10 January 2020

Libya, January 2020 – the President, the prime-minister and the marshal

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Libya’s prime-minister, Fayez Mustafa al-Saraj – also president of the Libyan Presidential Council which, along with the executive chief position sums up a from a quarter to a thirds of the necessary authority for the North African country- and marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, commander of the Eastern Libyan littoral and the Southern sand, are the three actors fighting over the forefront role on the military and political scene from Tripoli to Benghazi. The first one only does it part time, as the Libyan file is included in the “it would better solve this too” section. Two agreements between the president and the prime-minister, signed in the last decade of November 2019, have disturbed these developments up to the point where Turkish military men were dislocated in territories controlled by militias loyal to prime-minister, in a one-year mission. We will see how things end up there…

Image source: Mediafax

Midst Sea and the Eastern Power

Events got really tense at the end of the last year, when Turkey and the Tripoli government have signed a mutually advantageous deal, although they were aiming at different things. Libya (Tripoli) was accepting a delimitation for the East Mediterranean seas, without looking towards left (Greece) or right (Egypt), favoring Turkey, which was somehow only looking ahead. Turkey was offering Libya (Tripoli) not just military help, but expeditionary forces. These could be decisive for the Tripoli prime-minister and keeping him in office. That’s because also in the second half of last year, the marshal decided that it was time to retake the offensive started in May 2019 and cancelled somewhere in South of Tripoli.

The presence of almost 200“Wagner” Russian mercenaries, along with the National Libyan Army forces (the Tobruk-Benghazi wing) and a Sudanese group of 1000 people, the logistic support offered by the United Arab Emirates and the air one by Egypt has put some serious valence on marshal Haftar’s threat, and the Tripoli “regime” (to use a fashion term in the region) to be in president Assad’s situation from 2014-2015.

President Erdogan decided that it would be useful, now, to wear president Putin’s expeditionary uniform and get involved in this conflict, not before making sure there will be economic and political profits. As for the reasons behind this decision, there are old arguments, recent strategic stances and estimation, but also ideological affiliations between Ankara and Tripoli:

- The Mediterranean Sea, the „in the midst of lands” following romans definition- which were controlling both its North and the South shore, the African one- particularly the Eastern part, returned to the forefront of confrontational development and direct consequence for South European, once with the “Arab spring”, the Syria conflict, the discovery of significant hydrocarbon deposits in its continental platform;

- Turkey, region's old hegemonic power, is dependent on imported energy supplies, mostly from Russia. A southern alternative, ensured, in an optimistic scenario, even by its own exploits on a shared continental shelf, according to Ankara’s option, would ensure some independence from its regional rival, blocking similar attempts of some regional competitors, such as Greece, Israel or Egypt;

- a noteworthy element is the religious-ideological resemblance between Tripoli and Erdogan’s Administration, the latter being a supporter of all regional Muslim Brotherhood entities, a position it defends along with Qatar, and which is opposed to other Muslim states from the same area: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan being the most obvious examples.

There are indeed other reasons as well: the partnership with Tripoli intersects and blocks the strategic Athens - Cairo, Jerusalem - Athens, Jerusalem - Nicosia axes, while the Turkish military presence in North Africa comes between Algeria and Egypt, states to have regimes dominated by generals, a model Ankara does not agree with.

Also important is the lesson Erdogan wants to offer, for free, to Europeans who, on one hand, have failed to mediate and put an end to the conflict in Libya and, on the other, are threatened by waves of migrants and terrorist, who were moving from central Africa to the Libyan shores of the Mediterranean, trying to reach the European lands of possibilities.

Legality and legitimacy of the Turkish forces dislocation decision, in 5 arguments

The dislocation authorization of Turkish troops in Libya was finally achieved by Ankara’s Parliament, although it was quite clear from the very beginning, who was the deciding factor here. Like other regional authoritarian leaders, however, Erdogan fakes following democratic procedures. It is a bureaucratic-democratic approach that allows him a certain flexibility in managing the process, in case there are any obstacles.

The authorization passed deputies’ vote by 325 to 184, showing, in fact, the power-opposition ratio. The secular-nationalist opposition challenged both decision’s legality, the right to interfere in Libya in terms of the international law, and its legitimacy, in terms of Turkey's national and security interests.

Unfortunately for opposition's argument, President Erdogan cleared the ground for this military dislocation:

1. The Turkish government gets authorization to accept the military assistance request from Tripoli’s government. So it is a sovereign, bilateral decision between two executives which have the right to support each other, according to international regulations (Tripoli’s government is recognized by the UN, restrictive regulations for Libya do not include military cooperation with partners);

2. The UN resolutions, which are setting different embargo types on Libya, also leave open legal gaps (UN Resolution No. 1973, for example), to ensure measures’ implementation to protect country's recognized political structures;

3. The dislocation of Turkish forces is allowed by Article 92 of the Turkish Constitution, for "actions deemed legitimate by international regulations." The Tripoli government, therefore internationally recognized, under the attack of an internal opposition supported by external forces is totally legal in terms of Turkey's request for military assistance;

4. Turkish opposition’s argument, according to which "Turkey's security is not threatened", to justify a military intervention, is quite easy to dismantle: by signing the November 2019 agreements, Libya became Turkey’s neighbor, indeed, on a maritime border, a neighboring area providing, lately, regional instability, terrorism, mass migration, human traffic. All these are threats to Turkey's security;  

5. What is supposedly not an intervention right for Turkey is already a battlefield reality for other states, deeply involved in Libya: Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, even France or Jordan. Therefore, the Ankara authorities are criticizing the opposition, when they point out that in neither of these states was there an internal dispute over the opportunity and reasons for their intervention to support Marshal Haftar and the Tobruk-Benghazi parliament. "Only in Turkey, the opposition behaved unpatriotic."

 Hence, Ankara can confidently reply to the various critics of this dislocation: it is not a "neo-Ottoman" policies materialization, as claimed, it is, instead, one of national interests, following the international law, finally pointing out that the objective it is really the "cause of peace."

Therefore, the situation can shortly be presented as follows: if the Tripoli National Agreement Government, the signatory of agreements with Turkey, is removed from the Libyan political scene, these documents will not be recognized, they will not be implemented. Marshal Haftar, but also some of the states that are supporting him, particularly the quartet Egypt - Greece - Israel - Cyprus, have indicated that they will not recognize these agreements.

The military intervention is just a way of effectively supporting the Turkish diplomacy, Ankara's interests. The goal is not necessarily winning the internal conflict, but removing the idea of a Libyan executive collapse, long enough to ensure the application of these agreements provisions.

Developments and recent and emerging dislocations

In a broadcasted speech, President Erdogan announced on Sunday, January 5, the start of the dislocation. There were no data on group’s size, dislocation’s stages or other information on the specific locations and objectives. Normal information is already known, along with a series of disparate details spread in the public space on different communication channels (TV reports, social networks):

● Turkish forces will have training and combat missions;

● it will be formed an operations center commanded by a Turkish lieutenant general;

● the deployed force will probably have all the components: ground, naval and air,

● it is possible to use a ground military base, probably in Misrata – to train Libyan forces, but also for a naval one - for logistics and forces transfer. The two will be arranged, according to public reports, for the exclusive needs of the Turkish forces;

● The air component is, at this moment, provided by the Bayraktar TB2 drone systems, already provided to Tripoli government, also seen as the reason for blocking Marshal Haftar's offensive, from mid-2019. According to the Turkish analyst, Mete Sohtaoglu, it will also be dislocated aircrafts;

● it is possible to displace elements of Turkish special forces;

● Tripoli’s Libyan commander of reserve forces, Nasir Ammar, confirmed to the media the arrival of Turkish radar jamming and defense AA subunits;

● 2 Turkish frigates are in the region - Algeria, and a submarine is off the Libyan coast;

● and if the hybrid war with its mercenaries are trending, there are also some media information on the dislocation of Syrian rebel groups members (eg Faylaq al-Sham / Levantine Legion) supported by Turkey to fight the Libyan conflict. Unconfirmed information from the social media indicates their number would be 1000 volunteers, who were promised better conditions for obtaining the Turkish residence and passport.

Alike the Syrian example from 2015, the external intervention in Libya aims to save the regime, with Turkish forces’ general objective, as presented by President Erdogan, "to keep them on their feet and let them come out of it with victory and have their own land”.

Of course, even Marshal Haftar did not just bummed around. In a rare speech on television, he summoned the Libyan population to Jihad /holy war against interventionist Turkish forces. An attack on the Military Academy in Tripoli, with dozens of dead and wounded people, including the Turkish military, has shown that the situation is extremely serious. The Marshal also wrapped up his threats in a political - diplomatic discourse, showing that the measures taken were aimed at "securing the armistice and returning to the political process." In order to hurry the “way towards peace”, speculated by the Libyan leader- the Western wing, Wing Loong-II drones, of course, made in China, of the Libyan Air Force (aviation component subordinate to the marshal) attacked their counterparts Bayraktar TB2, obviously Turkish, deployed in the hangars of Mitiga International Airport, producing, again, dead and wounded people, some of these Turks.

Cairo and Atene and Jerusalem and Nicosia vs. Ankara equal EastMed vs TurkStream

The Turkish dislocation is in full swing and, in the following period, it will increase in intensity. Speaking in front of the internal electorate, President Erdogan said the Turkish military will not be in fight missions, as these are being carried out by "others". If things get complicated for the authorities in Tripoli and for the para-military groups that support them - and this will surely happen - Turkey will also step into deeper intervention. The Syrian rebels have not been able to support a serious war effort even in their homeland, without someone having their back, so there will be no hope of victory.

What strengthens Turkey's intervention in the Libyan conflict is the relentless decision of President Erdogan when he wants something, as well as the experience of the three military operations in Northern Syria. Of course, Turkey's huge military capabilities, compared to the local fighters. If it will be enough, time will prove us this year, predicted to be enough to complete the operation.

While Prime Minister Sarraj will only follows the anti-marshal front, and Marshal Haftar will seek Tripoli, President Erdogan will be busier. Turkey's Eastern Mediterranean competitors have already made a joint front, and EastMed's gas pipeline has already been included in a joint project, signed last week (January 2, Athens) by Greece, Cyprus and Israel.

The new natural gas transmission pipeline from Eastern Mediterranean fields will be 1900 km long, a destination throughout Central and Western Europe, and will be a competitor for the newly opened TurkStream pipeline. The EastMed Forum also includes other states, including Egypt and Jordan. Even Palestinians in Gaza. Those supported by Erdogan. Its route ignores the agreement between Turkey and Libya, especially in the part between Cyprus and Crete.

Turkey is the only state left outside these arrangements, and the only state in the region challenging the calm waters of regional energy cooperation.

This is the same thing that happens with the states supporting Tripoli’s regime. Prime Minister Sarraj has, indeed, UN’s recognition, following a post-2011 political-diplomatic inertia, but most of the influential states in the region (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia, France, China, even the US) are, directly or not, in Marshal Haftar’s back. Turkey, Algeria and Qatar still bet on Tripoli. And Italy, perhaps, although Rome also kept a consulate in Benghazi. As nothing is certain these days.

A victory in Libya would change things radically. Maybe it would invert this report even if Tripoli were able to unify the country. President Erdogan would bring Prime Minister Sarraj the remaining two-thirds of the central authority over Libya, and Marshal Haftar, again in the reserve, would probably return to the Virginia state farm, in the US.

But such premises are uncertain, and betting on a Turkish intervention in Libya is still following planets alignment.

Not enough for a victory.

Translated by Andreea Soare