Until confrontation between Iran and the United States escalated on January 3rd with the assassination of General Qassem Suleimani, another conflict in the region had been attracting attention. Slower and less dramatic, it deserves not to be ignored. The eight-year fight over who controls Libya has potentially wide significance, above all for Europe, in a way unconnected with the crisis centred on Iran and the United States.
To recap the story so far: the internationally-recognised government in Tripoli has been fighting off repeated assaults on the city since April by the forces of the military strongman, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. His reported capture on the port city of Sirte on January 7th has added to the pressure. It depends crucially on the military support of its Misratan allies along the coast. The Haftar forces are powerfully reinforced by the Sudanese mercenaries drawn from the feared Janjaweed shock troops loyal to the recently deposed President Omar al-Bashir. Awaiting their chance to return vengefully to Sudan, they are finding good employment in Libya. Another set of mercenaries are Russian, the redoubtable Wagner Brigade, a private company universally believed to operate with the Kremlin's blessing. In the air, Hafter enjoys crushing superiority thanks to the long-established support given by Egypt and the UAE, with Jordanian participation. Drone forces are deployed with increasing effect.
Renewed military pressure on Tripoli in recent weeks has led the government there to take a possibly fateful step, by seeking greater military support from Turkey. Some Turkish military elements are reported now to be arriving. Qatari financing is believed to have had a part for years, though details are lacking. The perception that both Turkey and Qatar are interested in propping up Muslim Brotherhood-linked stakeholders in the Tripoli government, helps explain Egypt's and the UAE's commitment to the Haftar alternative. The inability of the UN-led process to reconcile the warring sides has signified a defeat so far of Europe's interest in a stable and democratically-empowered Libya, its goal since the Anglo-French intervention in 2011 that toppled Muammar Al Gaddhafi.
As if the situation in Libya were not already sufficiently embroiled in the geo-political calculations of regional players, Tripoli's latest move to seek overt military support from Turkey has caused further complications. On the face of it, the UN-led process would benefit from the stabilisation of the military contest. Only when both sides in a fight conclude that they have more to gain by negotiation than by continuing do mediation and diplomacy have a chance to succeed. But Turkey is a controversial partner, not only for Arab states that reject its regional policies, but for its NATO partners as well. President Erdoğan's decision to occupy part of northern Syria in October, in a bid to weaken the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and to create space for the forcible return of Syrian refugees in Turkey, has appalled Western opinion and policy chiefs.They see the move as a dangerous gift to the surviving elements of Isis, whose brutal "caliphate" has only recently been brought down thanks to the YPG playing a major role.
Turkey's conflicted relations with the Trump Administration and Europe have played to Moscow's advantage in securing a role for Russia in determining the region's future. But President Erdoğan seems not to mind treading on Russian toes as well. His decision to occupy the northern strip defies Russia's aim to restore Damascus's authority over the whole of Syrian territory. That disaccord has been accommodated with difficulty in the Russian-led diplomacy in Syria involving Turkey and Iran. But now with Turkey committing overt military support to the government in Tripoli, the stage is set for escalating clashes between Turkish-trained forces and Russian mercenaries, not to mention Haftar's regional backers.
The price Ankara has extracted from Tripoli for its deeper military engagement comes in another area of Turkish ambition: a veto over East Mediterranean gas networks. Turkey has long contested the rights of the Republic of Cyprus to the seabed resources accorded it under international law. Its challenge actively disrupts Cypriot exploration for offshore oil and gas. It also defies a major UN Convention with implications for countless bilateral disputes over seabed resources around the world. Ankara's accord with Tripoli drags the latter into supporting Turkish claims to override Cypriot sovereign rights. It thus puts Tripoli on a collision course with the European Union, of which Cyprus is a member. The EU's commitment to the legitimacy of the Tripoli government has hitherto been the main pillar of its survival. A risky step to take.
To add to the tangle of interests, on January 2nd, Cyprus, Greece and Israel signed an agreement to build the EastMed gas pipeline, designed to bring Israeli and Cypriot gas via Greece to the rest of Europe. Lebanon, which has reached an amicable agreement with Cyprus over maritime boundaries, and despite having a dispute of its own with Israel over demarcation, would also benefit from the pipeline. Turkey's effective veto on the project sets it against not only Europe but now Israel and Lebanon too.
Russia though, on this count at least, has no reason to be displeased: an indefinite delay to East Mediterranean gas reaching Europe would benefit its own predominance as a supplier, including via the TurkStream pipeline it is building with Turkey designed to circumvent Ukraine. A chain of mismatched interests stretches from the bombardment of Tripoli's suburbs to Europe's strategic energy needs. Brinkmanship and raising the stakes could prove mistakes that will cost all dearly.
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