Libya, a major oil producer, was subjected to conflict since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising against the longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi.
At present, the main battle line of the Libyan civil war — between the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by the self-proclaimed General Khalifa Haftar, and forces loyal to the United Nations – recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) —has shifted east, from the outskirts of Tripoli to the Mediterranean city of Sirte. The latter coastal urban area is situated about halfway between Tripoli and Libya’s second-biggest city, Benghazi. Since April 2019, Haftar has been trying, unsuccessfully, to oust the GNA from Tripoli. Finally, in May 2020, with the help of arms, troops, specialists, and contractors provided by Turkey, the LNA siege of Tripoli was broken. Local forces and tribes in Tripolitania, which had previously pledged loyalty to Haftar, have turned coat and endorsed the GNA. A spokesperson for the LNA explained its forces’ overall retreat from Tripoli as a goodwill gesture to promote peace.
In June, after meeting Haftar in Cairo, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — one of the LNA’s main sponsors — announced a peace initiative for Libya, including a ceasefire beginning on June 8th. Sisi’s proposal was supported internationally, but the GNA announced it would not accept a ceasefire until after retaking Sirte and the Jufra airbase in central Libya.
An initial assault on Sirte, on June 6th, by GNA forces was apparently unsuccessful. Both Turkish and Chinese-made attack drones, reportedly supplied by the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE), were involved in the fighting. Attack drones, in particular, Turkish-made and operated, sent to Libya by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have been playing an increasingly prominent role in the Libyan war.
The Libyan conflict has developed into a major proxy war, with Turkey, Qatar, Algeria, Tunisia, and Italy backing the GNA, while Egypt, the UAE (Abu-Dhabi), Russia, Greece, Saudi Arabia, and France support Haftar. The United States has been more-or-less neutral in this conflict.
However, at the beginning of August, this past week, the Trump administration waded even deeper into the Libyan conflict, backing UN calls for a cease-fire amid the many factions and signaling again that the country’s oil fields are off-limits to those seeking to profit on the war.
The US initiative is well-timed, with signs of an escalation of fighting between the GNA and the insurgent forces of LNA. Libya’s also become the world’s most dangerous proxy war, ground zero in an increasingly militarized regional contest between Cairo and Ankara that is spreading to the eastern Mediterranean and to Turkey’s borders.
And then there’s Russia, which, while backing Haftar, has also sought to position itself as a broker of an eventual settlement.
On June 20th, during an inspection tour of Egyptian armed forces stationed in the west near the border with Libya, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had asserted, “Any direct intervention from the Egyptian state has now acquired international legitimacy,” in reference to Libya. On the other hand, Erdogan told journalists on July 17th that Egyptian interference in Libyan affairs is illegitimate.
At the end of July, Turkey conducted a military drill in the eastern Mediterranean that was followed by an Egyptian-French drill amid tensions in the region among Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus on gas exploration, and between Turkey and Egypt on Libya.
Maj. Gen. Nasr Salem, former head of the Egyptian army’s reconnaissance and professor of strategic sciences at Nasser Military Academy, told Al-Monitor, “These exercises are messages to specific parties. Turkey mainly aims to reassure the [Libyan] Government of National Accord [GNA] headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj as well as the Syrian mercenaries that are working to transfer them to Libyan territory so it can protect them. It is also sending a message to Greece, by showing off its naval capabilities.” Therefore, it is merely a deterrence strategy, whereby each party tries to flex its muscles and show off its capabilities to the other party.
French-Turkish relations are witnessing rising tensions in light of the situation in Libya. Paris has condemned Ankara’s interference in Libya and its support to the GNA, as well as its deployment of mercenaries to Libya. Ankara, for its part, has said that the French support for Libya’s eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar has worsened the crisis in Libya. Relations are also tense between the two countries in regard to the Turkish gas drilling operation in the eastern Mediterranean.
Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said in statements carried by the official Turkish Anatolia news agency July 24th that his country wants a fair distribution of all-natural resources in the eastern Mediterranean, also warning that deploying Egyptian forces in Libya would be a dangerous military adventure.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian and French naval forces carried out a joint maritime training in the Mediterranean on July 25th, with the participation of the Egyptian navy stealth frigate Tahya Masr (Long Live Egypt) and the Aconit French navy stealth frigate. The joint training focused on repelling hostile formations, according to a press statement by the Egyptian military spokesman. Tarik Fahmy, professor of political science at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor, that “These exercises are not a show of strength, they carry strategic messages.”
On July 21st, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had a phone call with the Saudi king, followed by a flurry of Saudi diplomatic activity in the region. Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan traveled to Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco after a July 27th visit to Cairo, where he reaffirmed Saudi support for Egypt in the Libyan turmoil. In sum, Riyadh is trying to strengthen Egypt’s hand in Libya and weaken the Turkey-Qatar axis but is cautious not to appear to be encouraging an Egyptian-led war in the country.
Sisi and the king spoke a day after the Egyptian Parliament authorized a cross-border military deployment on “a western front” — a reference to Libya — to counter “criminal armed militias and foreign terrorist elements,” after Cairo’s June 6th appeal for a cease-fire and negotiations in Libya fell through.
The risk of a Turkish-Egyptian faceoff in Sirte may be frozen for now, but the tensions are taking on new dimensions as Turkey becomes the target of a containment strategy of sorts. The maneuvers of the Egypt-Emirati-Saudi axis could eventually fail to change the multi-factor equilibrium in Libya, but the trio might create serious troubles for Ankara by edging into restive areas along Turkey’s borders, primarily through ties with the Kurds.
In July, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in July described conditions in Libya as “gloomy”, adding that “time is not on our side.”
While Libya is the battlefield, there is a larger regional contest shaping up in the standoff between Sisi and Turkish President Erdogan, who is unimpressed by the Egyptian president’s red lines and the threat of force. It will therefore likely be up to Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump, rather than Sisi or anyone else, to prevent an escalation.
As a result, in recent developments, the United States renewed calls for a political solution in Libya as it slaps sanctions over smuggling out of the war-torn nation, sanctions imposed on three individuals and a Malta-based company, accusing them of acting as a network of smugglers and contributing to instability in Libya.
On Thursday, August 6th, the US Treasury Department stated that it blacklisted Faysal al Wadi, accusing the Libyan national of having smuggled drugs and Libyan fuel into Malta. Also blacklisted were two associates, Musbah Mohamad M Wadi and Nourddin Milood M Musbah, Malta-based company Alwefaq Ltd, and the vessel Maraya, which the Treasury said Wadi used in his alleged smuggling operations. Moreover, the Treasury said that “competition for control of smuggling routes, oil facilities, and transport nodes is a key driver of conflict in Libya and deprives the Libyan people of economic resources.” Thursday’s action freezes any US assets of those blacklisted and generally bars Americans from dealing with them. “Faysal al Wadi and his associates have smuggled fuel from Libya and used Libya as a transit zone to smuggle illicit drugs,” said Deputy Treasury Secretary Justin Muzinich. “The United States is committed to exposing illicit networks exploiting Libya’s resources for their own profit while hurting the Libyan people,” he added.
Also, late last month the US threatened Haftar with sanctions as it accused the Wagner Group, a Russian military contractor with ties to the Kremlin, of seizing the country’s largest oil field and export terminal. Haftar’s forces, which control the bulk of Libya’s key oil infrastructure, have imposed a blockade on all Libyan oil terminals since January. The blockade has cost the war-ravaged country billions in revenue and sent production plummeting from more than 1 million barrels per day (bpd) to fewer than 100,000 bpd.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised the crisis in a call with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry of Egypt, a top backer of Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar. Pompeo and Shoukry discussed the “importance of supporting an UN-brokered ceasefire in Libya through political and economic talks,” the State Department said. The talks came as Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey, the crucial backer of Libya’s UN-recognized government, visited Tripoli. Cavusoglu said a ceasefire should see the Government of National Accord exerting control of areas held by Haftar, who has suffered losses but still controls eastern Libya.
A US delegation headed by National Security Council Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Major General Miguel Correa and Ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, held virtual meetings with Libyan officials on Friday, August 7th.
The discussions that took place separately with the National Security Advisor of the GNA, Taj al-Din al-Rezagi and Tobruk based House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, Yousef al-Agouri, came to push for tangible and urgent steps to establish a demilitarized zone in Sirte and Jufra, and reopen Libya’s oil sector with full transparency. According to the US embassy website, Major General Correa and Ambassador Norland emphasized the need for a Libyan-led process to reclaim the country’s sovereignty and eject foreign forces, stressing that the US will continue to actively engage a range of Libyan leaders who are ready to reject harmful foreign interference, de-escalate, and come together to work for a peaceful solution that benefits all Libyans, as said by the embassy.