A proxy war in the Med?

As things stand, the coming weeks and months may prove crucial to the prospects of lasting peace in the Mediterranean

For the past eight years, Libya has been engulfed in civil war, with the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) battling the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar: an authoritarian general who has helped finance his efforts through a range of criminal activities.

Haftar has powerful backers, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and now Russia. More recently, Russian support has tipped the balance of power in the war, as a range of troops and mercenaries are assisting the LNA in its attempts to take the capital, Tripoli, from the GNA. In late November, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the GNA signed memorandums of understanding on maritime boundaries and security cooperation.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged to level the playing field by sending drones, tanks, special forces, and commando units to back the GNA.

The prospect of urban fighting in Tripoli between forces that include Russian mercenaries on one side, and Turkish soldiers on the other, is no longer far-fetched. This scenario would introduce an entirely new dynamic to the conflict and one that would further derail any hopes of forging a peace agreement in the foreseeable future. The more external forces involved in a country’s civil war, the more complicated the situation becomes on the ground, the more civilians will suffer, and the longer the protracted conflict could last.

Turkey has been in an economic crisis since the summer of 2018. The country already has troops in northern Syria, and speculation is rife at home as to the motivation for this latest move. According to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s own words, the primary reason for Turkey’s involvement is the need to defend Libya’s legitimately-elected government from the “warlord” Khalifa Haftar. Ankara says it is acting on the invitation for military co-operation put forth in November by Fayez al-Sarraj, who leads the GNA.

Turkey already has forces engaged in northern Syria, and the Turkish political opposition has opposed the deployment to Libya, fearing that the Erdoğan government is overstretching itself militarily.

Yet, it is clear that there is much more on the table for Erdogan. Currently, the Turkish president’s popularity is in free-fall. Turkey’s currency and economic crises have eroded his support among the populous. In municipal elections in March 2019, he suffered humiliating defeats in a number of major Turkish cities.

Erdogan is appealing to nationalist sentiments among the Turkish population. Presenting the Turkish government as a powerful regional player scores him points with a portion of the population, especially those who are religious and conservative.

Turkey is also pursuing economic interests with its military engagement. The agreement that Erdogan signed with al-Sarraj in November encompassed more than just military co-operation. Another point that was agreed to in Tripoli had to do with international maritime borders that were redrawn to Ankara’s advantage.

This will theoretically enable Turkey to access massive gas reserves discovered off the southern coast of Cyprus about 10 years ago.

But the Turkish deployment, likely to take many weeks, risks a military confrontation between Turkey and other regional actors supporting Haftar, notably the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

Russian mercenaries, believed to have the backing of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, are also operating in Libya in support of Haftar. Putin has urged Erdoğan not to send troops. In late October, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Erdogan in Sochi, where the two agreed to a conclusion of Turkish military operations in northern Syria, ending most fighting in the area. As was the case in Syria, Russia also plays an important role in Libya. Yet, Moscow supports the other side in Libya’s ongoing civil war — that of the renegade General Haftar.

On January 8, Putin and Erdogan will meet again, and both leaders will have the opportunity to speak about Libya and outline new parameters for how each will proceed there.

European powers for years have failed to mediate an end to the conflict in Libya between the east and the west of the country, leaving a vacuum that Turkey is eager to fill. The latest European effort is to be a conference in Berlin, but its date has been repeatedly postponed as regional powers dispute the conference’s purpose and attendance list. Attention to the rise in violence in Libya has been reduced due to the focus on north-east Syria and the US conflict with Iran.

The GNA called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to denounce the strikes, describing them as a war crime.

Within the confines of the collapse, untold numbers of desperate refugees have attempted to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe. Thousands have died trying to make this perilous journey in unsafe and overcrowded makeshift vessels, while thousands more languish in refugee detention camps.

These camps offer little protection from the horrors of the war. An airstrike, almost certainly conducted by a foreign government, on the Tajoura refugee camp on July 2 killed at least 54 refugees. To date, no parties have been held responsible for this war crime.

As things stand, the coming weeks and months may prove crucial to the prospects of lasting peace in the Mediterranean.