'No end in sight': Why Libya's proxy war might be about to flare-up

'No end in sight': Why Libya's proxy war might be about to flare-up
Over the past year, the Libya conflict has become increasingly more dangerous.
4 min read
03 January, 2020
Libyans march with a giant national flag during a demonstration against strongman Haftar [Getty]

The conflict in Libya is showing no signs of abating anytime soon as the country's capital Tripoli once again finds itself under siege and Turkey seriously contemplates becoming more directly involved.

Over the past year, the Libya conflict has become increasingly more dangerous.

In April, General Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army [LNA] launched a major siege against the UN-recognised Government of National Accord [GNA] led by Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj in Tripoli.

Haftar has received varying degrees of support from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates as well as from France and Russia, among others. The GNA, on the other hand, has only received support from Turkey and Qatar.

Ankara's military support for the GNA has, nevertheless, proven quite significant. It delivered armed Bayraktar drones and armoured vehicles to Tripoli, which helped the GNA break Haftar's siege last summer.

In December, Haftar announced a "decisive battle" to capture Tripoli in a "broad and total assault" and besieged the city once again. This came not long after Turkey reached a controversial maritime agreement with the GNA – which Cyprus, Egypt, and Greece bitterly oppose – as well as a military and security cooperation deal under which Tripoli can request direct Turkish military assistance, which it has. 

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Then, on January 2, the Turkish parliament approved legislation authorising Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to deploy troops in the war-torn North African nation. 

Aside from sending some Syrian Turkmen fighters to help bolster Tripoli's defences, the GNA hopes Turkey will deploy naval forces as well as establish a no-fly zone over the parts of west Libya it controls.

A Turkish no-fly zone would help shield the GNA and Tripoli from LNA drone attacks as well as potential airstrikes carried out by the LNA's state sponsors, such as Egypt or the United Arab Emirates, which would give the GNA a decisive edge over its Tobruk-based adversary.

Logistically, however, it's unclear if Turkey can deploy the necessary hardware such an endeavour would require.

Turkey does not possess an aircraft carrier and without airbases near Libya it would need to rely on tanker aircraft to enable its fighter jets to conduct combat air patrols over western Libya. That would be a major and risky logistical feat since Libya is located approximately 2,000 kilometres away from Turkey.

Erdogan visited Libya's neighbour Tunisia on December 25 and requested use of Tunisian bases for his planned Libya deployment. Tunis refused since it, along with Algeria, wants to remain neutral in the conflict raging across its border.

Consequently, Turkey will face very considerable difficulty in deploying a sizeable force to counter Haftar's push against Tripoli. 

Recent satellite imaginary taken over Libya revealed the construction of a new airstrip in a residential area in the town of Ain Zara southeast of Tripoli. The airstrip is likely intended for GNA drones rather than Turkish fighter jets. 

Given its limited military options, Ankara may settle for deploying a modest force of troops augmented by allied Syrian militiamen, possibly along with additional drones, armoured vehicles and other equipment, to help the GNA hold its ground until the LNA agrees to some kind of a ceasefire or negotiations aimed at ending the conflict.

In a recent visit to Cairo, Haftar told Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that the LNA could capture Tripoli in a few hours if Egypt sent in troops.

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It's unclear if Egypt would intervene directly. However, if Turkey establishes a sizeable military presence in Libya that helps turn the tide of this hitherto largely stalemated war in the GNA's favour, Egypt might conceivably deploy forces of its own.

Such a development would make the conflict much more dangerous for obvious reasons.

Opposition to increased foreign intervention in Libya is widespread. The Arab League has called for the prevention of "foreign interference" and the UN's Libya envoy, Ghassan Salame, claimed Turkey's aforementioned deals with the GNA constitutes an "escalation" of the conflict in the country.

Sisi, while reiterating his support for the LNA, also called for an end of foreign interference in Libya's internal affairs.

US President Donald Trump, who signalled his approval for Haftar's initial Tripoli siege in April, is now warning Turkey to stay out of the Libyan conflict, insisting that "foreign interference is complicating the situation in Libya." 

On December 28, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stressed that Turkey would do its utmost to prevent Libya from turning into another Syria. "We need to do whatever is needed to prevent Libya from being divided and sliding into a chaos, and we do it," he said.

On January 1, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay suggested that Turkey may not send troops if the LNA ends its offensive, which is unlikely.

Increased foreign support for both of Libya's warring factions is ultimately bound to prolong this conflict along with the misery of the Libyan people, who have suffered continuous instability and violence since 2011.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon