The whirlwind around Libya

            Continuing from last week the Libyan crisis became way bigger than a local confrontation and has transformed into a battleground between different regional and global powers. Much the same as Syria was for years, and to some extent still is. Last week we had a very general overview on the internal Libyan considerations. These are important to understand what the regional forces base their claims on and which sides they support. But what is even more important is to see what is the nature of the regional confrontation and how the global powers react to the matter.

            Last week the stakes were raised as Egypt gave an impression that it is ready to intervene even militarily, to give a conclusion to the crisis for its own liking. We already saw that this is less than an easy task for Cairo, as it has more pressing other matters in Ethiopia. But this week two major shifts exacerbated the international showdown around Libya. One is the apparent shift in the Ethiopian matter, which might give some additional space for Egypt to maneuver. The other is the intensification of the French-Turkish collision, which first lead to a controversial standoff between the two along the Libyan coast than the French PM stepped down and President Macron named his new PM. Even more, France now raised the idea of stepping out of NATO operations and cooperation about Libya, giving a clear signal of dissatisfaction with the alliance’s handling of the Turkish presence in Libya. However, that might just be lesser a pressure tool for Paris than an indication of its weakness, which many Turkish experts now openly and very arrogantly celebrate.

            However, very understandably many neighboring states to Libya with Tunisia and Algeria at the forefront now increased their efforts to prevent a major confrontation. On one hand we see clear messages of their dissatisfaction with the current trajectory, but on the other steps are taken to still achieve a solution before things get out of control.

            Therefore this week, we will examine these three layers of the conflict all above the local level. As these are all interacting with each other, and very possibly be more important than what happens on the ground. Especially for the moment, military actions inside Libya reached a temporal halt. Will this be a chance for comprehensive talk of de-escalation, or just the calm before the storm?


Egypt gaining momentum?

            Last week we saw that on 20 June Egyptian President as-Sīsī held a grand inspection in Sīdī Barrānī, giving the impression that he is threatening to intervene militarily in Libya. We also suggested that this might just be somewhat premature, or a bluff, as Cairo is more pressed by the matter of the Great Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia. But since then two major changes helped the Egyptian position, and made the possibility of a military move more real. One of these is the growing Turkish-French confrontation, which lifts some weight from Egypt to deal with Turkey. But that shall be covered in more detail later. The other is a shift in the Ethiopian position, which more than a month ago seemed determined.

            Even last week we suggested that the drill in Sīdī Barrānī might have been a message of Egyptian prowess to Ethiopia more than to Turkey. Interestingly, soon after the table turned. Roughly a month ago, as the dam’s construction reached its final stage and the negotiations met a dead end, the Ethiopian government said that it might fill the reservoirs, even against the objections of Sudan and Egypt. Addis Ababa knows well that in such a scenario it would have a significant edge since international mediation could take an extremely long time, and until then it could profit from the dam. Even more, it is more difficult for any international body to reverse a functioning project than to prevent its launch. So Egypt seemed to be on the losing side. However, on 26 June, so only days after Sīdī Barrānī Ethiopia accepted the mediation of the African Union and agreed to “refrain from taking any unilateral measures, including the filling of the dam, before the agreement is reached,” between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. For that end, a technical committee would be formed to hammer out a deal for the satisfaction of all three parties involved, and that would work under the guidance, not of the U.N., but the African Union, where Egypt has more leverage. On 29 June Egypt raised the matter to the U.N. Security Council and warned from a unilateral step by Ethiopia, to which Ethiopia reacted as solving the matter on a U.N. level would set “a bad precedent”. Clearly Ethiopia took a major step back and the Egyptian steps – or threats? – seem to work. But that is just one reason why Egypt seems to gain the upper hand in the dispute.

            It happened also on 29 June that a famous Ethiopian singer, Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was assassinated amid still unclear circumstances, which sparked huge protests with a distinct ethnic edge. By 1 July that already claimed the life 80 people. By 2 July the protests, but also the detention of protestors and even opposition politicians have continued. That so far shook the Ethiopian government and there is a big likelihood that soon Ethiopia will enter a period of political uncertainties. It is impossible to know how much Egypt has to do with this wave of unrest, if at all in any level, but surely it can exploit the situation, which it does with great affect. And that frees up significant time and capabilities for Cairo to deal with other matters. Like that of Libya.

            While a month or so ago Egypt was hardly in a position to sacrifice many efforts to the Libyan matter, now its chances are much better. Especially that since then the gravity in the Libyan crisis has shifted from an Egyptian-Turkish debacle to a French-Turkish one. But before we look into that, the recent sudden activity of Tunisia and Algeria in the matter is also important to examine.        


Tunisia and Algeria

            On 22 June Tunisian President Qays Sa‘īd visited Paris and held a common press conference with French President Macron. Thought the joint statements concentrated on the bilateral ties and cooperation, here Sa‘īd already made a point he later repeated several times. That is that the authority in Tripoli, the al-Wifāq might be internationally accepted as legal, but that is a temporal one, which cannot last. That was the first time we could witness a significant shift in the Tunisian position, which until than was strictly supportive, but neutral. That is because Tunisia lost a lot and became significantly endangered by the war in Libya. With all the international involvement Tunisia is clearly not a player to significantly influence the outcome, therefore so far tried its best to stay out. Recently, however, as we have dealt with the matter, outer, especially Turkish pressure grew on Tunisia and some shameful incidence happened, which promoted action. Specifically, because as it was recently revealed the rival camps in Libya both trying to bring Tunisia onto their respected sides either as a bridgehead or operation or a point to block Turkey to enforce more influence on Libya, which lead Tunisia to the brink of a civil war. The situation is in fact so bad that recently the situation between President Sa‘īd and Rāšid al-Ġannūšī, Speaker of the Tunisian Parliament and leader of the strongest Tunisian party an-Nahḍa was characterized as a “Cold War”. Therefore, given that Turkey is strongly behind the an-Nahḍa, it is only logical that the Tunisian leadership looked for international support to prevent the Turks to stabilize their grip over Tripoli before the internal situation gets out of control and one of the rival camps drag Tunisia into a civil war.

            A day after the press conference on 23 June Qays Sa‘īd gave long interviews to France 24 both in French and in Arabic, in which he mostly focused on the Libyan matter. Once again he focused his criticism over the Libyan matter and the Turkish influence on that the foreign interventions destabilize the situation instead of helping it and once again stressed that the government in Tripoli is a temporal one. Which is a new, but very clever take on the al-Wifāq, not trying to challenge its legality based on the aṣ-Ṣahīrāt Accords – which Tunisia supported -, but undermining it on the grounds that its term is over? That it should have been a temporal solution to lead Libya into new elections and new institutions. Therefore conducting foreign policy and making international agreements with impacts for the whole region is not within its prerogatives. The message was clear that Tunisia was is not neutral anymore. It might be so on the Libyan internal deliberations, but as the situation got much bigger than that, Tunis took a step against the al-Wifāq.  Instead, Sa‘īd has proposed that as either side cannot reach a solution the decision should be given to the Libyan tribes to form temporal bodies until a new constitution and new elections. That sparked a sharp reaction from the al-Wifāq renouncing the Tunisian President’s interference, drawing a comparison between this and the Egyptian threats as they were parts of the same attempt. Signaling that for the al-Wifāq Egypt and Tunisia is now on the same side and the same level.

            So it seems that for both sides now Tunisia tries to block the Turkish influence over Libya as a threat to its own security. Also because if a war breaks out with Egypt the result will be equally dramatical. And for that Tunisia needed a strong supporter to back its tribal initiative. While that was never seriously endorsed, France was clearly willing to step in. But why France?

            The first reason is that there has been a wider dispute between Paris and Ankara for almost a year. The maritime agreement between Turkey and the al-Wifāq, which we will discuss soon and which was the basis of Turkish military presence in Libya, meant the expansion of Turkish maritime control in the Mediterranean, which naturally infuriated Greece and Cyprus. Then France was already backing Greece and was threatening with EU sanctions, which now Paris brought up again. In this context, France was an ideal candidate for Tunisian. But only the second-best one after Algeria. And here lies the second reason. Tunisia and specifically Qays Sa‘īd tried to boost Algerian-Tunisian cooperation and Algiers seemed to be receptive. Tunisia’s desire was to exercise pressure over the al-Wifāq and on Ankara to halt such a massive buildup. As this failed Tunisia looked for the second-best supporter. But why Algeria let Tunisia down in the Libyan crisis? Did it at all?

            Previously about Tunisia, we saw that Algeria has a very delicate relation with Turkey. On the one hand, the massive Turkish inroads to the region are clearly unwelcome, but on the other, the economic and military cooperation is very favorable. There are currently few counties willing to invest in Algeria, and the French military activity in the region, especially in Mali irritates Algeria. The new leadership in a bid to prove itself for the people brought up most of the old themes once again from Western Sahara to the French presence. In this context, Algiers is understandably cautious to take sides between Turkey and France, as both have very bad connotations. Taking a side against either means support for the other and now Algeria is unwilling to side France in anything. The opposite is favorable.

            But leaving the matter on its current trajectory is equally unfavorable for Algeria. Seeing an open war in Libya with Egyptian involvement has very bad prospects. If Egypt would bring Ḥaftar to power – so far a very distinct possibility – that would mean losing most of the influence in Libya, as for long Algiers was closer to the al-Wifāq. The war itself with the fresh wave of refugees and growing militancy is itself very undesirable. So Algeria is happy to block the Egyptian intervention, though in the last Arab League Foreign Ministers Summit it raised no objection. But the further Turkish influence is just as unfavorable. So Algeria launched its own process and that even predated the Egyptian gamble.

            On 13 June ‘Aqīla Ṣāliḥ, Speaker of the Libyan Parliament in the east arrived in a surprise visit to Algeria and thought unceremoniously, but meat with Algerian President Tabbūn. Little was revealed about the meeting, which surprised many at that time as military operations were still fierce in Libya and the al-Wifāq was gaining ground, but Algeria stressed that there is no military solution for the crisis and the foreign intervention has to stop. In other words, it seemed that Algeria ready to support Ḥaftar, as it seemed from several previous steps. But on 20 June in yet another surprise visit Fāyiz as-Sarrāğ, leader of al-Wifāq arrived to Algiers to meet with President Tabbūn. And this time the reception was much more ceremonial.


            The outlook was that Algeria first summoned the group of Ḥaftar, than the al-Wifāq to once again be a significant power broker in the crisis. Very little is announced about either meeting, but it is widely speculated that Algiers is still trying to hammer out a deal in which al-Wifāq could stay in power, would gain reassurance for its legality and could keep most territories it gained with a new ceasefire, but in exchange, the Turkish bases would not be set up. This way an Egyptian intervention, which Algeria surely knew about before, could be prevented. This way Algeria could prevent the war, but could still keep its good relations with Turkey, what seems to be a priority. In this endeavor, Algeria walks alone, possibly only mediating with Egypt, but with quite a little regard for Tunisia. That is why Tunisia turned to France now. The problem with this approach is that at this stage the al-Wifāq has little real independence from the Turkish government. Real decisions for Tripoli are made in Ankara now, which is not willing to back up. Quite the contrary, it is only emboldened by the recent French blunders.

            For the moment it is dubious what Tunisian and Algeria can really do to prevent major war or a Turkish buildup on their borders. Tunisia has to resort to French support now, and it shall be seen how useful that will be. Algeria, however, has much more influence on the matter and has more means to pressure the Turks, if the crisis really reaches that level. So far, as France stepped in it is enough to closely watch the situation.


The Turkish-French debacle

            As we saw last week France has already expressed very clearly that it is opposing the Turkish presence and activity in Libya. There are many reasons for that and many things happened since then.

            Tensions were already high between the two sides when on 10 June a major incident happened. Since 2011 NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian patrols the Libyan waters to impose an arms embargo, and in that many NATO member forces take part, including French vessels. On 10 June French warship Courbet blocked the Tanzanian flagged ship Cirkin heading to Tripoli on Libyan. It tried to inspect its cargo accusing the vessel to carry arms from Turkey to the al-Wifāq. According to the French defense ministry the Turkish vessels escorting the vessel, which by the Turkish side was carrying medical supplies to Libya, targeted the French warship and harassed it away. Thus enabling the Tanzanian ship to reach its target. Such an event is not unprecedented since in March French warship Provance forced a Turkish ship to change course and prevented it to reach Libya. Since than France continuously accused Turkey of breaching the embargo and smuggling arms. Which at this stage Turkey doesn’t even really deny based on the agreement with al-Wifāq, but still France has some basis for its claim that technically the embargo is still in effect. So it was only a matter of time until the Turks take firm steps to ensure their deliveries. After the incident on 10 June, France announced that it will suspend its involvement in the NATO operations since the NATO is still investigating the matter and failed to take sides. That would make it appear that France lost the gamble, but in fact, that gives it somewhat of a free hand to act more resolutely if it wishes. Given it has a political basis for an action, which the Arab League resolution and the Tunisian support seem to provide.

            For the moment, however, it looks that France is weak and incapable to prevent the Turkish buildup in Libya. It is doubtful how decisive Paris is, as on 1 July Edouard Philippe resigned a day later new PM Jean Castex was appointed. Such a blunter by Paris after much-advertised support for Greece and Cyprus, than for Tunisia and Egypt clearly emboldens Turkish experts now. France asked for sanctions against Turkey in NATO and in the EU, which will be discussed on 13 July.

            In light of the still-active American sanctions and a round of previous ones by the EU since last year because of the infamous marine agreement with the al-Wifāq and the expansion of its oil drilling activities – based on the grounds that is done around Turkish Cyprus, a state practically only Turkey recognizes – can be very severe. But that leads us to the other strategic aspect of Libya for Turkey. The Turkish economy has several key areas of partnership and cooperation. Iran is one of them, which manifests in their strange relations in the Syrian crisis. The trade with Africa and the EU are even more important fields and Libya is a key question in both. Libya can be a bridgehead for Algeria and inner Africa, but it is also a gateway of the illegal mass migration into the EU. Both from Africa and the Middle East. Turkey itself is the other gateway and it utilized this role with great efficiency, as the EU so far resorted to the policy of paying Turkey to stop the influx. And whenever tensions flared up Ankara opened this gateway to a smaller or bigger scale. If Ankara gains a firm grasp on the other one, it could play this game directly and indirectly at the same time. And this precious matter is the reason why key EU states, like Germany and Italy, are hesitant to back the French motion for sanctions.

            Ankara knows this, and it only emboldens it. But the real matter is that France has a huge investment in the Libyan oil sector. While at the same time in the Turkish industry, even in the defense industry. And has much influence on the very African markets Turkey has an eye on. They are dependent on each other to a certain level. With the recent steps in Libya Turkey disregarded the French interests. Now Paris is pushing for a settlement. If Ankara guarantees the French oil interests regardless that Paris for long was betting on Ḥaftar than French objections will soon disappear. If not, however, France might turn more desperate and truly start to back an Egyptian campaign.


The Turkish push

            The Turkish military buildup was founded on a maritime agreement with al-Wifāq signed in November 2019, which on its own has dimensions way beyond Libya. According to the agreement, for which exchange the al-Wifāq got massive military help from Turkey and practically became a protectorate, the two sides agreed on their maritime borders and established a common exclusive economic zone (EEZ) between them, claiming all resources in this area. This 200 nautical mile deep EEZ creates a direct corridor between the two states, ironically connecting Turkey to Eastern Libya, where the government is against Turkey. Nonetheless, that is vitally important for Ankara, because it set up a legal basis to conduct large scale oil and gas explorations – and soon production – around Cyprus, Libya, some Greek islands and in the EEZ. That was for long a desire for the Turkish government, which is even more important than the exploitable riches of Libya.

            Understandably Greece and Cyprus were the first to condemn the agreement, but soon Egypt and France joined. On 11 May these four states and the UAE together condemned the agreement and called for action. They all, just like the EU, viewed the agreement as an illegal push, which violates the rights of other states, especially Greece and Cyprus. Turkey bases its claim on the idea – contradicting the general principle – that maritime borders should be set up based on the continental shores, and not outlying islands. But doing so, it practically surrounds several Greek islands, Cyprus, and cuts the Mediterranean in half.

            Now it is very doubtful how much legal acknowledgment Ankara will get to this agreement, but it knows that a legal debate can take decades, and until then it has control over a vital territory. The resources here are important, but claiming almost sovereignty over a sea corridor to Africa is even more. And it naturally alarmed many states. It all shows the scale of the Turkish ambitions.


Russia and America

            Of course, the big question, as always, what the major powers, especially America and Russia have to say about the crisis. Both seem to be present on the scene with arms, but seldom they raise concerns. At least not on the level of other regional matters, like Syria, Iran, or even Iraq.

            Russia officially supports a – non-existent – peace process and neural thought highly critical with Turkey and seems to back Ḥaftar more. Especially indirectly via the Arab League, Egypt, or Syria. And significant Russian arms supplies arrived to Ḥaftar via Egypt. But Moscow’s activity is very far from what it is in all other matters. Much of that can be attributed to the Syrian scenery, as the constant transport of terrorists from Syria to Libya is not necessarily a loss. And for many reasons, Russia favors cooperation with Turkey in Syria. That matter has a way bigger appeal for Moscow than Libya and that dictates priorities.

            Washington also seemed for long to be distant from the Libyan matter after 2011, or 2015. It was recently highly discussed that the US is pulling out a massive amount of its troops from Germany. It is less publicized, however, that some of these are moved into Libya, and recently American pumped up its presence in Tunisia, officially to counter the Russian presence. Here once again the Libyan and the Syrian matters are very intimately interconnected. As opposition against its illegal presence at the Syrian oilfield grows Washington is willing to lend some support for Turkey in Libya, which is a lesser priority for the Americans, in exchange of Turkish cooperation in Syria and the economic war against it.

            For the global powers, Libya is a secondary stage. But a very important one, as it is highly connected in a number of ways to the Syrian, consequently to the whole Middle Eastern equation. In that regard, the result in Libya is of little significance for them. But the circulating storm around it is much more.


Finding Ḥaftar

            Though it is curious what the next phase of the crisis brings one significant change is already clear, and many spotted it. While until a year, or so ago Ḥaftar was representing Eastern Libya in every forum and in every negotiation, since his last visit to Cairo he disappeared. He was not there in Sīdī Barrānī, it was not him, but ‘Aqīla Ṣāliḥ, who went to Algeria, and on 3 July to Moscow, and alone. So where is Ḥaftar?

            His lack of appearance can be attributed to two possibilities. Either that the forces thus far supporting him gave up on him. But we hear nothing about that. Or, as was recently suggested very accurately that the forces behind him need a strong legal foundation for their direct intervention. Ḥaftar might be the commander of the Libyan forces in the east, but he is not an elected government official. That is ‘Aqīla Ṣāliḥ, who represents the legal authority in the East, the official counterpart of the al-Wifāq. And his recent elevation in all negotiations might mean that the time of indirect support is over, and the direct intervention needs a legal representative to be promoted and elevated.

            That might be a new exit strategy, which so far was missing.