Regional challenges

Ziad A Akl
Tuesday 3 Dec 2019

As much as two recent agreements signed between Turkey and Tripoli’s government resurrect the latter’s tainted legitimacy, they represent a regional challenge that can’t go unaddressed

Unfortunately, the Libyan conflict remains active on both the political and military levels since 2014 and until today.

The warring parties in Libya have not been able to reach any consensus, and international actors like the UN are still incapable of implementing a political roadmap. The Libyan inside remains divided about making a political decision. The fact is, political and military elites in Libya have an interest in the continuation of the conflict. Years of conflict have created political influence and social status for those who are engaged in it, either politically or militarily.

International intervention in Libya has always been a question posed frequently. Since NATO’s intervention in 2011, Libya saw many foreign interventions in its affairs on multiple levels. Recently, Turkey signed with the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez Al-Sarraj two cooperation agreements on security cooperation and monitoring the coasts of Libya in the south of the Mediterranean.

The agreements obliged reflection on several levels. Considering first the Libyan interior (which suffers from military confrontations around Tripoli), signing the agreements is a tool within the context of the conflict, bearing various meanings on the domestic, regional and international levels.

The war for Tripoli and the incapability for either side to reach military dominance has opened the field for political negotiation. But the complex nature of the balance of power in Libya spurred various forces to seek support from foreign actors. The Presidential Council found support from both Italy and recently Turkey. The two agreements signed with the latter have great significance for the region.

First of all, Turkey’s political will to expand its role in the region through intervention in zones of conflict or political tension is still alive. The presence of Turkey in North Africa via a strategic location like Libya gives it several advantages, specifically regarding its relations with the West.

The two agreements that were signed touch on two sensitive files within the Libyan conflict: security affairs that have to do with terrorism, and being present on the coasts of Libya or the south of the Mediterranean that as to do with illegal immigration. Playing a part in both files is indeed a new card with which Turkey can play in the context of its relations with the West, specifically Europe.

Turkey’s interests in Libya’s energy sector and resources is another dimension of signing those agreements. There is significant interest from Turkey in natural gas resources in Libya. This interest adds another dimension to the Turkish presence in Libyan regional waters, and constitutes a new advantage that more than one country was looking for, including Russia and Italy. The benefits that Turkey will gain out of the recent agreements are no doubt plenty, but now the question becomes, what are the benefits that the Presidential Council or the Libyan West in general will secure from the agreements?

First of all, signing the agreements has revived the waning legitimacy of the Presidential Council and Al-Sarraj himself in the eyes of the international community. The military confrontations around Tripoli, the inability of Al-Sarraj to practise real influence, the utter control of the Misrata militias over military decisions in the West and the ongoing failure of the UN in resolving the conflict have made the legitimacy of the council vulnerable.

Signing agreements and building partnerships with regional powers, specifically in an area like the Mediterranean, where many common interests for multiple actors exist, is definitely a tool to gain waning legitimacy and resurrect the influence of the council and the Skhirat Agreement.

There is no doubt that these agreements pose a problem for national actors in the region, specifically Egypt due to its border relations with Libya, on the one hand, and its conflicts with Turkey during recent years, on the other. The agreements mean there will be some sort of Turkish military presence, as well as political influence, on the western borders of Egypt.

Such a development is something that threatens Egypt’s national security and contradicts with its vision that is concerned with an intra-Libyan political resolution without foreign intervention. It is also necessary to mention that Turkey is still betting on the Islamist stream in the Arab world. Supporting or empowering Islamist militias in the Libyan west is something that certainly creates tensions for Egypt’s national security.

For the region as a whole, the introduction of Turkey through signed agreements via legitimate entities is a new addition to the regional security equation. No doubt, and according to several studies and reports, Turkey has been involved in the Libyan conflict for some time now.

But being involved through official agreements and pacts is different from practising an underground role. It is now highly and logically expected that the Turkish role will expand in Libya, domestically and regionally. This means that a new actor has been added to the equation on an official platform, and now Turkey has become a part of the regional powers playing within the Libyan interior. It is difficult to be certain on how this interaction will materialise between regional actors involved in the Libyan file.

Finally, what should illicit caution is that international intervention has come back to the scene in Libya. This is something Egypt has long been against, but it also can be considered a sign of how regional and international actors have treated the Libyan conflict. By all means, the agreements that were recently signed represent a new security and political challenge for regional actors, specifically Libya’s neighbouring countries.

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 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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