All eyes on Turkey after Haftar wins in Berlin

The Berlin conference was supposed bring about a ceasefire that would create a conducive environment for future genuine talks. Instead, Haftar refused to sign the ceasefire agreement, and the growing number of nations involved in Libya failed to find any common ground of note.

German diplomats, keen to prevent the summit from being seen as a failure, are now pointing to a Security Council discussion that will take place to explore an agreement on an arms embargo and efficient mechanism for ensuring its implementation. Talk of an international force being sent to Tripoli has also found traction as a sign that the EU is acting.

However, these developments are likely to make Serraj despair, Erdogan disturbed, and Haftar, Mohamed Bin Zayed, and Macron very happy.

Arms embargo

The arms embargo ostensibly looks like a very good plan. Haftar’s power stems primarily from international support from Abu Dhabi, Paris, and Cairo who supply weapons and logistics. Mercenaries from Sudan have also formed a sizeable portion of his fighting force and enabled him to exert his influence across the East and keep restless tribes in check. German diplomats will likely be congratulating each other on the possibility of all states agreeing to the arms embargo.

However, the implementation of the arms embargo will likely be the death knell for Serraj and an inadvertently wondrous gift from the EU to Haftar.

Firstly, an arms embargo is already in place in Libya (in theory). This has not stopped foreign nations from supplying weapons.

Secondly, if the aim of Germany is to impose greater scrutiny, then Serraj will be the one to suffer. France will be able to bypass scrutiny via its military bases in Niger. UAE will be able to bypass the embargo by using Egypt’s long border with Libya. Turkey and Qatar however, Serraj’s prime allies and the only powers willing to exert effort to protect the internationally-recognised government, do not have access to any neighbouring countries in Libya to circumvent the embargo, and will struggle to cover the necessary distance undetected to supply Serraj with the necessary funding. In other words, the embargo will complicate the supply lines to Serraj, but will hardly affect Haftar. This will tilt the war even more in favour of Haftar given the absence of the ceasefire.

This is precisely what happened in the Bosnian conflict. An arms embargo was placed by the security council that hamstrung the Bosniak forces and inadvertently empowered the Bosnian Serbs who used the border with Serbia to receive weapons from Belgrade and Moscow while Sarajevo remained blockaded and unable to receive weapons and munitions from the sympathetic Muslim countries due to geographical distance and international scrutiny. The result was the exacerbation and prolonging of a conflict that eventually resulted in open genocide.

International peacekeeping force

The suggestion of an international force to stay in Tripoli and assist with keeping the peace and encouraging a ceasefire seems like a valid idea on paper. However, a peacekeeping force in Srebrenica during the conflict in Bosnia did little to deter the Serbian forces from attacking their outpost and then proceeding to massacre the inhabitants in what became one of the worst genocides in modern times.

Haftar will welcome the idea of an international peacekeeping force as there is a real chance it may scupper Turkey’s attempts at a military intervention that would be far more devastating for his position.

Moreover, a peacekeeping force is unlikely to work in Serraj’s favour. The EU is angry with Serraj for signing maritime and military agreements with Ankara and calling on Turkish troops to rescue his government. Europe are deeply concerned with what they perceive as Turkish expansionism that has complicated their policies in the Balkans, and now looks set to complicate their policies in the Mediterranean. EU leaders have engaged in a number of attempts to persuade Serraj to rescind the agreements, however the Libyan leader has remained firm on the need for Turkey’s support to stand against Haftar.

An international peace-keeping force will give Europe a direct hand in Tripoli’s complex political dynamics where an uneasy coalition of militias and political groups survives only because the individual parties are united in their hatred for Haftar, and in their perception of Haftar’s offensive as an existential threat. If Haftar is repelled, these groups are likely to quarrel with one another once more. The EU is likely to seek to capitalise on these differences to establish new ties with alternative groups on the ground, reshuffle the government in Tripoli, and seek a leader more amenable to rescinding the maritime agreements with Turkey. Given the EU’s lack of appetite for direct intervention, Haftar will expect France to push for a candidate who works in his favour, who is unlikely to bring in other foreign powers, so that when he renews his offensive, he will be able to do so without worrying about the interference of potential ‘game-changers’.

Confusion over Turkish military intervention

Just as Turkey was the main driving force behind the recent diplomatic scramble and surge in activity that culminated in a highly anticipated Berlin conference that only weeks ago was on the verge of collapsing, Turkey has unintentionally also become the key dynamic that has emboldened Haftar.

Reports of Syrian troops being sent to Libya betrayed the hesitation in Ankara that lurks behind the strong and powerful rhetoric. Haftar and his allies were initially rattled by Turkey’s threat to send troops and seriously considered the ceasefire. However, the emerging reports of Syrian troops being relocated from Syria to Libya suggested that Turkey was not keen on a military intervention and was looking for avenues to avoid sending Turkish troops. The gravity of the situation for Turkey in the Mediterranean warrants an imminent military intervention by Turkish forces, while the gravity of the situation in Idlib means that it makes little sense to relocate Syrian fighters. Therefore, the preference for Syrian fighters instead of the Turkish armed forces can only suggest that there is a matter of significant importance, or circumstances of enough severity, that sending Turkish forces is not as easy as Erdogan has suggested.

Following this line of thought, the UAE and Haftar are likely to have considered that Erdogan’s domestic situation is more difficult than his supporters let on. Public opinion for intervention is low (unlike in Syria where it remains high). The emergence of Davutoglu and Babacan, compounded by a municipality election that saw Erdogan’s AKP lose the important cities of Istanbul and Ankara suggest the domestic situation is volatile. If a Turkish soldier is killed in a conflict that the Turkish population do not consider worth fighting in, then this will only exacerbate an increasingly complicated domestic scene.

Moreover, Haftar will have noticed in Berlin that international powers are deeply concerned with a potential Turkish intervention in Libya. Haftar will have concluded that for most of these international powers, a Libya ruled by Haftar is less of a threat than Turkish expansionism in the Mediterranean. Moreover, the international response to Haftar’s seizure of oil terminals and dramatically cutting Libya’s oil output by half has been muted. Haftar will also no longer fear Russia which did not respond to his walking out of negotiations in Moscow which humiliated Putin, and seems unsure over how to proceed. Russia appears to be following Turkey’s lead which has yet to announce what its next step will be.

Haftar will also argue that Turkey cannot conduct an effective military campaign. Tripoli does not have the capacity to garrison and feed a large number of troops, and Tunisia and Algeria remain reluctant to allow Turkish forces to use their military bases. Tunis and Algiers fear a domestic public opinion backlash (although Tunis fears the backlash far more than Algiers. Algiers has begun a process of gauging public opinion over the prospect of cooperating with Turkey in against Haftar).

Lastly, Haftar and the UAE will see Turkey’s facilitation of Syrian fighters to Libya as a PR gift. The UAE will now be able to tell Europe that Turkey is sending ‘terrorists’ from Syria to its doorstep in Libya. Whether true or not is irrelevant. This argument will find much resonance in European capitals, including those not aligned with Haftar. The presence of Syrian fighters will also deeply agitate Algeria and Tunisia. Algeria is deeply concerned with security threats in the region and the rise of nomadic armed groups, hardened by experience as mercenaries in numerous conflicts in the Sahel, that are becoming difficult to contain. Algiers already has a wary eye on Mali to the South where French operations against armed groups only seems to be exacerbating the threat. Tunisia remains engaged in fighting a minor insurgency in Kasserine, and is deeply concerned with a growing smuggling crisis exacerbated by the Libyan conflict. Algeria is likely to accept the intervention of Turkish troops. However, it is unlikely to take kindly to Syrian fighters as a substitute.

The UAE will also tell the Arabs that the use of Syrian fighters reflects Erdogan and Turkey’s true opinion of Arabs; that they are a cheaper alternative and Turkish blood is not worth risking. Sentiments within the Arab world, particularly among those sympathetic and supportive of Erdogan are increasingly concerned with the prospect of a post-Erdogan Turkey. The perception is that the sheer power of Erdogan’s character, and his deeply held Islamic conviction, is what makes Turkey a welcoming place for refugees. However, following statements from other senior AKP leaders such as Benali Yildirim during the municipality elections in which he suggested he would send refugees home, and a growing number of anecdotes of visitors to Istanbul who describe instances of Turkish resentment for Arab refugees, there is a growing opinion being touted that Turkey will change substantially after Erdogan and become a hostile country.

In essence, it is clear that Turkey will dictate the next step in Libya. Algeria is seeking to host another summit. However, Serraj has expressed a reluctance to attend following the failure of the Berlin talks and the GNA are increasingly convinced that there can be no fruitful talks unless Haftar is driven from away from Tripoli. Haftar is resuming his offensive only because he believes Turkey is bluffing. However, if Turkey sends troops and drives Haftar from Tripoli, then the entire dynamic changes and the prospect of genuine negotiations with viable political outcomes become possible.

From Turkey’s perspective, they will argue that Erdogan is making sure to exhaust all diplomatic options so that he is not accused of warmongering when he eventually sends troops. He sought to facilitate discussions in Moscow and supported the Berlin Summit. He has engaged in dialogue with all parties. If nothing happens after all of these diplomatic initiatives, then Erdogan believes he will be in a stronger position internationally to embark on a military intervention. He has secured the support of Putin and is currently wooing the Italians who are increasingly concerned by what they perceive as Macron’s ‘bullying’ of the EU. Rather than bluffing, Erdogan may well be adopting an astute and cautious approach that may surprise an increasingly complacent Haftar.