Things have quickly changed in Libya during the past week, and between the warring parties, matters have escalated. The military confrontation around Tripoli is not new; anyone who follows the Libyan file will know that the Libyan National Army (LNA) has been engaged in military confrontations with militias of the West to secure its presence in Tripoli. Haftar, the head of the LNA, said in a recent conference that the “Zero Hour” has come, and it is time for the LNA to occupy the heart of the capital. However, such an action must be analysed within the overall context of the Libyan conflict, on domestic, regional and international levels.
The beginning of the present escalation was the signing of agreements between Libya and Turkey. The Presidential Council lead by Fayez Al-Sarraj signed agreements with Turkey concerning the Turkish maritime presence in the east of the Mediterranean, and in Libyan regional waters, while another agreement concerned military cooperation between Turkey and the Presidential Council. These agreements changed a lot strategically within the Libyan interior. First of all, military balances within the Libyan conflict are still in a state where no one side can supersede the other by military confrontation. Therefore, no side was capable of settling militarily the conflict since it began in April. What we are witnessing in Libya is a recurrent phase of military conflicts that lead to nothing, whether politically or militarily.
As usual, during the past few years, Turkey’s role has been problematic and frequently concludes in political tension. Turkey chose to sign agreements with the Presidential Council, ignoring the House of Representatives, meaning that Turkey is not only intervening in the Libyan interior, but also supporting certain parties over others and ignoring legitimacy. There is no doubt that what Turkey did is some form of political opportunism; an approach that Turkish foreign policy has adopted for some time. Turkey found a perfect opportunity to be present in the North Africa region and the Mediterranean, through offering an umbrella of protection to a waning entity stuck within a protracted conflict — the Presidential Council.
Regional and international powers concerned with the Libyan file aren’t exactly enthused about the signing of those agreements, or about Turkish ambitions for new and expanded influence in North Africa. Regionally, we can talk about more than one axis of alliances concerned with the Libyan file. Both east and west of Libya have recently developed new alliances. The east is still allied with Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, France and Russia. These countries, however, do not oppose a political solution; they actually encourage in all their formal statements. On the other hand, the West sought a new pattern of regional alliances, including Italy, Turkey and Qatar. Foreign support is now present on both sides of the conflict, and it will indeed have implications on the regional context.
The question remains, can this ongoing military confrontation be conclusive, or will it be but another chapter of a series of military aggressions going on for months in and around the capital Tripoli? Until now, there is no proof that one party is more powerful than the other, militarily and on the ground. However, will Turkey reach the level of escalation of having boots on the ground, changing the military balance within the Libyan interior? The logic of regional politics within the Mediterranean says that any Turkish intervention in the region will be opposed by Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, not to mention the LNA, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The point is that there is a regional alliance against Turkish presence within the region, and this alliance will see to it, by whatever means possible, that Turkey does not threaten the region’s security.
On the other hand, the Libyan interior does not look very promising. Maybe a year ago, political settlement was an option adopted by the international community and empowered by the United Nations. Today, after the decrease in the credibility of the UN mission in Libya, and the ongoing lack of consensus and military confrontations, a political settlement seems far from materialising on the ground. Moreover, changing regional and international alliances will indeed affect the conflict and prolong the time it may consume. There is of course a final question about the role of the international community within the Libyan crisis in the coming phase.
The international community still has two paths for action in Libya. The first is continuing international pressure on the warring parties in Libya to engage a process of political negotiation that eventually leads to a solution. The second is forming independent alliances to implement a military solution. The past few days have shown that there appears to be no solid direction towards international action in Libya, whether on the political or military levels. What could be read from the current situation is that the Libyan conflict and its military confrontations will prevail in the coming period, since there is no change in military capacities, and there is a state of confusion within the international community about what is happening in Libya. What is worth mentioning is that the Libyan people will remain the most affected by this regional power struggle.
*The writer is director of the Programme for the Mediterranean and North Africa Studies at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.