Libya Becomes Latest Proxy Battle for Regional Dominance

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


The announcement last week by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi of a ceasefire initiative aimed at bringing the two sides of the conflict in Libya together has been seen by many as a positive step forward. However, it remains to be seen whether the Cairo Declaration will be able to provide some respite from the fighting between the Libyan National Army (LNA) and Libya’s Government of National Accord (NGA). Meanwhile, the declaration is a reminder of the ever-increasing complexity of the political, economic, and security environment in the country due to the growing presence and involvement of other countries, including Turkey, Russia and Egypt.

This has led The National’s Raghida Dergham to characterize the situation as the “Syrianization” of Libya, highlighting parallels between the instability and violence in Syria with what is going on in Libya. In particular, Dergham draws attention to the “multinational mercenaries and international terrorists waging battles on behalf of various groups jostling for power. There are many moving parts in the conflict, significant among them the Muslim Brotherhood project backed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who insists on imposing its ideology on the rest of the Arab world as well. Throw into the mix oil politics, human trafficking and a migrant crisis, and the conflict there has become decidedly more complex…. Turkey’s involvement in Libya – following an agreement with the Fayez Al Sarraj-led GNA – has brought the curse of Syrianization upon Libya.”

However, Turkey is not the only actor involved in Libya. Given the fragmentation of the Libyan political and security landscape, the country’s porous borders, as well as the resources up for grabs, it is not surprising that others have expressed interest in the final outcome.  Writing for Arab News, Yasar Yakis argues that, as in Syria, Russia has also become “an important player in Libya…. Russia is also opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood gaining prominence because of the Chechens who espouse the same ideology. So the Turkish-Russian cooperation in Libya will have to go through a minefield…. [But] an important stake for Turkey is the implementation of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) it agreed with Libya…. This cannot be secured without the support of a country like Russia, which has leverage on both sides. So the Turkish-Russian cooperation may be put to a new test.”

One would expect this competition between Russia and Turkey to lead to a possible hot conflict. However, as Asharq Alawsat’s Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy—a former Egyptian ambassador and senior UN official—puts it: “In Libya, while again on opposite sides, it seems that they have now decided to take their cue from their experience in Syria, including from the Astana process. They may have clashing interests, but they can still manage their differences…. Russia… is approaching matters from a strategic perspective. Its objective is to be a major, if not the major, foreign player in the field of energy in the Eastern Mediterranean. For that a foothold in Libya would be an important asset…. News about Russian military aircraft arriving in Libya is an indication that Moscow intends to adopt a higher profile to protect its interests.”

So far, Turkey appears to have gained the upper hand over others in Libya. Writing for the Daily Sabah, Turkish commentator Burhanettin Duran characterized the military assistance provided by Turkey as decisive, while leaving the door open for longer-term economic involvement: “Turkey changed the course of the Libyan civil war by providing military assistance to Tripoli. If a cease-fire enters into force, it must stand by the Libyan government to the best of its ability. Among other things, the everyday life of residents in GNA-controlled areas must be improved through investments in civilian infrastructure, including electricity and health care. Turkey must lead the effort to reform Libya’s security sector as well. Haftar must be stopped from making illegal oil deals, and a division of Libya into western and eastern parts must be prevented.”

In a recent op-ed for Gulf News, Linda Heard suggests that Turkey’s involvement will cost the GNA dearly, both in economic and political terms: “The Turkish entree, especially its air power, has altered the equation … for a price…. The GNA has handed Turkey the right to drill for oil and gas within its waters under a maritime delimitation deal signed last year which established an illegal economic maritime zone from Turkey’s southern coastline to the northeastern coast of Libya. This devilish pact has put Turkey in direct confrontation with the governments of Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, which consider the deal ‘void’ because it ‘infringes upon the sovereign rights of third states and does not comply with the law of the sea’.”

Some have pointed out that proof of Turkey’s contribution to the political and security stability of the GNA, led by Fayez Al-Sarraj can be found in the recent requests for a cease-fire on the part of the LNA. According to an Albawaba report, the urgent request came after “the western sphere of control of General Haftar’s LNA collapsed like a house of cards. On Wednesday, Turkish-backed government forces seized the international airport south of Tripoli after days of fighting…. Now the Libyan army stands on the outskirts of Sirte…. Recent comments and a press conference following the meeting of the Libyan and Turkish presidents in Ankara rather suggest that Fayez Al-Sarraj does not want to join direct peace talks with Haftar and will not enter into a ceasefire until the west of the country is entirely under his control.”

The retreat of Commander Khalifa Haftar’s LNA from Tripoli has precipitated the involvement of other regional actors, including Egypt and the UAE. Just last week, “Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi announced on Saturday a new initiative to support a political solution to the Libyan conflict, in accordance with international agreements and initiatives. The Cairo Declaration was announced at a press conference following a meeting between President Al-Sisi and Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) Commander Khalifa Haftar and Libyan Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh in Cairo. Representatives from the United Nations (UN), European Union (EU) and Arab League (AL), as well as ambassadors to several countries were present at the meeting.”

Following President Al-Sisi’s announcement, Khaleej Times staff reporters posted an official government statement announcing the UAE’s “support for an Egyptian initiative to end the civil war in Libya.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation said the UAE stands with all efforts that seek an immediate end to the fighting in Libya, and return to the political track led by the United Nations in a manner that guarantees Libya’s sovereignty from all external interference…. The UAE Ministry called on the Libyan authorities, headed by the government of reconciliation and the Libyan National Army, to respond immediately to Sisi’s initiative. The ministry explained that the political track is the only acceptable option to reach the desired stability and prosperity.”

But for Libya Observer’s Mohammad Bilgrami and other supporters of the GNA and Turkey’s involvement in the conflict, the Egyptian initiative is a case of “too little, too late” and above all a signal of the deteriorating bargaining position of the LNA vis-à-vis the internationally recognized government: “The Turkish military operation has turned the tables in Libya, Haftar and his foreign backers are now the ones calling for a ceasefire and desperately wanting to see de-escalation in military activities, while Turkey and the GNA are confident and want to clear all of Western Libya of Haftar mercenaries. Haftar appears to control most of Libya’s key oil infrastructure. However, now that his attempts to capture Tripoli have been thwarted by the Libyan government forces, he will look for ways to sabotage oil facilities or hold on to those located near Benghazi and in other eastern parts of Libya, where his militias operate more freely.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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