Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 26 September 2020

The Libyan puzzle is cursed by contradictions despite calls for ceasefire

Russia, Egypt and France all object to Turkey's intervention, but the prospect of a three-way deal is riddled with complications

Members of the Libyan National Army special forces gather in the city of Benghazi. AFP
Members of the Libyan National Army special forces gather in the city of Benghazi. AFP

International positions vis-a-vis Libya are riddled with contradictions. The overall picture is complicated by a number of local, regional and international entanglements in the conflict there. There are competing strategic and economic interests. To make matters worse, the players involved are at a tactical impasse with each other and victory for any side is impossible at this stage. Libya then could remain fragmented for a long time without any light visible at the end of the tunnel.

The war-torn North African country has become an even bigger priority for many global and regional powers, particularly Russia and Turkey, even as the Syrian civil war has receded in importance. For its part, Egypt is walking a tight rope as the events in its neighbourhood pose a security threat to Cairo.

Meanwhile US policy in Libya, particularly its position on the role of fellow Nato member Turkey in that country, is incoherent. At times, it is determined by the warmth in the relationship between US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On other occasions, it is a victim of a lack of commitment from the Trump administration. Lest we forget, it was the preceding Obama administration that got Libya into the mess that it finds itself in, when it helped topple Muammar Qaddafi in partnership with France and with cover from Nato. Worse, it then ignored Libya’s need for capacity-building necessary to transition into a new government.

Vladimir Putin's Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey are on opposite sides in both Syria and Libya. AP Photo
Vladimir Putin's Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey are on opposite sides in both Syria and Libya. AP Photo

In its annual report, the US State Department said that Turkey remains a crossing point for extremists headed to Syria and Iraq. Yet it ignores Ankara’s role in shipping extremists and terrorists from Syria to Libya. Indeed, it appears that the Trump administration supports Turkey’s intervention in Libya, even though its allies in the Gulf, plus Egypt, sound the alarm over the dangers.

Washington sees this conflict through the lens of its strategic competition with Russia. It believes that Moscow seeks to control an oil-rich nation that is just across the Mediterranean Sea from Europe and is a key anchor of stability in North Africa. Accurate as this assertion may be, its calculations vis-a-vis Ankara’s ambitions are too narrow. After all, Mr Erdogan seems to be on a mission to establish the Muslim Brotherhood in the region.

A US military intervention is highly unlikely given the Trump administration's current preoccupations, including the Covid-19 pandemic, the nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd in police custody and, of course, the presidential elections in November.

This then presents Russia with a window of opportunity to make further gains.

So far, it has been careful not to get into a military confrontation with Turkey. I have previously written that the question of how to tackle Ankara has been a point of disagreement in Moscow between the civilian leadership and the military brass – the latter being keen on flexing its muscles. Ankara, too, does not seek to confront Moscow as it realises its military capabilities are limited. For both powers, after all, Libya is not in their backyard and neither wants to begin an adventure that could prove costly and dangerous.

The Russian strategy has so far been to provide military support to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, which is based in the east and is opposed to the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord, situated in the capital Tripoli.

It has also sought Egypt's help and expanded its military co-operation with Cairo. Such an arrangement is not without its complications due in large part to Cairo's ties to Washington and its reticence to enter a confrontation with Ankara. And yet, Egypt has little option but to help bring peace to Libya. As Nasser Judeh, Jordan's former deputy prime minister, told me during our e-policy circle discussion at the Beirut Institute Summit in Abu Dhabi, the issue is an existential one for Egypt.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, centre, with Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, right, and the Libyan Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh in Cairo. AFP
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, centre, with Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, right, and the Libyan Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh in Cairo. AFP

That leaves the other major player in the conflict, which is France. Paris is also opposed to Ankara's dangerous game, even though they are fellow Nato members. It, therefore, also finds itself in a quandary over whether to co-operate with Moscow, even if the two governments have called for ceasefire. In the eyes of the French, Russia has not concealed its determination to play a role in Libya's future, neither has it forgotten its exclusion by the West over the exact same question nearly 10 years ago, following the ousting of Qaddafi.

Christophe Farnaud, head of the Middle East and North Africa department at the French foreign ministry, summed it up best when he suggested that the conflict in Libya had spiralled out of the Libyan people's control. “The last months have seen a clear escalation – and that escalation is not just due to the Libyan themselves, it is due as well to the growing interference by foreign powers."

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute

Updated: June 27, 2020 06:08 PM

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