By Jason Pack
Despite General Haftar’s contrarian bluster, the writing is now on the wall. His year-long campaign to take Tripoli has ended in abject failure. Will his victorious opponents, the Turks, extract their pound of flesh or will they step into the role of mature regional power?
Libya’s post-2011 “chaos” may appear to non-specialists to be a continuous war of all against all, but it has actually been far more structured than other comparable conflicts, such as the Syrian or Yemeni civil wars. Bouts of violence are punctuated by lulls and the shifting of alliances.
Last week, the Struggle for Post-Gaddafi Succession entered a discernable new phase; the “War for Tripoli” and the first round of the world’s first extraterritorial drone war are now concluded.
The Turks are undisputed victors.
They came to the aid of Tripoli when no one else would. They are now in the driver’s seat to either foolishly press their military advantage or fill the role of regional elder statesman.
On May 18, militia fighters aligned with Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and supported by Turkey captured a strategic airbase from their adversaries, the Libyan National Army (LNA) – whose forces had largely withdrawn from the base over the last few days as a result of being under weeks of siege and aerial bombardment.
With the fall of Watiya airbase, the GNA and their Turkish allies have now cemented their outright air superiority over all of Western Libya. Tripoli no longer faces any direct threat from the LNA.
Recent talk of Trump and Macron discussing Western mediation, or of the Russians and the Turks pushing their proxies to agree to a ceasefire, is just standard media spin.
Politicians and their PR consultants make statements they imagine will create positive headlines, while each of Libya’s actors exaggerate their military capabilities as they strut for the international audience.
General Khalifa Haftar is particularly prone to this type of behavior. On the morrow of his greatest military setback since he launched Operation Dignity in 2014, his spokesman proclaimed an attack against all Turkish assets wherever they could find them.
Such a statement may appear to project strength, yet the military developments tell another story.
Haftar has lost the War for Tripoli, and now the Second War of Post-Gaddafi Succession will likely rage on in a new form.
As it moves Eastward and South towards Tarhouna and then Sirte and Jufra, the real question becomes:
How will the Turks extract their pound of flesh?
Do Haftar and the LNA have any leverage left to secure their backers’ concerns and exit gracefully?
Although there was no overt fighting over the airbase and the LNA has not sustained heavy casualty figures over the last weeks, the LNA’s campaign for Tripoli appears to be collapsing at breakneck speed.
On May 19, the LNA spokesperson, Ahmed Mismari, indicated that LNA forces would be withdrawing from the southern Tripoli frontlines and “returning to previous positions” at the end of Ramadan (i.e. as this article goes to press).
The next day, the LNA announced that it would concede three kilometers of territory on all of the key combat axes.
It was never going to be possible for Haftar to outright conquer Tripoli, but now he cannot even use military force to increase his bargaining power over the eventual political and financial decisions, which will be decided in regional capitals without him present.
In short, despite proclaiming that it would attack Turkish assets wherever it could find them, the opposite appears to be happening.
The LNA seems likely to pull back from southern Tripoli entirely.
As a result, the raison d’etre of the LNA as a national army building project, will be called into question and its head, Khalifa Haftar, will likely come under increasing domestic and international pressure to change his military stance and declare the “Tripoli War” over, even as he focuses on consolidating his hold on eastern Libya.
Yet, this would require him to admit defeat and own up to previous miscalculations.
Given his previous megalomaniacal psychology in the face of setbacks, he is unlikely to halt or withdraw his forces – as he would fear that admitting defeat would result in his narrative collapsing and his international allies (Egypt, Russia, the UAE, and France) moving to replace him.
They are likely only willing to further support him if the Turks wish to claim an unreasonable peace dividend.
Hence, if Turkey is smart, they will push for a broadly palatable compromise and accept some kind of power sharing arrangement which allows Haftar’s backers to secure their interests in Libya without Haftar himself at the helm.
So far this “rational outcome” does not seem to be happening. The Turks are signaling that they intend to hold to maximalist claims vis-à-vis their intended maritime influence.
They have long had the GNA over the barrel as Tripoli’s traditional allies – Italy, UK, and the US – failed to deliver the requisite military support.
As the price for their rescue, the GNA offered the Turks a Maritime Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed in November 2019, which sought to create an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from Turkey’s southern Mediterranean coast to Libya’s northeast coast.
Turkey has yet to receive any concrete benefits from the tentative deal. Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, and others have opposed the MoU – and they are correct to call it illegal according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The European Union’s (EU) official response to the MoU and maritime responses have come to be monopolized by France and Greece who also oppose the maritime deal.
Although the Turks do not have the law on their side, they have their string of victories and the momentum and legitimacy that that has created.
Now they have switched tack and are clearly trying to establish facts on the ground. This is the wrong approach.
On May 13, the Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Donmez was quoted as saying that Turkish Petroleum (TPAO) has applied to the GNA for an oil exploration permit in the eastern Mediterranean.
He claimed that exploration will begin as soon as the process is completed. On May 17, GNA Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, held a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Serraj is reported to have accepted an invitation by Erdogan to visit Turkey.
Drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean in areas that either Cyprus or Greece claim as within their EEZs would be akin to an act of war.
It is unclear how the Greeks, Cypriots, or EU would respond to such a provocation.
They would likely fire on any Turkish vessel drilling in their waters, leading to the first ever NATO country on NATO country maritime attack.
It would really be such a shame if Turkey chose to drill as their victory dividend.
If they just showed restraint, they could play the role of dealmaker and become the lead mediators in the next phase of Libya’s seemingly endless Wars of Post-Gaddafi Succession.
Jason Pack is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Middle East Institute and the Founder of Libya-Analysis LLC. He is a consultant, author, and commentator with over two decades of experience living in, and working on, the Middle East. In 2008, he moved to Tripoli to assist Western businesses in reentering Libya amidst the late Qadhafi-era reforms. In 2011, Jason created Libya-Analysis LLC — a consultancy organization producing evidence-based analysis, forecasting, business intelligence, and commercial research on Libya.