High Stakes in Libya

By THO Team Member, Hannah Jacobson

As Covid continues to add to a deepening sense of insecurity, the conflict in Libya is increasingly vulnerable. In recent years, growing foreign intervention has resulted in its transformation into a proxy conflict.The Government of National Accord (GNA) is formally recognized by the UN as the legitimate governing body of Libya. Led by Fayez al-Sarraf, the GNA is primarily backed by Turkey but secondary allies with both Qatar and Italy. The US has also vocalized their support of the GNA, but has attempted to stay uninvolved in the conflict. Rivalling al-Sarraf, the Libyan National Army (LNA) is commanded by Khalifa Haftar. LNA forces are closely allied with Russia and Egypt but have also received military support from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and France. Rich in oil and natural gas resources, Libya provides access to valuable trade routes along the Mediterranean. For many countries Libya represents a valuable strategic interest for bolstering energy and economic security.

UN efforts to facilitate a peace agreement have been largely overshadowed by Turkish and Russian diplomacy. With political and geostrategic interests as the principle element propelling negotiations, Libya is at risk of becoming the new Syria. A conflict where a stalemate in negotiations is the status quo.

 Both Turkey and Russia have a lot riding on the outcomes in Libya. Turkey is an expanding market economy dependent on US imports of oil and natural gas. For the past decade, Turkey has heavily invested in the development of Libya’s Energy sector to reduce their energy dependence. Recently, Turkey has been leveraging their influence in Libya to secure a Maritime Deal, allowing Turkey exclusive access to begin drilling expositions in the Eastern Mediteranian. While this deal has received substantial international criticism-with Egypt dismissing the deal as “illegal”, it positions Turkey to be uncompromising in their approach towards a peace settlement. The necessity of the Maritime deal for Turkey is even more pertinent given the economic ramifications from Covid and the growing trend of the-globalization. While Turkey has been successful in containing Covid within their own country, their economy may not have the capacity to sustain a prolonged military intervention in Libya which also has its own implications for US-Turkey bilateral relations. Should Turkey cement their access to Libya’s energy resources it would establish a competitive market and shift bilateral relations with the US which are currently defined through economic partnership. 

Similar to Turkey, Russia’s endorsement of a political solution is also motivated by their long-term economic and geostrategic interests in the region. By officially backing Haftar and supporting a peace settlement, Russia is able to both expand their influence in LNA controlled areas and present itself as a champion of diplomacy. This bolsters their regional reputation and lends itself towards securing lucrative development contracts. In addition if the conflict in Libya stays unresolved, it has the potential to marginalize the US and other western powers weakening their influence in the region. Foreign policy decisions in Libya have larger implications for the international community and the future of NATO.

Libya represents the first conflict where NATO members have been divided. While France denies their support, they have allegedly been supplying anti-tank missiles to Haftar’s forces. With recent discussion challenging the relevance of NATO in the contemporary world, France’s support of the LNA is particularly damaging the legitimacy and strength of NATO in the region.  

With the authority of NATO being called into question, another safeguard against unilateral foreign interventions is weakened. This provides an opportunity for closer Turkey-Russia relations.Turkey and Russia’s closeness will likely challenge US energy investments in Turkey and potentially minimize US access to the gas and oil resources in the region. While the tone between president Putin and President Trump suggests that a direct countering of Russia’s growing influence in the region is unlikely, US presidential elections are approaching this November. The next administration will need to confront how the outcomes and international response to the conflict in Libya will affect US- Turkey relations and proactively redefine their strategic interests in the region.

While both Russia and Turkey’s long-term economic & geostrategic interests are best furthered by a swift de-escalation of conflict, both countries are too invested in Libya to easily reach a compromise. Within Libya, this dynamic indicates an alarming military build-up. There have been signs of a growing influx of weapons within the country with foreign actors continuously sending more sophisticated and deadly technology to the warring faction within Libya. The similarities between the Libyan and Syrian civil wars are eerie. With many of the same foreign actors and little incentive to apply credible pressure towards reaching a diplomatic solution, instability and suffering in Libya will only escalate.