence off the Mediterranean. Evidently, the carve-up of the eastern Mediterranean waters was a precondition for Turkey’s military support and the fate of the lucrative construction deals depends on the survival if not the total victory of the GNA. To that end, shortly after the bilateral agreement, the Turkish Parliament authorized the government to send troops and military equipment to Tripoli, coming to the GNA’s rescue at a very critical time.
By transporting approximately 10,000 Syrian rebels to Tripoli under what could be best described as a “fight and travel” program in order to counter Russia’s Wagner mercenaries, Turkey has effectively exported the Syrian conflict into Libya. As Turkish frigates roamed the Libyan coasts and missile defense systems were installed in Tripoli, the balance of fighting gradually tipped in the GNA’s favor. However, the real blow to Haftar’s Tripoli offensive has been delivered by Turkish-made armed drones, which disabled a dozen Russian anti-aircraft and missile systems, providing the GNA-aligned forces with an aerial superiority. Through a series of victories, the GNA has managed to consolidate its control over western Libya, compelling Haftar to lift the siege of Tripoli and withdraw to Sirte and al-Jufra airbase.
The reversal in the balance of fighting in Libya baffled Haftar’s foreign patrons, prompting Egypt to call for a ceasefire shortly after the provisional GNA victory in Tripoli. Seizing the momentum, however, Turkey and the GNA indicated their intention to sustain the military push, with Erdogan citing Sirte and al-Jufra as the next targets of the campaign.
The western gateway to the Libyan oil crescent, Sirte is poised to become the line of defense for the Haftar camp. Upon its capture, the GNA could gain access to 60% of Libya’s hydrocarbon riches and seize a 350-kilometer coastal area stretching to Benghazi. On the other hand, al-Jufra airbase lies in a vitally central area of Libya, thereby allowing one to command the entirety of Libyan airspace upon its seizure. However, having already set its eyes on Sirte and al-Jufra as potential naval and air bases respectively, it is highly improbable for Russia to acquiesce to Turkish demands.
The Next Syria with a Chinese Twist
Involving too many local and foreign stakeholders and their clashing interests, the Libyan civil war is unlikely to resolve anytime soon. With Turkey upping the ante, Russia is further drawn into the conflict, thus opening yet another chapter in the centuries-long Russo-Turkish competition. Closing the curtain on a vicious proxy war, a more thorough Russian involvement heralds a power-sharing agreement between Moscow and Ankara – probably one that resembles their agreement in Syria.
Moreover, as the GNA’s unpredictable military success completely demolished Haftar’s prestige, even his most ardent supporters are reportedly in search of a civilian replacement to lead the cause. Paralleling with Haftar’s potential dismissal, the conflict is likely to take a rather political route in the future despite Egypt’s recent saber-rattling and the fleeting escalations in the Mediterranean between Greece and Turkey. However, Moscow is also prone to revive frozen conflicts with its famed “breath of life”, which brought the Assad regime back from the dead in 2015, reversing the outcome of the Syrian civil war.
As their regional rivalry mixed with occasional partnership heats up, both Ankara and Moscow are bent on expanding their footprint in the Mediterranean and neither has the will or military capacity to endure a full-blown war against the other. Therefore, any potential agreement conceived by Russia and Turkey is likely to preserve the status quo, which is peculiarly the most desirable outcome for an unmentioned, major behind-the-scenes actor: China.
While Turkey and Russia played wargames in Libya, China’s non-aligned interest in the conflict and its strong ties with both sides remained strictly economic. A whale among sharks, Beijing cunningly positioned itself in a way to maximize its profits from the ongoing civil war.
Reinforcing Trump’s isolationist foreign policy, the United States still observes the situation in Libya with a passive interest, which markedly increases Chinese influence in the Mediterranean. Without the US to counter its overtures, China is poised to benefit the most from the conflict unless the balance of fighting changes again.
The Libyan quagmire is on track to claim the salience of the Syrian civil war, but it also foreshadows a looming great power competition sprinkled with regional disputes.