By Hashim Abid*
A lot has happened in Libya since 2011 and much has been said in regards to who is winning in Libya. Some assert Russia has the upper hand others argue that currently, Turkey is winning due to the country’s significant gains in Libya. However, the situation is not always as it seems. The reality is that Libya is not Turkey’s or Russia’s fight, and the same goes for the so-called independent states like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Instead, it is a conflict between Europe and America, and it seems America is for the taking.
After the so-called period of European decolonization powers like UK and France have been able to exercise their indirect influence within the Maghreb region and maintain it as much as they can since it has been difficult due Americas’ rise from the ashes of post-World War II. After Italy, Britain established its political influence in the country where Al Qadhafi was a Pro-British dictator until his humiliating fall in 2011. As for France, it has maintained only commercial interests in Libya, which are regarding oil. Italy also holds oil interests in Libya. However, Italy is too weak; therefore, its role remains insignificant within Libya. In 2011, after Qadhafi’s fall, Libya entered into an ongoing conflict between the UK, France and America since the instability allowed the U.S to enter the country and establish its political foothold.
In 2015, the Government of National Accord (GNA) was established which, is led by Al Sarraj and is recognized by the U.N security council as a legitimate government. The GNA is European backed government; thus, its allegiance is to the European powers, especially powers like France and Britain who maintain the highest stake within Libya. Last year, GNA’s military advances received significant European support, and this year’s Al Sarraj’s tour to Europe for seeking support against the LNA indicates that GNA possesses an intimate relationship with European powers.
Since Trump’s arrival to the White House, the U.S policy towards Europe has remained confrontational and has resulted in fracturing the relationship between America and Europe. The Trump Administration over the last three years is determined to increase the burden on its European allies in regards to NATO and slap tariffs on EU goods. The truth behind the U.S policy is that America aims to weaken Europe by hampering its security and prosperity. But an independent Europe, which carries more burden on its shoulders without freeriding on U.S benefits would not be an ally of the U.S anymore; instead, it would become an adversary. Henceforth, to keep Europe under America’s hegemony and simultaneously enforce responsibility and American demands upon Europe, the U.S is determined to take on Libya- one of Europe’s vital energy sources.
The Libyan National Army (LNA) is a coalition of militias, tribal leaders and military personnel, which is led by general Haftar a CIA asset. Thus, the LNA is American backed where Haftar’s political allegiance remains towards the U.S since Haftar has spent two decades in the U.S and was also a former U.S intelligence partner. However, France has also supported the LNA, which is due to France playing a double game to counter its European counterparts who support the GNA. Reason being, France desires to hamper other European countries’ oil interests within Libya while surging its oil access, which is associated with its oil company-Total. The French greed for energy was highlighted in 2011, where the Guardian published a paper named ‘France and Britain race for oil in Libya’. In January 2019, Italian Prime Minister Matteo stated, “In Libya, France has no interest in stabilising the situation, probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy.” Thus, this illustrates that France is backing both sides to achieve its sole interests on one side it wants to prevent the U.S from taking over the country, on the other hand, it also intends to double time its European partners.
As for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE have no independent political objectives regarding Libya; instead, their objectives revolve around America’s foreign policy. These countries are severely weak, and neither possess the might or the political will to achieve anything on a large scale. Furthermore, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are Pro-American regimes.
Turkey and Russia are interesting players, which have added a lot of complexity for many analysts regarding the Libyan conflict. The reality is the Turkey and Russia are in Libya to aid America’s political solution and undermine the Europeans. Likewise, Russia and Turkey have also been aiding U.S interest in Syria therefore, the patterns in Libya are remarkably similar to the Syrian conflict. Russia has never possessed a political objective in regards to Libya. Neither Libya benefits Russia’s geopolitical concerns, which are situated in the Caucasus, Ukraine and the Balkans. Therefore, Russia’s presence makes more of a psychological sense than a strategic sense, which can be seen through Russia’s support for Haftar because Russia’s backing only consists of military equipment and mercenaries. However, there is no political objective of its own that Russia seeks to implement. War is a means of politics, but Russia does not seem to hold any political aspirations.
Turkey, on the other hand, is also another pro-American regime that is aiding the U.S in achieving its political objectives in Libya but also to protect Turkish interests concerning energy and maritime security. American policy for Libya is carrying out a successful political transition to gain and wield political influence within the country and consequently remove European influence especially, major players like the UK and France. Recently, Mike Pompeo stated, “the mission set remains the same: To get the fighting to stop, to reduce the flow of arms flowing from any place, whether that’s from the Turks, from the Russians, from anyone, to reduce the footprint of the military conflict, and then to find a political solution to resolve, to get a stable, peaceful situation in Tripoli and in Libya more broadly”. For many years U.S diplomats have emphasized the need for a political solution within Libya, but U.S actions have failed to convince or compel the Libyans. Thus, the U.S has used Russia and Turkey to aid the U.S interests by becoming the main culprits for escalating the conflict between the GNA and the LNA. Russia has used Haftar-American asset-to create fear within Al Sarraj’s GNA, and simultaneously, Turkey has provided support to the GNA in overcoming Haftar’s military advances and in regaining most of the territory in Libya. Thus, the U.S has utilized both sides to undermine the European influence in the country.
The rift between the Europeans and the Americans within Libya is further highlighted by a European diplomat who told Al-Ahram Weekly that the signs are not encouraging, with the US and the EU still in disagreement regarding the new UN envoy to Libya. “America wants to appoint two UN peace envoys: one working in Libya with local actors, and the other working outside Libya with regional and international actors. The EU and the UN do not understand why this division is needed, or what is the wisdom of it,” the diplomat told the Weekly. The EU has threatened sanctions upon Turkey for the constant breaking of the arms embargo, but the U.S, on the other hand, has the hailed Turkish intervention, which demonstrates the conflict between America and Europe in regards to Libya. Also, the US believes that the Turkish presence in Libya can help the country regain its Sovereignty since Turkish intervention has created the opportunity for a political solution to take place in Libya, which is what the US desires. Furthermore, the arms embargo by the Europeans via the UN keeps being broken by Turkey where the US mostly remains silent upon.
Turkey has played the most critical role since it helped the GNA attain a huge victory, which would not have been possible without Turkish backing. Thus, GNA’s victory has also helped Turkey gain leverage upon the GNA to bring it to the negotiating table for a political solution on U.S terms. And if Al Sarraj for any reason were to resist, then Turkey would threaten to reduce its support for the GNA by letting the LNA prevail over the country. Though, Turkey, for now, has been successful in undermining the Europeans by gaining leverage upon Al Sarraj and in bringing him to the negotiating table to help the U.S in achieving its political objectives.
Last month, Erdogan stated that he had reached favourable conditions regarding Libya with his counterpart Donald Trump. Erdogan said, “After our talks on the transition process in Libya, a new era can begin between Turkey and the U.S.” Besides Turkish assistance to America, Russia has also aided the U.S by supporting U.S asset- Khalifa Haftar- to build a favourable atmosphere so the political solution can take place with the GNA on U.S terms. Likewise, Russia is also working for an immediate cease-fire in Libya with Turkey, which illustrates that both countries are aiding the U.S plan for Libya just like in Syria. During the same month, even Egypt had declared a ceasefire. It is strange that the escalating conflict all of a sudden had been neutralized, and that both sides were willing to lay down their arms and reach for a truce by bringing both sides- LNA and the GNA- to form a new government.
In conclusion, the US will bring both sides of the government the LNA and GNA by utilizing its dependents in the Middle East like Egypt, Turkey, and also its temporary-independent- ally Russia to establish a new government. A new government will, by default undermine the existing Europeans designs and structure of the GNA. Egypt’s intervention in Libya is a deception rather than a commitment to the conflict within Libya. Egypt’s primary role is to support U.S policy of escalating the conflict, hence, creating a vital need for the political solution where both sides the government can come together and form a new Libyan government. Egypt cannot afford to go in conflict with Turkey since the country’s military capabilities are inferior in comparison to Turkey, therefore, Egypt’s role is similar to Russia’s and Turkey’s- aiding U.S interests.
Russia, although it is an independent power; nevertheless, it is in a quagmire since the U.S brought Russia into Syria. The only objective Russia has possessed in the region is to look powerful. Thus, the U.S has exploited Russia’s imperative of looking powerful and has gained leverage on Russia by placing it in a region, where Russia has no influence. Russia’s actual geopolitical interest lies in Ukraine and the Caucasus, not in the Middle East. Thus, the U.S has entrapped Russia with the ongoing issues in the Middle East, where it fails to exit the region successfully. The problems with Russia is that it has no political objectives in the Middle East and neither it possesses enough land power to place in the Middle Eastern region. Thus, this is why Russia has been aiding Haftar through mercenaries because Russia’s main geopolitical imperatives are situated in its region, which requires a vital presence of Russian land power and not in the Middle East. For now, Russia is stuck in the region until it can reach a deal with the U.S.
Egypt: on the other hand, will return to its den after playing its part for the U.S since it is highly subordinate to the U.S and an economically dependent country can never be politically independent. As for Turkey, the U.S would come to some agreement in the foreseeable future where Turkey’s maritime security and energy concerns would be accommodated within Libya, which would also help the U.S put more pressure to other surrounding countries and aid its interests in the future. .However, such accommodation with Turkey remains to be seen since the U.S is not keen on sharing the region with any power either weak or strong. In the end, if the situation proceeds without any European disruptions the U.S, without doubt, would end up in the most dominant position within Libya, where it will possess the capability to wield its political influence within Libya. The U.S would likewise end up throwing more weight upon Europe after taking Libya- one of the European countries’ vital energy sources. Lastly, if things do go as planned, then the U.S would then be able to project a substantial amount of power on the neighbouring regions in the Maghreb to boost out pro-UK and French regimes. This would give the U.S the complete freedom and the ability to shape the region into a version, which would vary from the post-Sykes-Picot drawings.
*Hashim Abid is an independent political analyst and researcher. BSc International Relations, University of London LSE