The first major war of the new scramble for Africa is being fought in Libya as big powers fight over the spoils of war.
Ever since NATO intervened to help depose Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in Oct 2011, Libya has been mired in a brutal civil war that has pitted the forces of the UN-recognised government based in the capital Tripoli against forces from the east led by military strongman General Khalifa Haftar. Nine years later Libya seems poised for partition with Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan emerging as the kingmakers.
East vs West as History Returns
Historically Libya under Ottoman rule consisted of a western region called Tripolitania and an eastern region called Cyrenaica with the desert lands to the south called Fezzan. Tripolitania was part of the Maghrib (western Arabic) world and Cyrenaica was part of Mashrek (the eastern Arabic world).
These cultural and historical divisions were largely suppressed after the Italians colonised the country in 1910. However, the political makeup of the country has always been based around loyalty to tribes, a reality which Gaddafi was able to expertly navigate throughout his long rule.
The civil war that erupted after the overthrow of Gaddafi, has seen the historical divisions between west and east re-emerge and the rise of militias that are based on tribal affiliations.
Even though the government in Tripoli is usually referred to as “UN-recognized”, the country’s elected House of Representatives sits in Tobruk in the east. The military leader in the East is military strongman General Khalifa Haftar, although many would argue that the real power in the east lies with the President of the House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh.
The current political structure comes out of the Skhirat agreement that was signed in 2015 however, the agreement was incomplete and left many key issues unresolved, especially the allocation of oil revenue.
The Warring Factions
At the time of writing, the forces of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) are camped outside the strategically important city of Sirte which is defended by forces loyal to General Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). The GNA offensive follows an all-out attempt by the LNA to take Tripoli, which ultimately proved unsuccessful.
Sirte, the birthplace of Muammar Gaddafi, is the gateway to the coastal east, where the majority of the oilfields are based as well as the huge military base at al-Jufra. Control of the city is key to control of the country’s considerable oil wealth.
Alongside the tribal militias, the makeup of both armies reflects the growing conflict between regional powers. The GNA consists of a number of Islamist militias, Syrian mercenaries and most significantly a growing number of Turkish troops. They are backed by Qatar, Italy and increasingly seem to have US support.
The LNA is made up of former Gaddafi loyalists, Sudanese and Chadian mercenaries, and they are supported by Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group. They are also backed by UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and France.
General Haftar, a former Gaddafi general who had been on the CIA payroll for decades, began his offensive to capture the whole country from his base in Benghazi. He first captured the oil fields before marching on Tripoli in April 2019. However, his offensive stalled in the outskirts of the capital.
The GNA, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, who has links to the Muslim Brotherhood, initially seemed like it would succumb to the pressure exerted by Haftar’s forces but they were rescued by a dramatic intervention by the Turkish President, Recep Erdogan, who in Dec 2019 sent in mercenaries from Northern Syria. In return, Haftar’s forces were reinforced by mercenaries from Sudan and from the Russian Private Military Company, the Wagner Group.
This tit for tat escalation led to the full-scale involvement of the Turkish military which broke Haftar’s siege of Tripoli and cemented Turkey’s position as the dominant player and backer of the GNA. Turkey has also demonstrated it’s long term backing for the GNA by signing an agreement with the GNA that gives it access to maritime oil and gas reserves.
Full Turkish military support resulted in a lightning advance by the GNA to the suburbs of Sirte where they were only stopped by when Russia sent in a force of Wagner mercenaries backed by up by Russian supplied air power. The GNA offensive had been so rapid that they had outstripped their logistic support and crucially their own artillery and armour.
The Strategic Game
Such was the alarm caused by the GNA’ rapid advance that Egypt’s President Sisi has threatened to send in the army to add to Sirte’s defence. France and Saudi Arabia denounced the GNA advance as did the UAE, however it is the Russians who are making the strategic moves.
Alongside sending mercenaries and frontline combat aircraft to halt the GNA advance, they also sent forces south to take and hold the Sharara oil fields and keep them out of Turkish hands. Along with the UAE, Egypt and other members of the alliance, they are concerned that a Turkish victory will enable the Islamists in the GNA faction to establish a new ISIS or Al Qaeda inspired beachhead in Libya, as well as putting the lucrative eastern oilfields in GNA/Turkish hands
In order to prevent this from happening, a GNA victory at Sirte must be avoided at all costs and Russia has now made the Libyan conflict a major strategic consideration. Russia’s goal seems less about achieving total victory but preventing the emergence of an Islamist state, with huge oil reserves. Such an entity would pose a real threat to Egypt, which Russia hopes to entice away from the US orbit.
As well as preventing the emergence of an Islamist state in Libya, the Russian gambit has additional benefits for Putin who, after two decades in power seems more interested in foreign policy moves than with domestic issues. Aligning with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt cements his attempt to become a power broker in the Middle East.
Russia has long sought to destabilise NATO and recent efforts have focused on trying to tempt Turkey away from the military alliance. However, the Syrian conflict has put a spotlight on the tensions that exist between the two countries. However with France backing the LNA, another route to destabilise NATO seems to be opening up, especially as tensions between France and Turkey heat up.
The rest of NATO has seemed disinterested in the outcome of the Libyan civil war until recently. The US has flipped between supporting Hafter or not. Trump even called him to congratulate him on his impending success when his forces were on the outskirts of Tripoli.
However, as the strategic game Russia is playing has become clearer, they seem to be starting to side with the GNA. The prospect of a Russian military base on the southern border of Europe seems to be concentrating minds that, until now, have been focused elsewhere.
Richard Norland, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, and Gen Stephen Townsend, the commander of Africom, the US military command centre for the continent, last week met with the GNA and said they supported a truce but appeared open to the GNA first recapturing Sirte.
Despite the seeming setback at Sirte, Turkey under Erdogan has sought to increase its influence in Africa. Perhaps prompted by the existence of Gulenist networks in Africa, President Erdogan has visited 19 African countries since the attempted coup in 2015 and has significantly increased Turkey’s diplomatic and commercial interests on the continent.
Despite the growing tensions Russia and Turkey, the fact of their presence in the Syrian conflict has meant that both sides have kept the lines of communication open. As the two major power brokers in Libya, the outlines of a deal are emerging but that deal likely means the de facto separation of Libya into the historic East and West that existed under the Ottomans.
The historic Cyrenaïca would get independence even if under some kind of federation. It would keep the oil reserves of the east and would stand a bulwark against any attempt by Islamists to move on Egypt. Russia would get lots of lucrative oil contracts as well as the strategic prize of a military base on NATO’s southern flank.
The Shahara oil fields would likely be offered to the historic Tripolitania to compensate for the loss of the eastern oil fields. Turkey would get to revive some $20bn of deals that fell through with the overthrow of Gaddafi. For Erdogan, such a move would secure support from Turkish Islamists and secular nationalists who both support the Libyan intervention, as well as being a timely distraction from internal problems.
For the African countries of the Sahel, peace in Libya could help prevent a worsening of the Islamist crisis that was triggered by the movement south of forces that had been loyal to Gaddafi. Most countries in the region fear that continued hostilities in Libya will only serve to fuel the problems they are facing.
Whilst NATO seems unable or unwilling to get too involved, it looks like Erdogan and Putin may both get their own way even if the price is a divided Libya.