By Michael Young
In an interview, Jalel Harchaoui (*) discusses the regional repercussions of the proxy war in North Africa.
Diwan interviewed him in early January to get his perspective on the Libya situation, options open for the Libyan Government of National Accord, and the motives of the main outside actors involved in the Libyan conflict.
Michael Young: What is the main reason for why the government of Fayez al-Sarraj has built up a military alliance with Turkey?
Jalel Harchaoui: Turkey’s military support for the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) is not new. In western Libya, Ankara began supporting militarily proponents of political Islam and also revolutionary actors, including primarily those of Misrata, in the second half of 2014.
Weapons shipments were nothing like what’s being injected into Libya today, however, but they did occur, particularly during the 2014–2017 war for Benghazi.
In contravention of the United Nations’ arms embargo, ammunition and weapons flowed from Turkey into Misrata and then from there would be passed on to Islamist groups fighting Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s armed coalition in Benghazi.
Even after Benghazi fell to Haftar’s forces in late 2017, Turkish interference continued. For example, in January 2018 Greece intercepted the Tanzanian-flagged ship Andromeda loaded with 29 containers full of explosives and detonators while it was traveling from Turkey to Misrata.
All this is to say that Ankara, on a clandestine basis, has been propping up anti-Haftar groups militarily for over half a decade.
Although that illegal assistance never stopped altogether, it noticeably diminished over the last two years prior to Haftar’s April 2019 offensive against Tripoli.
The field marshal’s frontal assault last year triggered a substantial revival of Turkey’s interference. In fact it was more than a revival. Between May and October 2019, Turkey sent a total of 20 combat drones into Tripolitania, along with approximately 60 Turkish officers to operate them.
Then, in October 2019, for diverse reasons, Turkey’s clandestine mission in Libya stopped for several weeks, resuming in December. In addition to such covert action, today Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is attempting to institute an overt, official military presence in Tripoli.
MY: What have been the Turkish motivations for doing so?
JH: Turkey has supported the anti-Haftar factions in Tripolitania for three principal reasons—commerce, maritime issues, and ideology.
Before 2011 already, as many as 25 percent of the Turkish citizens expatriated in the Arab world were living and working in Libya. Right now, the amount of Turkish contracts outstanding in Libya exceeds $18 billion.
This represents an enormous volume of construction, infrastructure, and service business that would likely never be implemented and paid for if Haftar were to topple the GNA and take power.
Indeed, the exclusionary vision of the Haftar faction and its Emirati sponsors means that Turkey would be shunned as a trading and business partner. Ankara doesn’t want that.
On the maritime front, a Turkish motive for involvement in Libya relates to the territorial waters in the eastern Mediterranean. Because Greece has about 3,000 islands in the Aegean Sea, international sea conventions cannot possibly apply there.
As a result, Turkey and Greece must work out an arrangement not in line with standard conventions. In this context, Ankara is deeply interested in resuming its longstanding, unresolved talks with Greece. Ankara also wants to defend its own interpretation of territorial waters conventions.
Apart from the Aegean, you also have the disputes associated with the territorial waters surrounding Cyprus—a divided country whose Turkish-controlled north was invaded by Turkey in 1974 and which is recognized by Ankara as an independent state.
Very large amounts of natural gas have been discovered across the eastern half of the Mediterranean over the last seven years or so. This has engendered a much higher level of solidarity among Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, and Greece, as well as France and to some extent Italy—all united against Turkey.
Such increased geopolitical cohesiveness has squeezed Turkey’s energy interests in those waters.
Within this context, Ankara feels it must try and ensure the survival of the GNA in Tripoli, the only Turkish-friendly government in the area from a maritime perspective. All this explains why Ankara has insisted since October 2018 on the GNA signing an exclusive economic zone deal, creating a sea corridor between western Turkey and eastern Libya.
By late November 2019, the GNA, facing military pressures, had become desperate and caved in to Turkish demands that it sign a maritime accord. In return, Ankara resumed providing Misrata and Tripoli with weapons and other military aid.
MY: How does the third motivation you mentioned, ideology, come into play?
JH: From an ideological perspective, the survival of proponents of political Islam in Tripoli holds immense value for Erdoğan and his supporters. Moderate political Islam wielding some degree of power in a wealthy North African country represents an important symbol.
There is no question that the GNA is profoundly flawed and corrupt. Yet, it is a pluralistic arrangement in which Muslim Brothers and non-Islamist politicians coexist.
For that reason, the pro-Erdoğan factions in Tripolitania do in some way represent a populist form of participatory politics. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are committed to eradicating that governance style, and indeed any form of pluralism, from the Arab Sunni universe. Their regimes prefer a strict form of dictatorship.
Compared to Denmark or Canada, Turkey’s model is deeply authoritarian of course. But from the point of view of Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, Turkey’s model leaves an exceeding amount of room for bottom-up dynamics and offers too much leeway in terms of citizen initiative.
Erdoğan’s own version of authoritarianism is populist in nature, and that small flexibility represents a political threat for many regimes in the Sunni world.
Within this clash between two forms of authoritarianism in the Sunni-majority countries of the Middle East, Erdoğan’s successfully helping the GNA to survive aggression would send a strong political message to constituencies in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Somalia, Sudan, and many other countries across the region.
That is deemed intolerable to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, because it threatens his preferred governance style. Plus, Erdoğan’s ideological aura could form the basis for Turkey to build a sphere of geopolitical influence over the years. Abu Dhabi has every intention of preventing such a scenario.
MY: How important are oil politics to the Libyan side in the Libyan-Turkish relationship?
JH: Let me answer by noting that Qaddafi had supported Ankara’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974. He did so mainly by providing Turkey with oil during a period when Turkey could not trust Iran, Saudi Arabia, or, of course, the Soviet Union.
Today, the dynamics are somewhat similar. Right now Turkey happens to be purchasing very little oil from Libya. However, it would love to buy much more to strengthen its energy independence, especially knowing that Turkey exports more than $1 billion in commercial goods to Libya annually.
If it does manage to carve up a piece of western Libya and somehow ensure the survival of a Turkish-friendly government there, Turkey will be very likely to import more crude oil from Libya in the years ahead.
MY: What is the best-case scenario for Sarraj as the Libyan situation becomes more complex and dangerous?
JH: President Vladimir Putin’s Machiavellian pragmatism is Sarraj’s best hope at this juncture. The Russians have been involved in the Libyan civil war since 2015, but thus far have invested relatively little in it.
Yet, Moscow does wield some influence from a military perspective. Its influence is amplified by the fact that Haftar’s armed coalition lacks strength on the ground, despite the tremendous amount of air support it receives from the UAE.
The powers-that-be in Moscow are acutely aware of this weakness. They see in Khalifa Haftar a supposed “strongman” who’s been struggling for over nine months just to move into downtown Tripoli, without any success so far.
Unlike the Emiratis or the French, the Russians know that years of urban warfare will be necessary even if Haftar’s army does enter central Tripoli and even if the GNA does crumble tomorrow.
The Russians may very well decide to increase their support for Haftar by sending additional mercenaries and other means. But, at this minute, the Kremlin also has the option of quietly reducing Russian support on Haftar’s side.
If that happens, it is quite conceivable that Moscow would deepen its partnership with the Libyan authorities in the east of Libya while, in parallel, accommodating a Turkish presence in western Libya in support of Tripoli’s internationally recognized government.
This is one possible scenario whereby Sarraj’s government, or something similar to it, could survive in Tripolitania.
MY: How likely is the tension in Libya to turn into a regional proxy war, or even a regional war?
JH: The regional proxy war is already taking place. On top of these proxy dynamics, foreign states have been intervening directly in Libya.
The reason we don’t realize it is because of a distorted perception through deeply politicized optics.
Indeed, both U.S. and French diplomats believe that the UAE’s full-blown military intervention in the Tripoli area over the last nine months should never be mentioned.
Most Western capitals are afraid of alienating an Arab Sunni state that is disciplined, militarized, dynamic, and willing to spend money. That blind spot has effected the way media outlets have covered the war for Tripoli since April 2019, and is the main reason why we have this illusion that the proxy war is beginning only now that Turkey has become more vocal.
Should one expect a direct war between regional or global powers in Libya? I was going to say, “No, unfortunately.” No direct clash between foreign states is likely to occur there. Libyans will do most of the dying, not the foreign meddlers. Yet, a country like Tunisia could end up being seriously destabilized this year.
(*) Jalel Harchaoui is a research fellow in the Conflict Research Unit of the Clingendael Institute based in The Hague. His work focuses on Libya, in particular the country’s security landscape and political economy. Harchaoui has a Master’s degree in geopolitics from Paris 8 University. He has published widely in online and print publications, including Foreign Affairs, Lawfare, Politique Étrangère, War on the Rocks, and Small Arms Survey.
Michael Young is the editor of Diwan and a senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Center.