Why are so many nations competing in Libya?

Sami Hamdi Middle East/North Africa

France, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Sudan, Turkey, Russia, Qatar, Germany, Algeria, Tunisia, Greece, Cyprus are all countries involved or caught up in the Libyan conflict that has raged throughout the country for the last six years.

As militias compete for supremacy, with Haftar leading the way militarily despite his rival Fayez Serraj in Tripoli enjoying international recognition as the legitimate government, the conflict shows little sign of abating and recently Turkey has announced that it will send ground troops to rescue the government in Tripoli from an onslaught by Haftar’s forces that is entering its ninth month.

So why is Libya such a hotbed of international competition? And why is it worth the current diplomatic flurry that has seen Putin meet Erdogan in Istanbul, Merkel organise a summit in Berlin, France and Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministers fly to Tunisia, Italy’s foreign minister fly to Ankara, Saudi Arabia’s King to meet Italy’s ambassador, an emergency Arab league meeting called by Egypt, a surprise visit by Turkish President to Tunisia, a summit in Cairo of France, Italy, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, a surprise invitation from Egypt to Algeria’s President, and an invitation from Saudi Arabia to Tunisia’s President; all in the space of two weeks?

Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia

For Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, their support is part of a wider counterattack against the Arab Spring that brought about the downfall of long time authoritarian rulers in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and brought about chain reactions in Syria and Yemen that resulted in them becoming embroiled in a bitter and prolonged civil war. As the UAE and Saudi Arabia watched the domino effect of the Arab Spring that brought down strongmen and replaced with elected Islamist governments get closer and closer to their borders, they began to feel that they were facing an existential threat capable of bringing down their regimes. These feelings were compounded by Washington’s refusal to ‘rescue’ their allies and initial willingness to respect and adapt the new changes in the region.

As a result, the UAE and Saudi Arabia conspired with Marshall Sisi of Egypt to overthrow democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi, then proceeded to provide backing for Tunisia’s Sibsi in 2014 to defeat Nahda’s candidate (Sibsi would subsequently renege on his promises to the UAE and Saudi to crack down on the Islamists), and instigated a blockade on Qatar whose state channel Aljazeera was deemed to be fanning the flames of revolution.

Libya, having been a key part of the Arab Spring (albeit with some support from NATO), is part of this wider counterattack to end the sentiments of revolution, restore an authoritarian regime, and restore the region somewhat to what it resembled before 2011. For the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, Haftar represents a return to ‘normality’ and a bulwark against the rise of democratically elected Islamism that once challenged the authority and legitimacy of these regimes. For Egypt, legitimising a coup against the Muslim Brotherhood means there should not be a successful Islamist model elsewhere. With Tripoli dominated by Islamist militia, Sisi fears what might emerge from the ashes of Libya’s conflict and the ramifications that might have for Egypt’s internal politics.

For the UAE, there are other considerations. Abu Dhabi has embarked on an ambitious and aggressive foreign policy that has seen it exert influence over maritime routes. It has established itself in Aden in Yemen, reconciled Eritrea and Ethiopia to circumvent Sudan, conspired with the Egyptian military leadership to install Sisi in Egypt giving it favourable access to the Mediterranean, and if Libya falls under Haftar, it will be able to safely conclude that it exerts influence from the Hormuz to the Bab al-Mandab to the Suez and the Mediterranean.

Turkey

Unlike the Gulf states which are pro-active, Turkish foreign policy is more reactive. It held off becoming involved in Syria until the security of its border came under threat from the growing strength of armed Kurdish separatist groups and the mass influx of refugees brought about by Assad’s counterattack against the factions that rose against him.

As in Syria where Turkey reluctantly got involved, Turkey believes that Libya is its final chance to prevent a maritime chokehold forming that consists of Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, and possibly Syria if Assad regains authority in Damascus. All of these countries are openly antagonistic to Turkey and wary of their lack of leverage as they find Erdogan sitting and negotiating at the same table as the likes of Russia and the US.

Turkey believes that if Haftar who is backed by UAE and Egypt, who have exceptionally fraught relations with Ankara, if Haftar takes Tripoli then Turkey cannot expect to find favourable terms in any discussions concerning maritime issues in the Mediterranean or access to key energy resources. It also believes that rather than simply omitting Turkey from key issues, these states would actively seek to curb Turkey’s expanding influence in the region.

Turkey has supported Tripoli’s government with enough to defend itself, but not enough to expand. In other words, Turkey has so far provided a lifeline for Serraj to ensure that he is powerful enough to sit at the negotiating table but not powerful enough to begin a military campaign that might turn public opinion against him and Turkey. There are two main reasons for this, with the most important being that Turkey does not want to be dragged into an open conflict that carries substantial risks. The other reason is that Turkey remains concerned that Serraj is unable to impose himself on the militias currently in Tripoli who remain disunited and prone to clashing with one another.

In other words, Turkey is prepared to accept any government that emerges from negotiations or elections provided it is not dominated by pro-UAE factions or Haftar.

France

France is scrambling to protect its dwindling influence in North Africa. Its long-term ally in Algiers Bouteflika has fallen to popular protests and it has struggled to keep pulse with Tunisia’s rampant instability brought about by coalition governments, growing public discontent, and a French ambassador increasingly in the limelight for his suspected role in forming governments. Its operations in Mali are failing and the US is exerting itself as an alternative to the French government in what Paris once deemed its exclusive stomping ground. This is compounded by an ambitious French President keen to seize the traditional leadership of the EU from Germany and aggressively assert himself in foreign policy issues such as NATO, Iran, relations with Russia, and the growing tensions in the Mediterranean.

France initially was not partisan during the conflict. However, Macron was the first to recognise Haftar and insist on his inclusion in negotiations. Weapons provided by France to Haftar were later discovered after the forces of the internationally recognised government ousted Haftar’s forces from Gharyan.

France’s African woes are compounded by assertive West African states banding together to put pressure on the current financial relationship with France and insisting that they should abandon the France-backed CFA franc for a West African currency not pegged to the euro.

For France, Libya is about damage limitation and seeking to reimpose itself on a region where once it was supreme but now finds its influence diminishing fast.

Italy

Italy’s interests in Libya are both economic and about security. Italy has long lamented the illegal migration route that uses Libya as the embarking point to cross into Italian jurisdiction where, by EU law, it is obliged to assume responsibility. Italy also feels that the EU does not offer enough assistance. As Italy goes through an economic crisis, right-wing parties have seized on the migration crisis, declaring it an issue of national security.

Italy is also concerned that increased instability in a country just across the sea has the potential to become a hotbed for terrorism and place Italy in the firing line.

Italy is also driven by other ambitions. Libya is a former Italian colony and Italian oil companies resent that they have been unable to capitalise on former territories in the way the UK and France have through BP and Total. Italy backed Serraj in the early days of the conflict believing that its support would put it in favourable stead for government contracts against France which backed Haftar.

However, Italy’s inability to impose itself, as well as its fluctuating alliances in comparison with France which has firmly put itself on the side of Haftar, has meant that it has been shafted from the political arena. Turkey has supplanted it as Serraj’s ally, and Haftar is unlikely to forgive Rome for years of antagonism.

Italy is set to lose out in any negotiations that take place on Libya and is now backing EU initiatives in order to make sure it is not removed from the picture entirely.

Russia

Russia is not particularly interested in Libya in terms of economic interests. It is geographically distant, and it has no deep ties to any local actors that might warrant a long-term competition with the EU, the US and regional powers for local preference.

However, when taken in a broader context of Russia’s aims for the region, then its involvement in Libya makes more sense. In Syria, Russia imposed itself as a powerbroker by displaying might, advanced weaponry, a willingness to commit where the EU and the US would not, and an ability to advocate for an ally (Assad), and protect him from attempts to overthrow him. Moreover, Russia managed to move Syria out of the orbit of the EU and the US and conduct negotiations in Astana with Turkey and Iran. In other words, it successfully manoeuvred itself into the position of a prime powerbroker in a geographically strategic nation and managed to secure itself a military base on the Mediterranean coast in Tartus.

As US allies in the Middle East begin to debate how to deal with a US less willing to intervene to protect them, and an administration demanding they ‘pay’ for protection, Russia is keen to present itself as a reliable and trusted powerbroker.

In Libya, Russia has supported Haftar in recent months. Where Haftar was struggling to make inroads into the city before Russia intervened, he has since made notable gains in what has been a clear demonstration that Moscow can make the difference. However, Russia does not want Haftar to take over Tripoli. For Moscow, that is a waste of resources. Haftar, who is backed US allies UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, is unlikely to bring Libya into the Russian orbit and will more likely make Washington his first place of visit if he comes to dominate Libya. Russia is unlikely to benefit in this case.

However, having showcased strength to the Libyan parties, and then subsequently showcasing strength to deny Haftar Tripoli by negotiating with Turkey, will make the parties in Libya look at Moscow as a powerbroker of the first degree. In other words, with Turkey on one side having single-handedly rescued Serraj, and Russia on the other as the most powerful willing potential backer, any negotiations or talks are likely to be monopolised by these two states. Instead of meetings in EU capitals, Russia will hope to designate its own desired destination as the place where Libyan parties meet to negotiate. If Russia succeeds in this, then it will have succeeded in becoming the prime powerbroker in two contentious conflicts abandoned by the US and the EU; Syria and Libya. Russia hopes that such endeavours will transform its image and influence in the region and render it at some point as a genuine alternative to the United States once more.

Sudan

Sudanese mercenaries are operating in Libya for a number of reasons. Firstly, Sudan has struggled to control the Janjaweed militias who were drafted and deployed in the war on Darfur. Initially, Khartoum used them out of necessity and believed they could disband the organisation after the war. However, the Janjaweed soldiers refused to disband. Given Khartoum’s precarious position at the time, they had little choice but to officialise them. In the last years of Omar al-Bashir’s rule, Sudan’s economic woes were compounded by the civil war in South Sudan. According to the terms of the secession agreement, Khartoum was entitled to 25 US dollars of every barrel of oil sold. However, the civil war in South Sudan meant the country stopped exporting which badly impacted state coffers. Bashir toured the Gulf states looking for support. In exchange for finance, the UAE and Saudi Arabia requested that Sudan participate in the war in Yemen, and back Haftar in Libya.

As an opportunity to offload the restless Janjaweed, Khartoum sent them to Libya.