The war in Libya might escalate beyond its borders

The war in Libya is showing clear signs of escalation. As the North African nation struggles to unite under a single government, external factors are likely to push the conflict beyond its borders. 

The reason, like most modern wars, is about energy. Eastern Mediterranean Sea is a gas-rich region marred in territorial conflicts between Turkey, Greece, and Libya that have hindered the utilization of the wealth that lies underneath. 

Turkey’s Maritime Deal with Libya

Turkey and Libya signed a maritime deal with Libya in late November 2019 redefining boundaries of their territorial waters. This came after Turkey and Libya voiced concerns that regional countries were leaving them out from benefiting from the energy resources of the Mediterranean region. 

The internationally recognized Libyan government is facing a civil war from the eastern part of the country where a parallel government with significant military prowess is challenging its authority. This has left it with a diminished ability to protect its interests beyond its land borders. 

Sharing the resource exploitation concerns, the Libyan government reached out to Turkey and the maritime deal was born. 

What Sparked the Turkish-Libyan Deal?

Turkey’s fears heightened when Israel, Greece and Greek Cypriot Administration signed an energy deal in November 2018 that would result in the construction of a $7 million EastMed pipeline. The pipeline will originate from what Turkey and Libya consider Libyan maritime zone and culminate at the Italian city of Otranto. 

Seeing the Turkish-Libyan deal, Greece accelerated efforts to materialize the pipeline and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ office revealed that he along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades will sign the agreement on 2 Jan 2020. Italy’s nod to the modalities of the pipeline though remains unclear. 

The tension between NATO Allies Turkey and Greece

Turkey’s maritime deal with Libya brought it at odds with NATO ally Greece. At the 70th anniversary summit of the organization last month, Greece was visibly infuriated and took an exception to the new demarcation of Turkish and Libyan maritime territories. 

Ever since, Greece has been on a diplomatic offensive. It has dispatched letters to the UN explaining its objections and Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias toured Arab capitals for gathering support. 

Though it is unlikely that Greece will be able to break the status quo between Arab states and Turkey that exists over an array of issues related to the Middle East. So far only Egypt has been the only Arab nation objecting to the maritime deal. Egypt’s naval forces also conducted military drills that coincided with the rise in tensions with Turkey and Libya. 

Turkey’s Military Pact with Libya

The war in Libya has ensued since the fall of its longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi has torn the country among forces loyal to the government and the eastern Libyan National Army (LNA). 

Turkey sides with the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and signed a military cooperation pact last month which the Turkish parliament has now ratified. The pact allows Turkey to deploy its troops at the request of Libya where the threat of a “decisive battle” is looming from the opposition forces of the LNA. The deployment is expected to be carried out by January 2020.

Russian ‘Wagner’ Mercenaries in the War in Libya

Russia and Turkey find each other at opposing sides in Libya. While Turkey is supporting the GNA, Russia is maintaining a channel with the LNA. The situation recently got complicated when the US objected to the presence of the Russian mercenary force Wagner Group among the ranks of LNA. 

Wagner forces are a Russian mercenary group which the Russian government denies control over. The group rose to prominence during Eastern Ukranian conflict where pro-Russian forces were up in arms against Ukraine. 

Although Turkey and Russia are cooperating at various fronts in the Middle East, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came down hard upon the presence of the Wagner group in Libya. He cited the group’s presence in the war in Libya as the reason for a possible Turkish military deployment. He has vowed to take up the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin when the latter visits Turkey in early 2020.    

Fighters loyal to the GNA engage in a gun fight as the war in Libya ensues (AFP Photo)
Fighters loyal to the GNA engage in a gun fight as the war in Libya ensues (AFP Photo)

Arms Embargo Lifted from Cyprus

As if the drums of war beating in the Mediterranean were not enough, the US Congress voted to lift the arms embargo from Cyprus in mid-December 2019 that had been in place since 1987. Imposed initially to discourage an arms race in the region, the embargo was one of the reasons the division of Cyprus had not escalated tensions between Turkey and Greece.

Turkey was clearly infuriated. Its foreign ministry issued a statement that the move will be a ‘dangerous escalation‘. This comes at a time when Turkey and the US are not at the best of terms. Turkey’s decision to move ahead with its purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia strained its relations with the US and it was kicked out of the F-35 stealth fighter jet program. 

Turkish Drone in Cyprus

At the same time, the deployment of a Turkish drone in Cyprus has raised the apprehensions of the Greek government. Although Turkey states that it is for the purpose of hydrocarbon exploration but not all in Greece are convinced. 

According to AFP, it is a military Bayraktar TB2 drone. The drone’s deployment comes in light of Greece controlled Cyprus’ acquisition of Israeli Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in October 2019 for surveillance purposes.

Stationed at Gecitkale airport, the Turkish drone has started its flights over the eastern Mediterranean. 

Greek Foreign Minister’s Visit to Rebel Libyan Region

Amid the rising tension, Greek Foreign Minister visited the rebel-controlled eastern Libya. He met with commander Khalifa Haftar who has continuously stepped up opposition to the internationally recognized GNA. 

A strong reaction to the visit emanated from Libya’s Turkey aligned GNA as the visit was apparently aimed precisely at that. GNA is not in a position to react to such foreign bids and Greece used the visit to convey a message that it was prepared to escalate while defending its interests. 

The Italian Factor

Italy is the third NATO member that considers itself an affectee in the brewing conflict. Ever since ending its colonial hold, Italy considers Libya its natural domain. The growing Turkish influence has thrown Italy on its toes. Italy and Turkey have been relatively friendly in recent times, apart from Italian opposition to Turkish offensive in Syria

In the rift between Greece and Turkey, Italian interests lie with those of Greece since it is in the final stages of approving the EastMed pipeline. At the same time, it has been cautious in stepping into the Turkey-Libya deal. Italy appointed a special diplomatic envoy to Libya only after the deal was finalized and admitted that it had been slow in responding to LNA’s assault on western Libya’s GNA. 

Forecast 

The war in Libya is morphing into a multi-national conflict. Sucking in Turkey, Greece, and Italy – all NATO members – the situation is posing a threat to their military alliance and raising fears of a new conflict in the MENA region. 

The region is still struggling with the power vacuum formed after the Arab Spring that deposed several dictators. There are little signs of its return to normalcy. If the Libyan conflict escalates beyond its borders, it will give birth to a new proxy war that will disturb the status quo that the Mediterranean region has enjoyed so far.