President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister of Turkey Mevlut Cavusoglu attend the Berlin Conference on Libyan peace in Berlin, Germany on January 19, 2020.
January 19, Berlin hosted the UN conference to resolve the armed conflict in Libya. Since April 2019, the oil republic has been embraced by the confrontation between the armed forces of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord of Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj and commander of the Libyan National Army Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the government in Tobruk, Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani.
Field Marshal’s troops control 80% of the territory of Libya and try to capture Tripoli. Recently, the Libyan National Army resumed the offensive on the capital, and the Turkish authorities decided to send Turkish troops to Libya at the request of Sarraj.
The conference was attended by parties to the conflict, representatives of Russia, the USA, China, UK, Italy, France, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, UAE, Congo, UN, EU, African Union, League of Arab States. The date of the conference was decided after the failed negotiations between Sarraj and Haftar in Moscow on January 14 with the mediation of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Erdogan.
Despite the fact that the Libyan national army enjoys the support of Russia, Haftar emphatically refused to dance to the tune of the Kremlin. In Libya, the interests of various global and regional players are intertwined. Russia is not the only country to bet on Haftar in the confrontation with Sarraj in the hope of deriving its benefits.
The failure of Putin and Erdogan
The interests of Russia and Turkey in Libya differ only in that they support different sides of the conflict. Moscow supplies arms and mercenaries to Haftar’s troops, and the Turkish government provides military assistance to Sarraj. Otherwise, Russia and Turkey are attracted by the same thing: large oil fields, convenient geostrategic location of Libya to create a naval base in the Mediterranean.
Russia hopes that it will be able to restore concessions in the oil and gas sector of Libya, lost after the overthrow of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. De jure, oil production is coordinated by the government structure of the Libyan Oil Company, associated with the government from Tripoli. The de facto production of two-thirds of the volume of oil is carried out in the territory controlled by the Libyan National Army.
Libyan Oil Company has a split between supporters of Haftar and Sarraj. Workers from the eastern part of the country even tried to secede and not deduct money in Tripoli.
Turkey seeks to strengthen its influence in countries that were part of the Ottoman Empire and uses its ties with the Islamists in Libya. At the end of last year, the Muslim Brotherhood group urged Sarraj to allow the opening of a Turkish military base in Libya.
The interests of Turkey echo those of Qatar, which also supports the government of Sarraj and is trying to strengthen its influence in North Africa by developing relations with local Islamists.
Putin and Erdogan decided to be proactive and divide Libya into spheres of influence without the participation of other players, including Arab states, Western countries, which also have interests in this country. The basis of the deal was to be the peace between Haftar and Sarraj. Putin and Erdogan acted as mediators and wanted to start the peace process on themselves, as was the case in Syria as part of the meetings in Astana, to prepare Sarraj and Haftar for negotiations at a conference in Berlin.
At a meeting in Moscow, the parties to the conflict were asked to sign an agreement on guaranteed observance of the ceasefire, the cessation of offensive operations, a demarcation line between their armed forces, measures to stabilize the situation and normalize life in Tripoli and other Libyan cities, and appoint negotiators to further discuss security issues, economics, and political dialogue.
Provided that its interests in the energy sector of Libya were satisfied, Russia would agree to keep Sarraj at the prime minister’s office, with whom Erdogan signed an agreement on the maritime border in December, which creates support for Turkey’s claims to vast expanses in the Mediterranean Sea.
Russian and Turkish leaders echoed the bitter experience of French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who at one time could not convince the parties to the Libyan conflict to cease fire and hold transparent parliamentary elections. The talks between Sarraj and Haftar in Moscow on January 14 ended in complete failure.
Haftar could intentionally fail the negotiations in Moscow in order to try to achieve peace in Berlin on more favorable terms for himself and more influential sponsors than Russia. The goal of Haftar and at-Thani is to extend the power of the government in Tobruk to the whole country and take control of the financial flows from the oil trade. Oil sales represent 82% of exports and 60% of Libyan GDP.
The government in Tobruk was formed by the Libyan Parliament House of Representatives following the 2014 parliamentary elections. Libyan MPs left Tripoli due to a conflict with the Islamist opposition. The unsuccessful negotiations between Sarraj and Haftar in Moscow refute the version that Russia and Turkey are supposedly able to effectively resolve the conflict in Libya.
Interests of the Arab States
Key sponsors of the Libyan National Army have a significant impact on Haftar’s position in negotiations with Sarraj: the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. These countries supply arms and ammunition to Haftar’s troops, including anti-aircraft missile systems and drones, bypassing the UN embargo, and transfer funds to bribe Libyan tribal leaders and pay mercenaries. The supply of the Libyan national army is carried out through the Egyptian-Libyan border.
The key interest of the UAE and Egypt is Libyan oil and the construction sector. Companies from these countries supply oil from fields in the east of Libya and buy it at a price lower than the market price of $ 55 per barrel.
Last year, a deal was concluded to supply 2 million barrels of oil to the UAE from the Libyan port of Mars al-Harik. The government in Tobruk has provided contractors from the UAE with a contract to rebuild Benghazi infrastructure.
Authorities in the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia see Haftar as a counterweight to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic organizations in North Africa.
Field Marshal positions himself as a fighter against Islamic extremism. The secular regimes of the Arab countries see a threat to their existence in the face of the Islamists. This is especially evident in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which persecute members of the Muslim Brotherhood group. The deployment of Turkish troops in Libya to support the government of Sarraj creates the prerequisites for strengthening the Islamists in the region.
On the eve of Haftar’s trip to Moscow, he was met in Rome on January 9 by Deputy Presidential Adviser on National Security for the Middle East and North Africa, Victoria Cotes, US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Maghreb and Egypt, Henry Wooster.
The Americans opposed the deployment of Russian, Syrian mercenaries, the Turkish military in Libya, called on the parties to the conflict to cease hostilities and begin a political dialogue with UN support. The United States played along with its Middle Eastern partners and made it clear to the Libyan side that it was time to stop balancing between Russia, on the one hand, and the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, on the other, and decide on the choice of partners.
Until the United States provides military assistance to Sarraj and does not prevent Haftar from seizing power in Libya, limiting himself to high-profile statements and intelligence gathering.
It might seem that the United States has become disillusioned with Sarraj’s ability to ensure stability in the country. U.S. special forces left Libya on the eve of the onset of the Haftar army on Tripoli in April 2019. Declaring government support in Tripoli, Trump once stated that Haftar plays a significant role in the fight against terrorism.
In October 2019, firms from Washington and Houston refrained from fulfilling the request of the Libyan Oil Company and directing investments in the development of the Libyan oil and gas sector in order to increase oil production from the current 1.1 million to 2.4 million barrels per day.
The old warrior Haftar, who lived in the United States for 20 years, as an ardent opponent of Gaddafi, and participated in the overthrow of his regime in 2011, causes more confidence among Americans than Sarraj, who flirts with Turkey. The US and Turkey compete for influence in the Middle East.
The problematic issues in bilateral relations are Ankara’s participation in the TurkStream project of Gazprom, the purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems despite NATO membership. The dominance of Haftar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Libya looks like a lesser evil for the Americans than the strengthening of Saraj in conjunction with Turkey.
Duality of France and Italy
French President Emmanuel Macron believes that Field Marshal must be reckoned with. Last year, France blocked an EU resolution condemning the Libyan National Army’s offensive in Tripoli. The Sarraj government temporarily suspended the license for Total and another 36 firms in protest. France is suspected of transferring Javelin anti-tank systems purchased in the United States to Haftar.
France and Italy have exhausted attempts to reconcile Sarraj and Haftar over the past two years. It would be more logical to establish relations with those who have more resources, namely: with the government in Tobruk and Haftar. In the territory controlled by the Libyan National Army, the Elephant oil field is located, which is owned by a joint venture of Mellitah Oil and Gas of the Italian company Eni and the Libyan oil company. In the east of Libya is the Vakha field, where the share of the French oil company Total is 16.33%.
The participation of the Turkish military on the side of the Sarraj government against the Libyan national army will pose a threat to the migration security of France and Italy. In the event of an intensification of the armed conflict, a string of refugees will travel to Italy and France, bypassing the Mediterranean Sea. Therefore, Europeans can use their leverage over the government of Sarraj to force Haftar to comply. Libya depends on the supply of oil products from Italy, as the country lacks refining capacities. Officials from Tripoli profit from the resale of imported fuel.
The military conflict will continue if Sarraj and Haftar again fail to agree on peace. It will be much more difficult to negotiate in terms of expanding the number of participants with mutually exclusive interests.
Arabs, Europeans, Americans, Russians and Turks will continue the streak. Erdogan has already threatened to teach Haftar a lesson if he does not stop his attack on Tripoli. Turkey has already begun deploying troops in Libya.
The Turkish army is the only force that can tip the scales on the side of Sarraj. However, the consequences of the forceful solution to the crisis are very mixed. The lightning war in Libya will benefit Erdogan to strengthen his image and ratings, but if the fighting drags on, it will hit the weakening Turkish economy and lead to discontent in society. Arab countries will continue to sponsor the Libyan National Army.
Turkey's military operation in Libya will hit the Kremlin’s image in Africa. After Haftar’s demarche in Moscow, Russia will refrain from supporting the Libyan National Army and will not aggravate relations with Turkey. However, given that Sarraj is an opponent of Haftar, it will look like Russia's defeat in the spirit of surrendering the Syrian Kurds of the Turkish army to the United States last year. The excessive strengthening of Turkey in Libya is unprofitable for the West and the Arab states, which also want to snatch their piece of oil pie.