By Erman Atak* and Stefano Marcuzzi**
Despite the growing number of Covid-19 victims in Libya in mid-May, the civil war in the country is reaching new highs. The capital Tripoli has been under siege from the leader of eastern Libya-based self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), Khalifa Haftar, since last April, who last January sensed total victory. But now a massive counter-offensive of the Tripoli Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez al-Sarraj, has turned the tables, and the fighting is expanding both west and south of the city. This military escalation was largely the result of the policies of Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan, who are trying to master the Libya dossier. If successful, their plan might decisively overshadow Europe, hampering EU and wider Euro-Atlantic attempts at playing a meaningful role in its southern periphery.
Haftar’s offensive started on 4 April 2019 with the aim to expel GNA from Tripoli and unify the country. The latter government was recognised by the UN as the official government of Libya in early 2016, but has since then failed to stabilize the country and deliver basic services, and in the second quarter of 2019 lost the control of Fezzan to LAAF. Profound differences made the confrontation between Serraj and Haftar so far irreconcilable. In part, the dispute originates from a rivalry between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica that dates back to the Ottoman era; this is fuelled by ideological differences, as Serraj enjoys the support of some Islamist factions whereas Haftar vows to “liberate” Libya from Islamist extremism and terrorism (he nonetheless enjoys the support of some Salafi Madkhalis groups). In part, the struggle is over the distribution of the national resources, as Haftar accuses Libyan economic institutions, especially the Central Bank, of being corrupt and of favouring Islamist militias – which is not entirely unfounded – whereas GNA supporters consider Haftar simply a new Gaddafi-style dictator. To further complicate matters, both parties are multifaceted and uneasy amalgamations of militias backed by external sponsors. While GNA is supported by Turkey and Qatar, Haftar has primarily been aided by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and later by France, Russia and Saudi Arabia (KSA). In this context, former UN Special Envoy Salamé’s roadmap, involving a new constitution and elections, did not bring about a deal between the two power centres.
In April 2019, Haftar expected a swift march into Tripoli, but his advance got bogged down in a bloody stalemate. At the end of the summer, thanks to the persistence of his western militias in LAAF, like Tarhuna, the financial support of his external backers, and his airpower, Haftar regained the momentum. He brought thousands of foreign fighters and mercenaries especially from Sudan and Russia and strengthened LAAF’s firepower. In particular, Russian Wagner-Group mercenaries, battle-hardened, skilled, and equipped with modern weapons, had a significant impact. By January 2020, Haftar conquered Sirte, threatening Misrata and diverting some of its militias away from the capital, while the GNA camp also showed signs of internal fractures. Sarraj desperately looked for military support to close the gates against the tide.
2. Erdogan’s “neo-Ottomanism”
Turkey is the only country that has openly provided such support. The Turkish government, aspiring to be prominent in the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) ideology, has backed various groups in western Libya since 2014. This support has also helped the MB increase its influence on GNA. Turkish unprecedented decision to deploy forces to Libya following a swift Parliamentary approval in December was made conditional to an agreement on the partition of maritime boundaries between Tripoli and Ankara. This can be read as a Turkish reaction to the decision of Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel and Italy to exclude Turkey from hydrocarbon resources in the Eastern Mediterranean by establishing the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum in July 2019.
Erdogan’s move has also economic and domestic reasons – he wants to save around $19 billion co-investment deals in infrastructures and further benefit from Libya market and natural resources. In domestic politics, he claims to save the lives of more than one million Turkish cognates living in Libya since Ottoman times. Erdogan, who has started to lose blood with the long-standing, intensifying economic crisis, wants to exploit the nationalist emotions and create a rally-around-the-flag effect within the public by winning laurels in Libya. So far, he was successful in convincing large part of Turkish public that the Libya issue is a matter of national interest. But his agreement with Tripoli antagonised some Eastern Mediterranean countries, and offered Haftar a patriotic narrative of a “national fight for independence” against neo-Ottoman invaders.
3.Russia, the playmaker
Like Turkey, Russia wishes to re-establish commercial ties with Libya that were in place under Gaddafi and to regain geopolitical prominence in the region. Russia, however, is wise enough to maintain relations with both sides in Libya, not least because it has regional partners in both camps. Egypt and KSA – with whom Moscow has signed important energy and arms deals – are pro-Haftar; the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), has entered into co-investment deals with the sovereign wealth funds of both Qatar – a GNA supporter – and its rival UAE – Haftar’s ally.
As a result, Moscow keeps dialogue channels open with both GNA and LAAF. Inviting Serraj to the Russia-Africa Summit on 23-24th of October to represent Libya and meeting with GNA officials is an indication of this, and it allowed Moscow to sign a number of Russia-GNA commercial and energy agreements. On the other hand, Russia prints money, provides military support to and frequently meets with Haftar. To keep its leverage in both camps, Russia needs the crisis to remain hot, but in a relative balance (and the sending of six Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters, most probably an SMT or M version, and two Sukhoi SU-24M2 Fencer, is a demonstration of this balancing act). Erdogan is somewhat making Putin a service in stabilising Haftar. The Syrian precedent shows that Putin can rein Erdogan in and force him to negotiate in accordance with Russian interests. Similarly, in Libya, Putin may think that he can position Erdogan as the sponsor of the GNA, helping Russia to freeze the conflict, an ideal situation already proven in Eastern Europe and Caucasus.
This serves Russian interests by making it more difficult for the EU to exploit the oil and gas reservoirs of Libya in order to reduce its interdependence on Russian reserves. Russia has already begun to make exploration agreements in both GNA- and LAAF-controlled regions via Tatneft and Gazprom, and Moscow’s private military companies are also used to secure Russian interests in oil-abundant Cyrenaica, thus blurring the lines between private and state forces. Controlling the Libyan reservoirs will strengthen Russia’s trump card against Europe.
Furthermore, as long as the Libyan crisis continues, the problem of irregular migration, which threatens the EU domestically, cannot be solved entirely. If they can manage to de facto control Libya, Putin or Erdogan can use irregular migration as a tool, working up nationalist and anti-EU sentiment within the EU Member States, already fuelled by back-channels.
Finally, the recent problem between Turkey and Russia in Syria concerning the removal of Islamist fighters from that region, is being solved by transferring some of these to Libya. The overlap between the start of Erdogan’s discourse of troop deployment to Libya and the new offensive of Russian-Assad forces upon Idlib is indicative. Thus, Erdogan is an important ally and tool for Putin’s plans in the MENA region, and against Europe.
4. Western convulsions and the Berlin Conference
The unprecedented role of Turkey and Russia in Libya is in many ways the consequence of a disarticulated Euro-Atlantic response to the Libyan crisis. In part, this originated in the diverging agendas of some EU Member States. While officially recognizing the GNA, France began to support Haftar politically and materially (the American anti-tank missiles destined to France and found in one of Haftar’s arsenals are emblematic). This caused increasing contrasts with Italy. In turn, Italy’s prioritisation of anti-migration initiatives over proper nation-building policies has alienated many Libyan sympathies, while the engagement of many EU countries in Libya decreased once refugee crossings dropped in 2017-18. Likewise, the USA is also busy with similar expressions and warnings against increasing Russian involvement, but has been reluctant to intervene in the country since the killing of the US ambassador by Islamist groups in 2012, and has also tended to prioritise its interests in the Gulf – and its bilateral relations with KSA and UAE.
The West has so far failed to enforce the UN arms embargo – sending a message to regional and world powers that unilateralism can be pursued with impunity in Libya. The international community has also failed to de-escalate the conflict since Haftar launched his major offensive on Tripoli in April 2019, and allowed Russia and Turkey to overshadow it. This was made vividly clear by a Turkish-Russian peace initiative in Moscow on the 12-13th of January 2020, where the rest was altogether absent. Only then, and in response to the Sarraj-Erdogan deal, has the EU tried to regain lost ground convening a long-awaited and repeatedly postponed summit in Berlin on 18 January. Targeting Turkish and Russian meddling, European participants primarily focused on avoiding further violations to the UN arms embargo and called for a ceasefire, upon which all participants (including Russia and Turkey) agreed.
But the period following the Conference has seen a rapid rearmament of the competing Libyan coalitions. Emirati flights to Benina and Turkish ships to Tripoli bringing in weapons and equipment increased – in this sense, the Moscow and Berlin talks bought time for Erdogan to reinforce the GNA, including with some 7,400 Syrian fighters. Fighting on the ground kept intensifying as both parties violated the ceasefire. Until March 2020 the LAAF was enjoying air superiority over the battlefield. However, systems deployed since January 2020 have started to change the tide. It is not easy to find confirmed information on the composition of Turkish support. Apparently, Ankara started with sending Hawk missiles, ACV-30 Korkut, and HISAR-O air defence systems. In addition to a redoubled number of Bayraktar TB2 drones, it is claimed that Turkey sends ANKA-S armed drones, that have increased range and operation time, higher operational ceiling, heavier payload and better radar and targeting systems. Drone strikes inflicted substantial damage on Haftar’s forces. LAAF Pantsir air defence systems (Russian) failed to respond to these drone attacks possibly because they were confused by KORAL radar jammers. Kirpi (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armoured vehicles and two Turkish frigates providing GNA with fire support are other known Turkish military equipment used in GNA counterattacks.
At the same time, the Russians did not stay idle. Wagner mercenaries, who had remained passive in the period of mid-January Moscow peace talks, tellingly became more active again when the talks moved from Moscow to Berlin. For the first time, the presence of Russian regulars has also been confirmed. At the end of the Berlin meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that “a serious and sustainable dialogue between the Libyan parties is so far impossible because of the vast differences between them.” And Moscow might have had a say in Haftar’s tough decision to shoot down Libyan oil facilities. This not only took $1,3 million off the GNA balance sheet in less than a month (Tripoli controls the Libyan oil market through the National Oil Company), but it also favours alternative oil producers, including the UAE and Russia, in a period when oil demand worldwide is very weak.
So, Turkish and Russian actions are not smoothing the already existing difficulties in implementing Berlin terms on the ground – quite the opposite. Though supporting opposing factions in the conflict, Moscow and Ankara seem to be acting in concert. Russia has long-led the dance, though Ankara’s position has now been boosted by GNA victories: the capture of the strategic al-Watyia air-base by GNA forces on 18 May gives Turkey the opportunity to establish a permanent military presence in the area, and Erdogan apparently has already discussed this option with Serraj in a phone call the same day. A scenario where European interests and influence in Tripolitania will be largely replaced by Turkey while the same will happen in Cyrenaica to the benefit of Russia is far from fiction.
5. The EU hour or more business as usual?
The Berlin summit has failed to stop the fighting on the ground; however, it has succeeded in establishing diplomatic momentum for the EU. For a few months, the EU seemed ready to take strong action to enforce the Berlin conclusions. First, a new maritime operation, Irini, was envisaged to replace Operation Sophia (launched in 2015). Irini was tasked with enforcing the UN arms embargo. A second initiative (proposed by UK PM Boris Johnson in Berlin) was discussed – namely a multinational military deployment to enforce the internationally-agreed ceasefire. Italy initially volunteered to participate, and decided to send 500 men under Irini; Germany followed suit, announcing a 300-men deployment in support of Irini. Such idea was praised by some analysts, encouraging the EU to take the lead in a broader multinational action as a bridging initiative for a EU-UN or EU-UN-African Union peace-keeping mission, inclusive of Muslim countries. Libya experts claimed that if such an operation was deployed, and succeeded in protecting the civilian population and halting the fighting, it would be more than welcomed by most Libyans.
If there is one thing that the Libya conflict(s) have taught us is that advances, no matter how apparently rapid, shrank almost fatally into longer stalemates. Just as Haftar’s boast that he could march into Tripoli in a few days backfired badly, Erdogan’s vow to help the GNA reoccupy the whole country is wishful thinking. It is actually possible that EU policy-makers have bet on another stalemate that would make a broader role of the international community more attractive. An EU representative to the UN claimed that, although nothing can be done “as long as bombs fall,” a peacekeeping force is a possibility “when the right circumstances come.” NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg said something along those lines in a phone call with Serraj on 16 May: NATO is behind the internationally-recognised government and is ready to provide capacity-building assistance to Tripoli, if the security situation permits it. Given NATO’s cooperation agreement in place with the African Union (AU) this opens a new window for a broader international mobilisation; but not immediately.
The question then remains whether a possible future stalemate will provide another stage for Euro-Atlantic players to have a say in the crisis, or whether this Western policy of drift will only allow for greater influence of hard-power providers and users. The fundamental dichotomy between (Western) soft power and hard power has so far proved devastating for transatlantic, and especially EU interests; it has revealed the limits of the old saying that “there are no military solutions in Libya.” The reality is there are military outcomes determined by the forces committed. But the Euro-Atlantic community does not seem ready to double-down in Libya.
* Erman Atak is Analyst at Beyond the Horizon ISSG.
** Stefano Marcuzzi is Marie-Curie Fellow at the University College Dublin and Analyst at the NATO Defense College Foundation.
This article was published in parallel on The NATO Defense College Foundation website with the title “The Sultan and the Czar: Erdogan and Putin’s game-changing policies in Libya.”
 Interview with Frederic Wehrey, 14 February 2020.
 Interview with Jason Pack, 21 March 2020.
 Pack interview 21 March, 2020.
 Pack interview, 21 March 2020.
 Interview with a EU representative to the UN, 24 April 2020.