Turkey’s dramatic military intervention into Libya’s civil-cum-proxy war on the side of the Tripoli government has changed the narrative from ‘Haftar tightening the noose around Tripoli’ to his ‘entire Western operation being in disarray,’ as one analyst puts it.
Tarek Megerisi, Libya expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, believes the game is essentially over for General Khalifa Haftar. The military strongman from the east launched an all-out attack on Tripoli in April 2019 and quickly came within a whisker of toppling the United Nations-backed Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj government.
Since Turkey’s entry in January, Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) have not only been repelled from the gates of Tripoli. They’ve also lost several towns in western Libya that they seized in their march on the capital. And Haftar’s setbacks in the west have emboldened his enemies and shaken his grip on his stronghold in the east.
‘What he’s been running is essentially a Ponzi scheme,’ says Megerisi. ‘As long as he kept going, expanding his power, he was alright. But now that he’s suffered setbacks, all the others are turning against him.’ Megerisi characterises the Libyan conflict as a ‘proxy’ war, as does Stephanie Turco Williams, Acting Special Representative of the secretary-general and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya.
Haftar’s westwards march was strongly backed by Egyptian and especially Emirati air support and equipment. It was later augmented with Sudanese mercenaries and Russian private military companies.
Haftar was initially stopped outside Tripoli mainly by militias loyal to al-Sarraj and a long stalemate persisted throughout 2019. Then the heavy intervention of the Turkish military in January, backed by some 4 000 Syrian mercenaries, dramatically tilted the balance of power against Haftar. The biggest influence has been Turkish anti-aircraft artillery. It has neutralised Egyptian and United Arab Emirates (UAE) air supremacy that gave Haftar his military edge.
The key external players in the conflict have complex motives. Megerisi believes the UAE is largely driven by ideology – an eagerness to check the Arab Spring impulse towards democratisation in the Middle East and North Africa. It is opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Islamists in al-Sarraj’s coalition but this is probably also a pretext for suppressing democracy.
Egypt has a similar ideological motive, though reinforced by more concrete fears of Islamists using eastern Libya as a springboard for attacks across the common border.
Politically, Turkey seems to be motivated mainly by an instinct to block its Middle East ideological rivals, the UAE and Egypt. In that sense Libya is indeed a proxy war, though Turkey and the UAE also have strong economic interests mainly in Libya’s large oil and gas reserves.
France also previously backed Haftar, including militarily, and is suspected of still providing military hardware, says Tim Eaton, Libya expert at Chatham House. It’s certainly still providing diplomatic support to him, particularly since Turkey entered the fray.
The US role has been ambivalent. Many observers believe the Trump administration gave a silent nod to Haftar to attack Tripoli but Russia’s involvement with Haftar cooled Washington’s support.
Calling Libya a proxy war suggests that if the external protagonists withdrew, the Libyan antagonists would kiss and make up, which seems unlikely. However Megerisi and others believe the outside interference has prolonged the war and made it bloodier. Even now, though Haftar seems to be in retreat, the UAE and Egypt are suspected of plotting a comeback. Large numbers of Emirati warplanes, for example, have reportedly been spotted in Egypt, close to the Libyan border.
Megerisi says Haftar’s next move may be to secure control of Libya’s oilfields to justify his military adventurism to his domestic and external backers. Eaton believes it’s too soon to write off Haftar as he’s still present in the west despite his setbacks.
COVID-19 is also playing a part in the drama. After a January ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey collapsed, the Libyan parties agreed to a second one in March. This was in response to UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s call for a global humanitarian suspension of hostilities to enable countries to fight the pandemic.
But this was a ‘truce in name only,’ Williams says. Meanwhile, she says, global COVID-19 lockdowns were hampering the ongoing (though limping) UN peace talks, though they were continuing online. Eaton notes too that with the world distracted by the pandemic, the fighting has continued with rising impunity, evident in the LNA’s indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas of Tripoli.
With such powerful external political and economic forces at play, it seems improbable that the African Union (AU) is going to get a look in. At its February summit the AU reiterated its determination to play a greater role in bringing peace to Libya, establishing a new body, the Contact Group on Libya.
At the group’s first meeting on 12 March, AU chair, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, vowed: ‘In this, the year that the African Union has dedicated to Silencing the Guns in Africa, we must be at the forefront of efforts to bring the warring parties together.’
But there have been no other signs of African leadership in the peace efforts. And it can’t help that one of the key external powers in the conflict is outgoing AU chair Egypt. Eaton says the Libyans don’t regard the AU as an honest broker, believing it’s partial to Haftar.
He also thinks it’s unlikely the AU will succeed in getting a joint AU-UN special Libyan envoy appointed to replace the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General to Libya, Ghassane Salamé, who resigned in March in despair. Guterres is reportedly pushing for an African to replace him.
Yet the lobbying and jostling for the job is replicating the proxy rivalries of the conflict itself, Megerisi says. Former Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra, now the AU’s special envoy for Silencing the Guns, was the frontrunner until apparently being vetoed by the Americans because he was believed to be too close to Russia.
Former South African president Thabo Mbeki’s name has also cropped up, ISS Today has heard. South African diplomats say both Libyan sides have expressed support for him. But there’s not been much mention of Mbeki beyond that.
And getting this job would be no great achievement for the AU anyway, it seems. Megerisi believes Guterres would essentially be offering it to the continent as a way to garner African support for his endeavours in New York, and as a sop for its complete sidelining from the peacemaking process.
Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant
In South Africa, Daily Maverick has exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles. For media based outside South Africa and queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.