The Eastern Mediterranean: The Civil War in Libya & Turkish-Egyptian Tensions Deepen
An update to my article on Zoom-In on the Middle East | December 15, 2019, In this short article, I would like to focus on Turkey’s involvement in the war in Libya.
The Civil War in Libya began in 2011 following the ousting of Libyan Dictator, Muammar al-Gaddafi, in October of that year. Since then, various Libyan factors have been fighting for power and control. Since 2015, Libya has been divided between two competing governments. Each government claims it is the true representative of the Libyan people, and each government has its own parliament, ministers, militias, and military forces. One government is in Benghazi. This is called the Eastern Parliament; it is nationalist, anti-Islamist, and “secular.” It is led by Commander Khalifa Haftar and its military force is the National Libyan Army (NLA). One government the Islamist government in Tripoli. This is called the Western Parliament; it is Islamist. It is led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and is known as the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA).
The Civil War has also become a platform for a regional power struggle. Haftar’s government is endorsed by the current United States administration. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE provide financial and military support. Reportedly, the Russian paramilitary mercenary organization – the “Wagner Group” also assists Haftar’s forces. Sarraj’s government is supported by the United Nations. Qatar provides financial support, and Turkey provides militarily support. In April 2019 the National Libyan Army (NLA) led by Khalifa Haftar launched a military offensive to take over Tripoli. Feeling the assault was giving the NLA the upper hand, Prime Minster Sarraj turned to his military patron Turkey and asked Erdogan to increase Turkey’s military support and become more actively engaged in the battle against the Haftar government. In mid-December, Sarraj asked Turkey for air protection, military training, and intelligence. On January 2nd, the Turkish Parliament approved Erdogan’s request to send Turkish military forces to Libya. Reports indicate that, thus far, Turkey (even before January 2nd) has sent hundreds of militants who belong to radical Islamic organizations that are supported by Turkey – including Al Qaida – from northern Syria to Libya.
Haftar’s government is endorsed by the current United States administration. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE provide financial and military support. Reportedly, the Russian paramilitary mercenary organization – the “Wagner Group” also assists Haftar’s forces. Sarraj’s government is supported by the United Nations. Qatar provides financial support, and Turkey provides militarily support
The natural gas reserves in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea are in the territorial waters of Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. These reserves offer enormous economic, geopolitical, and strategic benefits to those who control them. And are, therefore, an issue of utmost importance to the states in the region. Israel’s offshore Leviathan field started pumping gas on December 31st, 2019. On January 2nd Israel signed an agreement with Greece and Cyprus for the East-Med energy project. The deal paves the way for an undersea natural gas pipeline from Israel to Greece via Cyprus and Crete that could begin to stream gas from Israel to Europe. Israel already supplies gas to Jordan and Egypt. Egypt’s gas fields – yet to be extracted – are estimated to be the largest. Erdogan wants to ensure that Turkey, not the Israel – Greece – Cyprus – Egypt alliance, controls most of the fields in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean.
In November 2019, Turkey signed an agreement with the Libyan Sarraj government. The Salajka Agreement marked the maritime borders between Turkey and Libya and gave Turkey a naval Base in Libya. Libya’s Eastern Parliament (the government run by Haftar) denounced the agreement describing it as a “flagrant breach” of the country’s security and sovereignty.
Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has long aspired to be the leader of the Sunni Muslim world. To that end, Erdogan tries to position himself as the patron for political Islamist organizations in the Middle East – and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Creating an alliance with the Sarraj government – which is Islamist – helps Erdogan’s towards that end.
Libya is the central gateway for migration from Africa to Europe. One strategy Erdogan uses to pressure Europe to comply with his demands is threatening to open the gates and flood Europe with the millions of Syrian refugees living in Turkey. Gaining a foothold in Libya would allow Erdogan to control the flow of migration from Africa. Another “refugee card” would be a useful tool to help him further his own agenda.
On December 25th, Erdogan, his Defense Minister, and the head of the Turkish Intelligence Services arrived in Tunisia, which borders Libya to the west. They met with Tunisia’s new President, Kais Saied, who took office on October 23rd, 2019. Apparently, the purpose of the meeting was to get Tunisia to officially take Turkey’s side in the Libyan Civil War and to allow Turkey to use Tunisia as a logistical military base. Saied – whose win in the September elections was a significant surprise, is a conservative, supported by Ennahda, the Islamist political party in Tunisia, and is known for his intense hostility towards Israel. Thus, Saied has the potential to be a natural and advantageous ally for Erdogan. However, for the time being, Saied’s response to Erdogan’s request has been vague. A spokesperson for the President announced that the reports about Tunisian-Turkish cooperation vis-a-vis the war in Libya were “inaccurate” and stem from a “misunderstanding.” Saied’s evasive position can be attributed to the fact Tunisian public objects to the cooperation. Tunisia has its own political and economic problems. The people of Tunisia have no interest in being dragged into the Libyan mud.
Egypt & Turkey:
Turkey’s interests in the Mediterranean basin, Erdogan’s hegemonic ambitions to “revive the Ottoman Empire,” his relentless goal to achieve the status of “the leader of the Muslim Sunni world” and his support for the Muslim Brotherhood – defined by Egypt as a terror entity, put these traditional adversaries at odds from time to time. And even lead to direct quite “undiplomatic and impolite” confrontations between Erdogan and the Egyptian President Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi.
Given Turkey’s move to directly insert itself in the war in Libya, Egypt requested an emergency meeting of the Arab League. On December 31, the Council of the Arab League met in Cairo. Following the meeting, the Arab League made an official statement condemning Turkey’s involvement and demanding an end to any external participation in Libyan affairs. They also emphasized the need to reach a political arrangement in Libya based upon the Skhirat Agreement. The accord that was signed by the sides in December 2015 committing the two rival governments to form a national unity government.
Earlier this week, the Foreign Ministers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia both issued statements condemning the Turkish Parliament’s January 2nd decision to approve Erdogan’s request to send Turkish troops to Libya. Both countries stressed that the move violates international law and hampers efforts to resolve the Libyan conflict. The Egyptians said the contract Erdogan signed with Sarraj is illegal because it violates Article 8 of the Skhirat Agreement, which states that one Libyan government cannot sign a unilateral agreement without the consent of the other Libyan political parties.
In addition to its diplomatic communication, Egypt is sending a military signal. On January 4th, the Egyptian navy carried out a large-scale complex amphibious exercise in the Mediterranean Sea. In that context one should note that under Al-Sisi’s rule, Egypt is significantly expanding its military offensive and defensive capacities – and particularly its Navy.
Assessment and Prediction:
On January 6th, Haftar’s NLA announced it had taken over the city of Sirte, located on the shores of the Gulf of Sidra, between Tripoli and Benghazi. On January 8th Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Erdogan met in Istanbul. Following their talks, they made a joint statement calling for an immediate cease-fire in Libya. The timing of the joint statement, just two days after Haftar’s announcement, reflects the fact that Turkey understands it now has the weaker hand, and it wants Russia (who supports the Haftar government and opposes Turkey’s involvement in the war in Libya) to intervene to help bring about a cease-fire.
The odds for an immediate cease-fire are poor. Here is an update from the original post on January 10th: Though both NLA and GA announced yesterday (January 11th) that they are willing to have a cease-fire, one should doubt if it will materialize.
In my analysis, it is unlikely that Turkey will send Turkish armed forces into Libya or that Turkish planes will launch airstrikes to preserve the Sarraj government. However, I do expect Turkey will continue to support the Sarraj government both militarily and politically. This will further the friction between Turkey and Egypt. Though it is unlikely that the war in Libya will result in a military conflict between Turkey and Egypt, the continuing tension between the two largest Sunni Muslim countries in the Middle East does have the potential to escalate. Potential flashpoints could be Turkish attempts to transfer advanced weapons to Libya, or Egypt arresting a Turkish ship carrying arms to Libya.
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