The Civil War in Libya: A Flammable Struggle for Wealth & Hegemony

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The Civil War in Libya: A Flammable Struggle for Wealth & Hegemony | By Avi Melamed


Libya is the fourth largest country in Africa. It has the largest oil reserves in Africa, and it has the ninth-largest oil reserves on the planet. The country spans over 700,000 square miles and has a population of 6.8 million people. It is a tribal and conservative society. It is comprised of two major ethnic groups – Arabs and Berbers.

Libya has two main assets that the tribes fight to control. One is oil – and particularly the “Oil Crescent,” where eighty percent of Libya’s oil reserves and most of its export terminals are located. The oil crescent is a coastal area in northern Libya. It stretches from Ras Lanuf in eastern Libya to the city of Sirte in north Libya to the inland district of Jufra in central southern Libya. Oil and gas make up roughly ninety percent of Libya’s GDP. The other Libyan “asset” is the fact that Libya is the main smuggling corridor between Africa and Europe.

Libyan Dictator, Muammar al-Gaddafi, ruled Libya for 42 years. From 1969 until he was ousted (and lynched) in October 2011. Since then, Libya has been embroiled in a Civil War in which various Libyan powers – mainly armed militias and tribes – have been fighting for power and control.

There are two major Libyan factors engaged in the war. One is the Government of National Accord (GNA). The GNA is based in Tripoli, it rules western Libya, and is led by its Prime Minister, Fayez al-Sarraj. Its military force is comprised of tribal and Islamist militias -particularly militias that are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood – the largest mass movement in Sunni Islam. On the Muslim Brotherhood’s core ideology, please click here.

The other government is the House of Representatives (HOR). The HOR is based in Tobruk in eastern Libya. The HOR’s military force is the Libyan National Army (LNA). General Haftar Khalifa leads the LNA. The NLA is made us of militias of eastern Libyan tribes, as well as Salafists (Islamists). On Militant Sunni Islam’s ideology, please click here.

In December 2015, the UN-brokered an agreement known as the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) or the Skihrat Agreement (since it was signed in Skihrat, Morocco). The goal of the negotiations was to resolve the dispute between the eastern and western seats of government. The LPA created a Presidency Council – a body tasked to form a unity government. The United Nations Security Council endorsed the agreement a few days later (UNSCR 2259).  In March 2016, a transitional government known as the Government of National Accord (GNA) was established under the leadership of Fayez al-Sarraj. The U.S., France, Germany, Italy, and the U.K. recognized the GNA as the official representative of Libya. It seemed that the Libyan crisis had come to an end. However, in April 2019, General Haftar dismissed the LPA, declared war on the LNA, and launched an assault westward to capture Tripoli and unseat Sarraj.

And since mid-2019, the fighting between the two sides has escalated.

The Libyan Civil War is fueling an evolving and flammable regional power struggle. Local and international powers are vying over hegemony and the wealth in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. I wanted to write this article to try to explain this multi-dimensional conflict, who is involved, and how the war in Libya relates to the power struggle in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Regional Power Struggle

The Civil War in Libya – like other regional conflicts in the Middle East – has also become a platform for a regional power struggle.

On one side, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE provide financial and military support to Haftar’s LNA. Reportedly, Israel is also, to a lesser extent, involved – providing the LNA with military training and the means to intercept hostile drones. Russia provides military and financial support to the LNA, and the Russian paramilitary mercenary organization—the “Wagner Group” – fights side by side with Haftar’s LNA militias on the ground. Libya is a lucrative strategic opportunity for Russia. Gas and oil deals, arms sales, and construction projects to rehabilitate Libya’s infrastructure are attractive reasons for Putin to want to engage in Libya.

Moreover, it helps Moscow secure itself in the region. Since Putin entered the war in Syria in 2015, he has focused on entrenching himself and reestablishing Russia as a superpower in the Middle East. He is in Syria and has no intention of ceding any influence there. A permanent Russian presence in Libya – including a possible naval base – would be another notch in his belt. Putin is intent on securing his place in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. To that end, Libya is perfectly positioned.

On the other side, the allies of the GNA are Qatar, who provides financial aid, and Turkey, who provides military support.

United States Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and another three United States personnel were killed in Libya in September 2012. Since then, the U.S. has become more reluctant to broaden its engagement beyond the realm of fighting terror. In the evolving power struggle between Sarraj’s GNA and Haftar’s LNA, the Trump administration has zigzagged. In April 2019, General Haftar launched a military campaign to expand his control from eastern Libya into western Libya – including trying to capture Tripoli, the seat of Sarraj’s government. In response, the United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, called for a stop in the fighting and emphasized the need for negotiations. However, shortly after, President Trump had a phone call with Haftar in which he praised Haftar for fighting terror.

The major European Union states – Germany, Italy, and France also have interests in Libya. One is Libya’s oil. And the other is the fact that Libya is African migrants gateway to Europe. In January 2020, Germany hosted a conference in an attempt to end the fighting and resume talks. The conference’s concluding statement reiterated the need to move towards an agreement based upon the December 2015 Skhirat agreement and subsequent UNSC Resolution 2259.

The Natural Gas Fields in the Eastern Basin of the Mediterranean Sea

The economic, geostrategic, and military importance of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea is underscored by the discovery of vast gas fields and the economic potential they hold for the countries in the eastern basin.

The natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean are located in the territorial waters of Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. Surveys indicate the area could hold as much as 120 trillion cubic feet – securing a sustainable supply of energy not only for the countries of the region but also for Europe. Given the magnitude of these reserves, they are a significant asset. They offer economic, geopolitical, and strategic benefits to those who control them. Some analysts estimate that given global trends, costs, and the impact of COVID-19, the Eastern Mediterranean will not be as lucrative as these countries and their investors had banked on. Nonetheless, the Eastern Mediterranean is an area of utmost importance to the states in the region as well as a potential source of explosive geopolitical tensions.

Egypt’s largest natural gas field – and the largest to date in the Eastern Mediterranean – is the Zohr gas field. Production began in January 2018. According to the Egyptian Minister of Energy, Tariq al-Mula, as of the end of 2019, Egypt has invested 11.5 billion dollars in the field. They want to increase daily production, and they are planning almost a dozen new gas projects.  In mid-February 2020, Egypt signed agreements with Shell, Chevron, B.P., Total and ExxonMobil, for deep-water exploration in the western part of Egypt’s Mediterranean zone. Egypt is counting on the fields to help address the country’s economic challenges and position Egypt as an oil hub for trading and distribution.

Israel’s largest natural gas field, the Leviathan field, began pumping gas on December 31, 2019. The Leviathan reservoir is one of the world’s largest deep-water gas discoveries of the last decade, and the largest natural gas reservoir in the Levant Basin. A portion of the gas extracted is supplied to Egypt and Jordan.

On January 2, 2020, Israel signed an agreement with Greece and Cyprus to build the Eastern Mediterranean (EastMed) pipeline. A project to connect the gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean with Greece. The deal signed between Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, paves the way for a 1,200-mile undersea natural gas pipeline from the Israeli Leviathan and Cypriot Aphrodite gas fields. That pipeline would enable the transport of natural gas from the gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

A planned project called the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) is a be a two thousand-mile long pipeline to bring natural gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe. It crosses seven countries. It includes over a dozen energy companies. The planned route will connect Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea, Georgia, Turkey, Greece, and Albania. It then crosses the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. The part of the pipeline going through Turkey is known as the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP). Turkey, Azerbaijan, and the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) and British Petroleum (B.P.) all own shares in TANAP. Turkey owns thirty percent, the Government of Azerbaijan and SOCAR own fifty-eight percent, and British Petroleum (B.P.) owns twelve percent.

The gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean and the subterranean infrastructure (which could be repurposed to carry hydrogen – a cleaner energy source) are the backdrops for the evolution of a regional axis that includes Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, and Greece. One of the significant byproducts of this axis is the expanding and comprehensive military cooperation, including joint military exercises and drills.

Against the Egypt-Israel-Cyprus-Greece axis stands Turkey.

Turkey’s Quest for Hegemony

Motivated by an ambition to reestablish the glory days of the Turkish Othman Empire, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to position himself as the leader of the Sunni Middle East. Erdogan is an Islamist. He is ideologically and politically affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. In less than two decades, he has single-handedly changed the face of Turkey from a secular democracy to an Islamist autocracy.

For Erdogan, the Eastern Mediterranean is s a critical component in his hegemonic vision.

When it comes to the gas reserves in the Eastern Med, Erdogan wants to ensure that Turkey controls the lion’s share – not the Cyprus-Egypt-Greece-Israel alliance. Erdogan’s aspirations are causing increasing tensions between Turkey and the members of the above alliance – especially with Cyprus and Egypt.

Furthermore, the TANAP project is a major strategic card for Turkey. And the planned undersea EastMed pipeline challenges Turkey’s power position. Therefore, Turkey is seeking to disrupt the six to seven-billion-dollar project. In July 2019, Turkey began drilling near the Peninsula of Karpas in Northern Cyprus. Cyprus and the E.U. demanded Turkey stop drilling in Cypriot waters. Turkey refused. Reportedly, the Turkish Navy forced an Israeli gas research ship to leave the area of Cyprus. Turkish provocations continue, including unauthorized drilling – particularly around Cyprus. On May 11, 2020, the Foreign Affairs Ministers of Egypt, UAE, Greece, Cyprus, and France condemned Turkey’s provocations. Namely, against Cyprus, Greece, and Libya in the Mediterranean Sea. And they demanded Turkey respect states sovereignty and international maritime law.

Erdogan’s ideology, ambition, and provocative policy pit Turkey on a collision course with othe regional players. Major Arab states – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE strongly resent Erdogan’s attempt to crown himself as the leader of the Sunni world. Israel decries Erdogan’s support for Hamas. And the Turkish military is fighting Assad’s forces for control of northern Syria.

Erdogan is also on a collision course with global players. His relationship with Russia in Syria is fragile. Particularly in northern Syria where the March 2020 ceasefire agreement between the two currently secures Turkey’s practical rule over areas inside north Syria. European countries are not happy with the fact that Erdogan uses Syrian refugees as a blackmail card – threatening to open the gates and flood the continent. His provocative oil drilling off the shore Cyprus and his claims on the Aegean Sea raise the tension with Cyprus, Greece, France, and Germany.

And, finally, Erdogan’s policy has resulted in growing tensions with the United States. The sides are at odds over a series of issues including Armenia, Iran, the Kurds, Syria, human rights violations, etc. and there is a general sense of mutual mistrust. Aggravated by Turkey’s moves, The United States in 2019 refused to deliver advanced F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, sanctioned senior Turkish officials, and raised tariffs on Turkish steel exports. And in late 2019, both houses of Congress passed resolutions recognizing the 1915 massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as a genocide.

Turkey and the War in Libya

Erdogan identified Libya as a significant card in the service of his hegemonic vision. And thus, he inserted himself into the Libyan Civil War from its early phase, through providing military support and training to the Sarraj government and the Muslim Brotherhood militias in Western Libya.

Over time, Turkey’s involvement in the war has deepened. Turkey gives the GNA weapons and provides them with tactical intelligence. Erdogan avoids sending Turkish troops to Libya but instead has opted to send proxy militias. Turkey has sent hundreds of Syrian and non-Syrian militants to fight in Libya.

In November 2019, Turkey signed an agreement with Sarraj’s GNA government. The Salajka Agreement marked the maritime borders between Turkey and Libya and gave Turkey a naval base in Libya. This agreement is also an attempt for Turkey to claim drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In response, Libya’s Eastern Parliament, led by Haftar, denounced the agreement describing it as a “flagrant breach” of the country’s security and sovereignty.

In mid-December 2019, Sarraj asked Turkey for air protection, military training, and intelligence.

At the beginning of 2020, it seemed Haftar’s government had gained momentum in its battle westward.  In January 2020, the LNA occupied the central coastal city of Sirte, which is roughly halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi. But Turkey’s growing military involvement in the war turned the tide.

On May 11, 2020, the foreign ministers of Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, and the UAE made a joint statement. They said the agreement was “illegal” and demanded Turkey’s end its provocations in the Mediterranean Sea.

On May 18, 2020, assisted by Turkish attack drones and the Turkish Navy, Sarraj’s GNA forces seized control of the Al-Watiya airbase on the southwest outskirts of Tripoli.

As of June 2020, Turkey and GNA have the momentum on the ground. As of now, Haftar’s forces have retreated from the outskirts of Tripoli. The GNA forces have secured their control of western Libya. And they are reportedly preparing to launch an offensive to resume control over the city of Sirte that they controlled until January 2020.

Egypt is increasingly getting irked by Turkey’s growing foothold in Libya. Therefore, on June 6, Egypt’s President proposed a peace plan, “the Cairo Initiative,” to end the war. It included a ceasefire, removing foreign militants from Libya, and moving forward with the 2015 Accords. Egypt’s initiative was welcomed and endorsed by the international community, including Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. General Haftar accepted Cairo’s proposal. But the GNA and Turkey rejected Al-Sisi’s initiative. Reportedly, Turkey and the GNA demand to restore control over Sirte before resuming negotiations.

The fact that Sarraj and Turkey refused Egypt’s proposal prompted Al-Sisi to make an official announcement. On June 20, 2020, during a visit to an Egyptian airbase near the Libyan border, and in the presence of leaders of Libya’s Eastern tribes, the President of Egypt said the following: “Occupying the area stretching from Sirte to Jufra is a red line that Egypt will not allow to be crossed.” Addressing the military personnel al-Sisi also said, “Be prepared to carry out any mission, here inside our borders.”  In response, al-Sarraj announced that al-Sisi “has declared war on Libya.”

Will the war in Libya Ignite a Turkish – Egyptian Military Confrontation in the Mediterranean Sea?

Turkey’s increasingly bellicose behavior over the past two months has heightened tensions between Turkey and Egypt.

However, in my evaluation, a military collision between the two big Sunni powers is improbable. Instead, I see this evolution as opening the door for a possible arrangement to pause the hostilities in Libya.

As of June 2020, all the regional players involved in the war have good reasons to look for an arrangement and avoid further escalation.

First, let us look at Turkey. The GNA’s achievements offer Erdogan important rewards. Erdogan could secure a Turkish foothold in Libya – including a military presence. This would be a significant step in securing a base for Ankara in North Africa. Beyond Libya itself – Erdogan looks at the two Arab countries west of Libya – Tunisia, which borders Libya and its neighbor, Algeria. These are potential allies for Erdogan because Muslim Brotherhood parties are the central players in those two countries. These are excellent reasons for Erdogan to entrench himself in Libya further.

On the other hand, a protracted military engagement in Libya could reverse Erdogan’s achievements. General Haftar has already called on Libyans to fight against the “Turkish Imperialist Invasion mercilessly”. Furthermore, and perhaps more critical to Erdogan’s broader interests – staying in Libya could put Turkey on a collision course with Russia, who supports Haftar. Indeed, in June 2020, following the military momentum of GNA forces, Putin sent a strong signal to Turkey that Moscow was not happy with Erdogan. To strengthen Haftar, Russia supplied the NLA with eight Russian jet fighters. And the NLA Air Force Commander, Saqr al-Joroushi, said that “all Turkish targets are legitimate targets” for their fighter jets.”  Erdogan remembers that aggravating the Russian bear is dangerous. On November 24, 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian Jet arguing it had infiltrated Turkey’s territory. Putin retaliated with economic and trade sanctions, including suspending gas delivery to Turkey. Following that incident, Erdogan had to go to Moscow to make a personal plea to Putin.

As I always say, everything in the Middle East is connected. Nothing stands alone. When it comes to Turkey in Libya, it is essential to consider that Erdogan signed a ceasefire agreement with Russia in March 2020 in northern Syria. That agreement is critical to preserving Erdogan’s control of the Syrian-Turkish border. Erdogan knows that stepping on Putin’s foot in Libya would be counterproductive – and dangerous. Because it could boomerang on him in northern Syria – an area of utmost strategic importance for Turkey.

Now let us look at Haftar’s supporters – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

Egypt is embroiled in an escalating conflict with Ethiopia. A decade of failed negotiations about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project has now escalated into threats of war from both sides. In parallel, Egypt is struggling with its perennial significant economic and social challenges. And President al-Sisi is focused on addressing those domestic challenges. Egypt shares a 700-mile-long wide-open border with Libya. The instability in Libya provides fertile ground for ISIS and other militant Islamic groups. They are using Libya as a base to launch terror attacks on Egypt and Europe. The terror base in Libya and the free flow of terrorists, militants, and weapons unabated from Libya crossing Egypt is a major security threat for Egypt. Therefore, stability in Libya is Egypt’s interest.

Since 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi Shi’ite tribes in Yemen. That war consumes considerable resources. The end of the war is nowhere in sight. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi share a common interest in fighting the Houthis to ensure Iran does not control Yemen. The war in Yemen, the dangers and instabilities from the Red Sea to the Arabian Gulf, plummeting oil prices, which are the primary revenue sources for Saudi Arabia and the UAE – together with the challenges of COVID-19 – exacerbate the problems of these two Sunni powers.

So currently, Haftar’s regional supporters – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE prefer to save the money and energy they invest in Libya and instead focus on their most urgent domestic and regional challenges.

Another major supporter of Haftar – Russia, has no interest in the continued escalation of conflict in Libya. Al-Sisi’s June 20 statement came from an Egyptian-Russian understanding that it’s time to go back to the negotiations table. And if that wasn’t clear enough – on June 26, Russia sent another message to GNA. The Russian Mercenary para militia, the “Wagner Group,” entered Libya’s biggest oil field – the Sharara oil field in eastern Libya, which is controlled by Haftar’s forces. The militias entered and stopped work in Libya’s largest oil field, which produces more than 300,000 barrels a day of crude oil accounts for about one-third of the country’s production.

It seems that General Haftar will pay the price for his failure. In early June, Anwar al-Karkash, the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, criticized Haftar. He said that his unilateral steps to secure himself as the ruler of Libya were a mistake. According to unverified reports – Haftar is currently detained in Egypt.

A possible pause in the fighting will likely result in a temporary ceasefire. However, given the combination of Libya’s complex tribal fabric, its enormous wealth, ethnic diversity, conflicting interests, and the plethora of weapons, it is more likely Libya will continue to experience constant instability. Speaking at the Fourth Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate (November 2017) Libya’s late Prime Minister, Mahmoud Jibril who was the Prime Minister of Libya’s transitional government (March to November 2011) said this about Libya:  “There are 1,600 militias in Libya, 300 million firearms, and inconceivable corruption“.

Libya, an already complicated environment, is further fueled by the escalating and flammable power struggle over hegemony and wealth in the Central and Eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea. As Libya becomes part and parcel of this evolving regional and global power struggle, its strategic importance will only increase.

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Avi Melamed
Avi Melamed
Avi Melamed is an expert on current affairs in the Arab & Muslim World and their impact on Israel & the Middle East. A former Israeli Intelligence Official & Senior Official on Arab Affairs, Fluent in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, he has held high-risk Government, Senior Advisory, Intelligence & Counter-Terrorist intelligence positions in Arab cities & communities - often in very sensitive times - on behalf of Israeli Government agencies. He is the Founder & CEO of Inside the Middle East | Intelligence Perspectives - an apolitical non-partisan curriculum using intelligence methodology to examine the Middle East. As an Author, Educator, Expert, and Strategic Intelligence Analyst, Avi provides Intelligence Analysis, Briefings, and Geopolitical Tours to diplomats, Israeli and foreign policymakers, global media outlets, and a wide variety of international businesses, organizations, and private clients on a range of Israel and Middle East Affairs.

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