By Jason Pack
Last week, the Libyan civil war entered a discernable new phase with the first round of the world’s first extraterritorial drone war now concluded. The Turks are the undisputed victors.
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).
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 and its head, Khalifa Hifter.
Hifter lost his foolhardy “War for Tripoli,” and now the Second War of Post-Gadhafi Succession will likely rage on in a new form.
As it moves eastward toward Tarhuna, and then Sirte and Jufra, the real question becomes how will the Turks extract their pound of flesh?
If Turkey is smart, it will push for a broadly palatable compromise and accept some kind of power-sharing arrangement that allows Hifter’s backers (Russia, the UAE, Egypt, and France) to secure their interests in Libya without Hifter 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.
On May 13, 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.
Drilling in the eastern Mediterranean in areas that either Cyprus or Greece claim as within their exclusive economic zones would be akin to an act of war.
It would really be a shame if Turkey chose to drill as its victory dividend.
If the Turks just showed restraint, they could play the role of dealmaker and become the leading mediators in the next phase of Libya’s seemingly endless Wars of Post-Gadhafi Succession.
Calls for return to political dialogue grow, including from Haftar’s backers
On 19 May, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, stated on Twitter that in order to make progress on the Libyan crisis, “an immediate, comprehensive ceasefire and a return to the political process” is required.
He also said that Libya would have no future until “combatants aim higher than tactical territorial gains.”
On 19 May, acting UN Special Envoy to Libya, Stephanie Williams, called on the UN Security Council to pressure international players in Libya to cease their support of the competing Libyan factions, stressing that the increase in foreign fighters and military capabilities in Libya would see clashes escalate further and the humanitarian situation worsen.
She highlighted the direct involvement of foreign parties in the current conflict, including UAVs and the presence on the ground of air defence systems, in blatant violation of the arms embargo.
Williams welcomed the new political initiative proposed by House of Representatives (HoR) head Aqeela Saleh in late April and the constructive stance adopted by GNA head Fayez al-Serraj, while condemning Haftar’s declaration of military rule.
In a conversation on 20 May, US President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron noted “worsening foreign interference” in Libya and “agreed on the need for urgent de-escalation,” according to the White House.
On 20 May, Russia and Turkey called for an immediate cessation of hostilities in Libya and the resumption of the political process under the auspices of the United Nations and within the framework of the Berlin Conference.
The statements from the UAE – the LNA’s main military backer – in support of a ceasefire indicate a shift in the UAE stance on Libya.
According to media reports quoting a Libyan political source close to Haftar, the UAE and Egypt see Haftar as being “on his way out” and that “no one can bet on Haftar again”.
This apparent shift in approach by the LNA’s main foreign backers towards supporting a new political initiative in Libya indicates they are positioning themselves for Haftar to be defeated – as such are manoeuvring themselves and potentially creating/identifying new eastern Libyan “clients” to maintain influence and leverage in both eastern Libya and the wider country in a post-Haftar environment.
However, this does not mean that these countries will drop their support of the LNA as an institution nor change their ideological and strategic aims in Libya.
As such, any new political initiative that might emerge from this development is likely to be strongly influenced by international dynamics and interests, and therefore will face the same challenges as previous initiatives.
This international tug of war over Libya also means that the interests of the country itself and its people are unlikely to be a priority.
Jason Pack is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Middle East Institute and the Founder of Libya-Analysis LLC.
Middle East Institute