This is an important explanation of the complex, but under-reported situation unfolding in Libya, that could change the geopolitics of North Africa, as well as offering Russia and the United States North African bases.
By George Joffé
The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux, soon they will settle again”.
Tony Blair, October 2001
Almost without warning, Libya seems to have become the new geopolitical arena for the Middle East in North Africa. Its new status is the consequence of Turkey’s decision to intervene in the Libyan political quagmire in support of the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli at the end of 2019. That decision by Ankara has, at a stroke, called into question a series of assumptions that have guided Western policy in the Southern Mediterranean over the past decade. It has also raised questions about NATO, an organisation of which Turkey is itself a member, with respect to its ‘Southern Flank’ policy, and about NATO’s likely response to the parallel involvement of Russia in Eastern Libya, alongside apparent American indifference to the regional geopolitical changes that these developments imply. At the same time, the Turkish initiative has integrated the geopolitics of North Africa into parallel developments in the Middle East which have, ever since 2011, created new alignments between states sympathetic to moderate political Islam and their counterparts who ferociously resist an interaction between secular and theocratic politics.
A new geopolitical game?
There appear to have been several reasons for the Turkish action in late 2019. Its most immediate concern had to do with Ankara’s irritation over being excluded – because of its support for its puppet state of Northern Cyprus – from the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, a new association of seven countries involved in the development of underwater gas deposits stretching from Lebanon to Egypt. However, the primary reason appears to have been essentially geopolitical in nature. Over the last decade, particularly in the wake of the Arab Awakening Movement of 2011, it has become clear that the Erdogan government has increasingly developed ambitions to play a regional role within the Middle East and North Africa, especially as a result of the participation of moderate Islamist parties in the political evolution of the region in the past decade. These ambitions have been amplified by the failed 2016 coup in Turkey and the consequent constitutional amendments when Mr Erdogan became Turkish president.
Thus, on the one hand, Ankara has sought to befriend moderate Islamists as they were progressively excluded from other Middle Eastern states and allied itself with Doha in Qatar’s increasingly bitter struggle with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates after the 2017 diplomatic crisis that narrowly avoided becoming an American-approved invasion of Qatar itself. On the other hand, however, in the wake of the Russian and Iranian-backed revival of the Assad regime in Syria, Turkey has fallen back on its fear of Kurdish independence with its unilateral attacks (with Iranian support) on Kurdish Worker Party forces in Sinjar and the Qandil mountains in Iraq, and on the Kurdish YPG autonomous administration of Northern Syria, where it has also sought Russian support in Idlib and American indulgence further east. Turkey’s old alliance with Israel has been forgotten as a new geopolitical dispensation has emerged in the Gulf and the Levant, with Turkey as the patron of moderate Islamist forces and states, as opposed to the two major Gulf states – Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, alongside Bahrain and Egypt – which reject all forms of theocracy, whether moderate or extreme.
This new theocratic neo-Ottoman atavism has now become reified into a core component of Turkey’s foreign policy. A series of military bases from Azerbaijan to Bashiqa in Northern Iraq, Mogadishu in Somalia and Suakin in Sudan, alongside garrisons in Northern Cyprus and in Qatar, now encircle its Gulf competitors and Turkey seems determined to keep them in being, despite the costs to its increasingly embattled exchequer. This new prioritisation of regional concerns seems to have eclipsed Turkey’s old priorities of close ties to NATO, the European Union and the United States, although Washington still seems to be Mr Edogan’s fallback when he seeks support against Russian intransigence! And that, in part at least, explains Turkey’s latest moves in Libya.
The Libyan dimension
The basic reason, however, for Turkey’s engagement with Libya goes back to its role, alongside Qatar, the other Gulf states and Egypt, in undermining the Qadhafi regime in 2011. It also supported the Anglo-French anxiety for ‘regime change’ backed reluctantly by the United States and operationalised by NATO, alongside the provisions of United Nations Security Council resolutions 1970 (2011) and 1973 (2011) which provided for an arms embargo and for the protection of the civilian Libyan population respectively. Given the plethora of opposition groups that emerged, however, it soon became clear that each of the states involved had its own objectives and its own local clients (Joffé 2015). At one level, too, for Turkey there was an economic imperative in that Turkish contractors had massive outstanding payments due from Libya for the projects that they had undertaken in the country. However, at the same time, there was already a desire in Ankara to support the moderate Islamist opposition that had emerged to confront the Qadhafi regime which had always been ferociously hostile to political Islam, whatever form it took. That is a concern that has persisted throughout the last decade and has come to be increasingly intertwined with Turkey’s emerging geopolitical interests.
Turkey’s direct intervention in Libya, however, really dates from the creation of the United Nations-sponsored government in Tripoli in March 2016. Its arrival, on the backs of militias from Misurata, was challenged by the former parliament – the House of Representative, based in Tobruk and its government in al-Bayda. Both were by that time in thrall to a militia coalition led by a former general from the Qadhafi era, Khalifa Haftar, who had appointed himself the previous year as the scourge of Islamist militias in the country. He had created a coalition – the ‘National Libyan Army’ (NLA) – of local militias and the remnants of the old Qadhafi-era Libyan army with which he had subdued moderate and extremist Islamist militias, including Da’ish (ISIS), in Benghazi and Derna, whilst also taking control of the country’s all-important oil and gas fields in Cyrenaica as well.
Despite widespread separatist sentiment in Eastern Libya, it became increasingly clear that Khalifa Haftar had ambitions to impose himself as the ruler of a united country in emulation of his former mentor, Colonel Qadhafi, despite the determination of the international community to preserve a United Nations-sponsored agreement over Libya’s future governance hammered out in Skhirat in Morocco in 2015. That had produced the Government of National Accord (the ‘Wifaq’) under Iyad Serraj which had arrived in Tripoli in March 2016 and was generally seen to be sympathetic to moderate political Islam as well as to secular groups. It was supported by Qatar and Turkey but increasingly raised Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian hackles because of its political sympathies (Joffé 2019). Russia’s Vladimir Putin had also seen Haftar as a potential client, for the 2011 United Nations arms embargo was still in force but Russia’s influence in the Southern Mediterranean was in the ascendant after its successful intervention in 2015 in the Syrian civil war.
In April 2019, having taken control of Sirte and the strategic airbase of al-Jufrah to its south in Central Libya, Haftar’s forces launched a strike on Tripoli from Gharyan in the Jabal Nafusa. It was unsuccessful, as local militias rallied to support the ‘Wifaq’ but, over the subsequent year, Haftar’s forces, supported by drones and aircraft from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt repeatedly shelled and bombed the capital. The result was obvious, as the statistics were to make clear. In April 2020, the United Nations humanitarian assistance coordinator reported that the attacks on Tripoli over the previous year had killed 356 civilians, injured a further 329, forced 149,000 persons out of their homes, and placed 1,094,000 others at risk of attack, of whom 893,000 require humanitarian assistance. They were soon to be joined by many more and the situation in Tripolitania was described by the Financial Times at the same time as ‘apocalyptic’ (Joffe 2020). It was made worse by an LNA offensive along the Libyan border with Tunisia which captured control of the main road from Tripoli to Tunisia and the al-Watiya air base. Tripoli was now vulnerable to attack from both the south and the west.
Haftar’s success was largely due to the emergence on the battlefield in September 2019 of the ‘Wagner Company’, Russian mercenaries, soon to backed up by covertly-supplied Russian aircraft which appeared in the al-Jufrah air base in late Spring 2020. Despite diplomatic support from Europe, in the form of a major conference in Berlin in mid-January 2020 (the climax of a four month-long German initiative alongside the United Nations’ UNSMIL mission) and a parallel attempt by Moscow to promote a peaceful resolution to the crisis, the outlook for the GNA seemed very gloomy indeed. General Haftar refused all compromises and the GNA premier, Iyad Serraj, refused to meet him. Yet, at the same time, the Wifaq government continued to enjoy Qatari and Turkish diplomatic and material support, as well as support from the international community.
It seems likely that Turkish President Recep Tayyeb Erdogan, given his regional ambitions and his successful partnership in Syria with Russia over the Kurds and the Idlib enclave, noted Russia’s covert engagement in Cyrenaica in late 2019. He seems to have realised, too, that control of Tripolitania offered a new arena in which Turkey, with tacit Russian support, might successfully extend its regional ambitions. He must have realised, as well, that General Haftar’s increasing intransigence was beginning to irritate his Russian and Gulf patrons, not to speak of Egypt. After all, Mr Putin’s ambitions, not unlike his own, lay in extending Russian influence into a region traditionally the preserve of the United States, NATO and the European Union. He would also have been aware of increasing American disinterest in Mediterranean affairs and of differing views amongst European states as to how to deal with the Libyan quagmire. France, for example – seeking stability in North Africa, given its commitments in Mali – was prepared to tolerate the Libyan general, provided he was successful, whilst Italy was desperate to prevent further flows of sub-Saharan migrants into Europe via Libya and supported the GNA to this end.
The scene was therefore set for a more explicit Turkish engagement with the United Nations-approved government of Libya, one with which, moreover, Turkey shared theological similarities, unlike its counterpart in Tobruk. The initial step seems to have been a maritime delimitation agreement, for that enabled direct access for Turkish shipping into Libyan territorial waters, thus avoiding potentially embarrassing encounters with IRINI, a new European naval force dedicated to stopping arms supplies to either side in Libya; Haftar’s military supplies arrived generally by air from the Gulf. The agreement was formalised by the signing of a maritime delimitation agreement between Ankara and Tripoli in December 2019 – which immediately caused an adverse reaction in Greece because it denied Greece’s right to its own exclusive economic zone as provided for in international law through the UNCLOS-III treaty. Turkey has never signed the UNCLOS-III treaty, so it has simply ignored Greece’s claim to exclusive maritime economic rights under it, arguing that its maritime waters abut those of Libya instead. Greece, incidentally, subsequently retaliated by signing a maritime delimitation agreement with Italy in mid-2020 which ignored Turkey’s pretensions over access to Libyan waters!
At the beginning of 2020, Turkey began to supply men to back up its increased arms supplies and its geopolitical patronage. Up to 6,000 Syrian mercenaries, each paid up to $2,000 a month are claimed to have arrived by mid-year. They came from Northern Syria and had been recruited from the paramilitary militias that Turkey has created there to challenge the Kurdish YPG administration. They were commanded by Turkish officers who now direct the military strategy of the Wifaq government, although there are reports of insubordination amongst the Syrian mercenaries over alleged broken promises of financial reward.
Nonetheless, their arrival has freed the GNA from its dependence on the quarrelsome local militias in Tripoli and on those from Misurata. It has also meant that, by mid-June, General Haftar’s potential stranglehold on Tripoli through his forces’ control of the al-Watiya base alongside the border with Tunisia had been broken and the LNA, together with their Wagner mercenary companions, have had to fall back on their forward base at Sirte, abandoning significant quantities of sophisticated armaments as they did so. GNA forces are now at the outskirts of Sirte but that might be the extent of their advance, depending on what their foreign backers may decide.
That, of course, is the big question; there are three primary players involved – Turkey, Russia and Egypt. Egypt, in the wake of its 2013 army-backed coup, is profoundly antagonistic to the Wifaq government in Tripoli which it suspects of pushing moderate political Islam onto a future Libyan state, backed by Qatar and Turkey. It also fears for the security of Egypt itself, both from a moderate Islamic neighbour and because of the danger of more extreme groups exploiting the chaos in Libya to threaten the Sisi government in Cairo.
As a result, in late June 2020, the Egyptian president whilst inspecting a new military base close to Marsa Matrouh on the border with Libya, declared that any advance by pro-Wifaq forces eastwards beyond the front line controlled by Sirte and the Al-Jufrah air base would cross Egypt’s ‘red line’ and that its forces would intervene to block any further advance eastwards. It knows that it will enjoy Emirati and Saudi support for such an initiative, too and has called for the Arab League to support its position. The Egyptian position is complicated; ideally it would like to see the pro-Islamist Wifaq administration eliminated. However, in practical terms, its concern is to protect its national security interests and sees Cyrenaica as its defensive glacis which it must maintain, hence its threats about the Sirt-al-Jufrah ‘red line’.
Interestingly enough, that might also sit well alongside Turkish and Russian ambitions for Libya’s future! It is not clear that either patron wishes to take responsibility for such an inherently fissiparous state as Libya has always been – as the Qadhafi regime had illustrated so eloquently. Both, however, have a desire to play a role in Western Mediterranean affairs, Russia to advance its Euro-Asian agenda in contradistinction to the United States and to promote its involvement in Europe’s oil and gas supplies, and Turkey for theological and political atavistic reasons.
Turkey also considers that it, rather than Egypt, should be the major Southern Mediterranean hegemon. Russia’s interests would be satisfied through its patronage of Cyrenaica, where there has always been considerable secessionist sentiment, with its control of the east as a new post-Sanusi secessionist state beholden to Russia for its support. Turkey, on the other hand, backed as it is by Qatar, has already accommodated to the political climate in Tripolitania and has challenged Egypt’s hegemonic ambitions, despite its lack of control of the oil reserves of Sirtica. And President Erdogan’s knowledge of his Russian counterpart’s regional ambitions, given Turkey’s alliance with Russia over Idlib, means that he knows the limits to Russia’s objectives in North Africa and to what extent Turkey can realise its own objectives there through Russian indulgence.
Indeed, Moscow, it seems, is determined to arrange the new geopolitical disposition inside Libya and calculates that Turkey will not stand in its way, especially if its position in Tripolitania is rendered permanent. That is a concession that Mr Putin seems prepared to make, especially as General Haftar has failed to realise his objective of reuniting Libya under his control. The general appears to have seriously overplayed his hand, with his diplomatic intransigence and his lack of military success. In addition, he has alienated opinion in Cyrenaica by his militia coalition’s heavy-handed administration of the towns that it controls there and by the fact that, despite his claim to oppose moderate political Islam, his major militia support comes from Salafist Madakhla forces which now act as local police in Eastern Libya. Russia has turned, instead, to the parliamentary speaker in Tobruk, Aguila Saleh, as a more acceptable local partner whilst rumblings within the coalition begin, calling for General Haftar’s removal from power.
What of the other powers with an interest in what happens in Libya? Libya’s neighbours, Algeria and Tunisia, are primarily concerned over Libya as a hotbed of extremist violence. Tunisia, however, is more sympathetic towards Qatar’s and Turkey’s ambitions in Tripolitania, even though that has now generated a domestic spat between the moderate Islamist parliamentary speaker, Rachid Ghannouchi and the country’s austere president, Kais Sa’id who feels marginalised and ignored by direct telephone calls between the GNA premier and the Tunisian parliamentary speaker. Algeria, despite its domestic problems, has for the first time begun to contemplate its army intervening outside its national boundaries to defend the security of the state particularly against extremist spill-overs from Libya or Mali.
Europe and the West
Europe, to a large extent, seems to have abandoned its traditional position over Libya as part of its own Mediterranean world during the past decade, except for its concerns over migration – a dominant Italian concern – and extremist spill-over too, although France and Turkey have clashed over Turkey’s recent delivery of arms supplies for Tripoli by sea. The United States, as it has elsewhere in the region excerpt for the Levant and the Gulf, has been winding down its interests in the Mediterranean and has largely let the new geopolitical agenda there emerge by default. The Southern Mediterranean, in short, is slowly becoming a Russian and Turkish lake.
Perhaps the most surprising absentee from any discussion over Libya’s future has been NATO. It is, after all, the primary security vehicle for American and European interests in the Mediterranean, as well as in Eastern Europe and it has, in the past – in 2011 for example – played a key role in determining Libya’s future. Turkey is, however, despite its recent disagreements with the West, still formally an important NATO member-state, so that the organisation has been loath to become involved, even as evidence of Russian interest in Cyrenaica has mounted in recent months. It has also been undermined by disputes amongst its European members over what should be done about Libya and by American disinterest and irritation at European neglect of ‘burden-sharing’.
Now, however, the NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, has argued that NATO should adopt a more ‘political agenda’ and has spoken out favour of supporting the United Nations arms embargo on Libya and the Wifaq government in Tripoli. That makes it difficult to openly criticise Turkey for its support to Libya’s internationally-recognised government there! In addition, there is the risk of potential conflict between NATO member-states as a result – as recently occurred between Turkey and France over the control of shipping bringing arms supplies to Libya. Yet NATO, in short, is going to have to adopt a formal response to Turkey and Russia’s interventions, especially in view of General Haftar’s forces’ retreat from Sabratha and the alleged discovery of the mass graves of their victims there.
However, one new American interest has emerged in the wake of General Haftar’s withdrawal from the Tunisia border which may alleviate these concerns. At the end of June, GNA Premier Iyad Serraj received a visit from representatives of the Pentagon’s AFRICOM regional command. AFRICOM, which has a primary interest in extremist violence in Africa, particularly West and Central Africa, has long been looking for a forward base within the region. Algeria has refused; Morocco cannot house it instead, given Algerian antagonism over the Western Sahara; Tunisia needs to preserve its independence from too direct an engagement with Western powers; and Egypt would be too vulnerable to all the pressures of the Middle East. Libya, however, even if divided, could be an ideal alternative, particularly under Turkish aegis – and Mr Erdogan has been careful to preserve his links with President Trump in recent years. Perhaps, finally, Libya’s ultimate vocation has now emerged, alongside profound changes in the geopolitical situation in the Southern Mediterranean!
Joffé G. (2015), “The impact of the war on Libya,” in Henricksen D. and Larssen A.K. (2015)(eds), Political rationale and international consequences of the war in Libya, Oxford University Press (Oxford); 287-304
Joffé G. (2019), “Can Libya survive as a single state?” L’Année du Maghreb, 21 (November 2019)
Joffé G. (2020), “Commentary: COVID and North Africa,” Journal of North African Studies, 25 (4); 518-526
UNSMIL (2020), “Berlin international conference on Libya” (January 19, 2020)
 Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority – both Lebanon (because it does not recognise Israel) and Turkey (because nobody except Turkey recognises Northern Cyprus) have been excluded from the grouping despite Lebanon’s own claim to gas deposits under the Mediterranean and Northern Cyprus’s separate claim to its own territorial waters and exclusive economic zone.
 UNCLOS-III – United Nations Law-of-the-Sea Conference No: 3, signed in 1994