Foreign adventures in Libya and Iran

Turkey wants to put boots on the ground in Tripoli, and the US has killed Iran’s most important military commander. 2020 is off to a hell of a start.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

You would think that the world is still emerging from its post holiday sluggishness. I know I was. Events over the past week, however, served as a stark reminder that global affairs care little for festivities and celebrations. Never has that been more evident than recent developments in both Libya and Iraq.

There are not many common threads that tie together developments in Tripoli, Ankara, Baghdad, Tehran, and Washington D.C. over the past week or so. At least, not at first glance. On the one hand, Turkey has now pledged to come to the aid of the Tripoli government against the eastern Libyan forces under the command of the Egyptian and Russian backed General Haftar, who has captured vast swathes of the country in recent years, barring major towns and cities in the west. On another, the US had announced that it had killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani on Friday in a targeted strike near Baghdad’s airport, in response to Iran’s backing of a violent protest in the same city which breached the US embassy’s outer perimeter.

It all boils down to a single common denominator - spheres of influence in the region. Turkey, particularly President Erdogan, wants to re-establish dominance in the old Ottoman empire, ranging from Syria into Libya. If you look at his foreign policy initiatives through this prism, it starts to make sense. Iran wants to have a friendly corridor from Lebanon in the Mediterranean, through Syria and Iraq right up to its doorstep, in order to keep its foes off balance in the region. The US seeks to dominate the region also, although it appears to be less due to oil supplies nowadays, and more to ensure that their troops and legacy in places like Iraq and Afghanistan are not negatively impacted. Also, their attack on Iran’s top Quds force commander, who is responsible for intelligence and foreign territory operations was meant to be a stark warning to Tehran. Strong move, but dangerous one, and global oil markets shot up 4% instantly as a response to that development. If this escalates further, there will be, without a doubt, a real and sustained impact on global markets, energy prices, and economic growth, without going into the merits of military conflict in the region. This is still a big “if”, but certainly more likely than it was just a few days ago.

Libya is a case that strikes quite close to home. Since 2011 and the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Libya has remained unstable, and prone to militia conflict. At present, the UN-backed government in Tripoli has been under siege by the Russian, Jordanian, Emirati and Egyptian-backed Tobruk forces led by General Haftar. It seems as though the situation has fallen into a stalemate, although I am not certain that will continue for much longer. Turkey has pledged to join the fight on Tripoli’s side, initially in an “advisory and training” capacity, although the terms of reference for their participation has yet to be fully defined. The Syrian conflict dragged on for as long as it did because, at the time, the major powers had not decided to throw in their weight in full force. Russia changed all that. In Libya, there are at least as many major powers involved as there were in Syria, but it is yet to be determined just who is willing to throw everything they have at the conflict to see it resolved in a manner which benefits their interests. In any case, recent developments are going to destabilise Libya further. For southern Mediterranean nations, that may bring about a new phenomenon, not refugees departing from Libya, but actual Libyan refugees themselves.

The situation in Iraq has taken a turn, although, not an unexpected one. Iranian and American interests and personnel have long operated in close proximity to one another for more than a decade, and it was only a matter of time before that led to a serious confrontation. There have been some clashes in the past, but the incursion on US Embassy grounds by Iranian-sponsored militia was highly significant. The US Marines and security personnel repelled any further incursion on the compound, but the militia claimed victory nonetheless. The US response was twofold - send some 700 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division as a rapid reaction force to Baghdad, and to target Iran’s most important commander who operated outside of the country. The question is - how will Iran respond? Given their public statements, they look likely to retaliate strongly. Iran will not forget the assassination of one of its key generals, and will not want to look weak. However, Trump does not want to look weak in an election year either, although if he gets pulled into a full-blown military conflict, I’m not sure how well that would play with his largely anti-interventionist, blue collared political base.

War, violence and instability are parts and parcel of the Middle East and North Africa. It has been that way since the end of the Second World War. What we are seeing now is a continuation of that in some ways. However, the difference is that there are more players on the ground willing to take bigger risks, due in no small part to the more withdrawn stance taken by the US and the West as a whole in recent years. Everyone is looking to carve out a piece of the pie for themselves. The US and Iran are on a collision course in the Middle East, that much looks certain. The Turkish intervention in Libya could stoke the flames further, exacerbating a conflict many seem to have forgotten. War and violence are an unfortunate part of human nature. But we will be watching it play out more than we would like it seems in 2020.