Libya: Into the EastMed arena
Libya’s recent history shows how a region-wide confrontation can make matters worse for vulnerable states – in Libya’s case, exacerbating the problems it already had. In turn, the Libyan war has complicated the issue of gas exploitation around Cyprus.
Since the Arab uprisings, Libya has been continually subject to the impact of wider regional struggles, all the more so in recent times. This began with an April 2019 attack on the capital, Tripoli, by a renegade general, Khalifa Haftar. The offensive was backed by Saudi Arabia, armed by the United Arab Emirates, supplied through Egypt, and checked only by Turkey. For their part, Europeans watched on with seeming helplessness, some of them protesting about the offensive while others offered Haftar tacit support. The offensive provided as clear a depiction of the regional battle lines drawn through Libya – and, increasingly, the eastern Mediterranean – as one could hope to see. As is often the case in regional battles, individual war fronts did not remain contained. And, in Libya, Turkey saw a prime opportunity to advance its eastern Mediterranean interests and provoke the coalition that had been excluding it from the fruits of that sea.
Turkey has its own ties to Libya, and economic and geopolitical interests that go beyond this regional competition. But Turkey has allowed two main factors to shape its recent Libya policy. These are, firstly, a desire to ensure that the UAE does not block Turkey in North Africa; and, secondly, to leverage Libya’s long coastline to force the eastern Mediterranean gas coalition into accommodating Turkish interests.
The intersection of these two policy drivers came with Haftar’s April 2019 attack on Tripoli. The sense of urgency and high stakes involved in the operation demanded that Turkey break from its previously more subtle policy of increasing its economic ties with Tripoli while quietly facilitating arms shipments to anti-Haftar groups. Within weeks of the attack, Turkish military advisers were on the ground helping organise the defence, while expedited sales of equipment such as Turkish Bayraktar drones and Kirpi armoured vehicles provided battlefield parity with Haftar’s Emirati arsenal. Turkey not only ensured that Tripoli would not fall but was instrumental in helping the Libyan government reclaim the town of Gharyan, which served as Haftar’s forward operating base.
Turkey had allegedly been pressuring the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) since late 2018 to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) that would delineate a direct maritime boundary between the two and create an exclusive economic zone that cuts through areas to which Greece claims maritime rights. This was driven by Turkey’s growing concern over the proposed EastMed pipeline, which it views as a threat to its Mediterranean energy interests. The GNA had long been reluctant to commit to such a deal, as it feared this would damage its relationships with Europe amid international power-sharing negotiations. As such, Turkey used the GNA’s newfound reliance on it to turn the screw – by refusing to commit further support until the MoU had been signed. Even as Haftar steadily made territorial gains in the conflict, the GNA remained hesitant to sign the MoU, putting its faith in what at the time was the nascent ‘Berlin process’, which was designed to create an international agreement on a ceasefire.
But, eventually, a desperate GNA, coming back empty-handed from a tour of European capitals and Washington, relented to the Turkish maritime offer. In November 2019, as Emirati drone strikes and the arrival of Russian mercenaries pushed Haftar dangerously close to entering Tripoli, the government signed the MoU with Turkey, along with a second agreement on security assistance. Since then, Turkey has been dispatching military advisers, drones, advanced armaments, and Syrian fighters to the battlefield. It has committed to protecting the GNA, a development that has provoked the Russian-facilitated provision of Syrian fighters to the Haftar camp. Haftar has also now established direct ties with Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus.
The audacious maritime agreement sent shockwaves through Brussels, via Athens, Nicosia, Rome, and Paris. But the ire directed at the deal only caused the GNA to dig in, given that Turkey had upheld its side of the bargain by halting Haftar’s advance when Europe could not, and by installing air-defence systems in Tripoli and Misrata. In response, Greece, which was previously uninvolved in Libya’s crisis, came out strongly in support of Haftar, effectively joining the French camp. Athens declared the GNA-Turkey MoU illegal, while inviting the pro-Haftar speaker of Libya’s divided parliament, Aguila Saleh, to Athens – even though he was subject to an EU-mandated travel ban. This was followed by a formal invitation to Haftar, who gave assurances to both Greece and Egypt that he too viewed the MoU as illegal and would support them against Turkey should he be victorious.
Egypt, in turn, tried to leverage Europe’s outrage to garner stronger support for Haftar. In January this year, Egypt convened a ministerial-level meeting between the European states involved in the EastMed coalition – Cyprus, France, Greece, and Italy – to denounce Turkey’s MoU and push for a settlement of Libya’s crisis in which they would secure their interests by giving Haftar more support. The content of the discussions caused enough disquiet for Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio to refuse to sign the communiqué, likely because of Italy’s strong interests in western Libya and its migration agreement with the GNA. But – while Italy initiated efforts to secure an agreement between GNA prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Haftar, hoping this would stabilise the situation – Egypt, Greece, France, and the UAE continued in their efforts to create a grander pro-Haftar coalition involving Tunisia and Algeria. When this failed, they doubled down on the eastern Mediterranean grouping, and in May released another joint denouncement of Turkey’s eastern Mediterranean and Libya interventions.
Meanwhile, Germany attempted to follow through on the conference on Libya that it hosted in January 2020 by positioning the European Union to set up a mission to monitor the UN arms embargo on Libya. But eastern Mediterranean dynamics muddied its efforts, as Athens pressed successfully for a naval-focused mission aimed at blocking Turkey’s arms shipments to the GNA. Turkey allegedly hit back by leaning on Malta to veto the operation, in exchange for Turkish pressure on the GNA to stop migrant flows to the island. In a shock move, Malta did so in May.
As Libya’s war sinks into a new stalemate, Turkey seems to have changed the balance of power on the ground – and perhaps even in the eastern Mediterranean. With GNA offensives throughout April reclaiming large swathes of territory and all but ending Haftar’s hopes of conquering Libya, the GNA-Turkey MoU appears to be here to stay. Although Haftar’s backers will no doubt seek to escalate the war in response, Europe should recognise the futility of this – and forestall the potential unintended consequences such a move. After all, at the start of the war, no one expected the conflict to intersect with eastern Mediterranean energy competition in such a significant way. If cooler heads prevail, the two issues could be de-escalated through a concerted decoupling that targets each crisis independently. If not, they will continue to drive each other into greater difficulties.