It remains largely a mystery why Haftar’s forces have suddenly evaporated from the battlefield in Libya, withdrawing from one post after another.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with Libya’s internationally recognised Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Istanbul, Turkey, November 27, 2019. Picture taken November 27, 2019
(photo credit: PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
In November, Turkey, riding high after ordering the US to leave part of eastern Syria and invading a peaceful area of Syria, decided to sign an energy deal with the embattled government in Tripoli, Libya. From the moment Ankara signed that deal, the fortunes of the Government of the National Accord (GNA) changed.
A chaotic and largely failed government, clinging to “UN recognition,” suddenly saw arms, drones and armored vehicles, as well as Syrian mercenaries, flowing in to fill its dwindling defensive lines. Six months later it is on the offensive, sweeping away the Russian- and Egyptian-backed opposition.
How did the GNA’s fighters – who in photos appear like an armed rabble without uniforms, who graffiti helicopters they capture and seem to spend more time posing for photos than fighting – suddenly turn around the war effort? The Libyan National Army (LNA) abandoned massive amounts of equipment as it withdrew, including a T-63 tank, Mi-35 helicopter, Kornet missiles and anti-drone guns.
On paper, the GNA faced a formidable foe. The LNA, led by Khalifa Haftar, had Russian-made air-defense systems, tanks, many trucks with mounted machine guns, money and stockpiles of weapons supplied via Egypt, the UAE and Russia. It had many contractors from Russia, even warplanes, and Chinese-made armed drones. But field commander Haftar proved to be less a Napoleon and more a McClellan, the fastidious US commander whose sloth-like efforts in the US Civil War earned him rebuke.
Yet it remains largely a mystery why Haftar’s forces have suddenly evaporated from the battlefield in Libya, withdrawing from one post after another. Haftar’s forces had been trying to capture Tripoli for six months last year, with rising rhetoric from his office about how the offensive would soon drive the “terrorists” and “militias” in Tripoli into the sea. Instead, the Turks sent drones and vowed to drive the “warlord” Haftar back. The GNA captured Watiya airbase on May 18 from Haftar’s LNA. Tripoli’s international airport was captured by the GNA on June 2.
The GNA is now marching through Tarhuna and looking to take Sirte, Bani Walid and more key cities and strategic areas from Haftar, including Al-Jufra . Much of the effort by the GNA appears to have been accomplished without major fighting, and there are hints of a secret deal or some kind of compromise that has been made by the backers of both Haftar and the GNA. Haftar was under “international pressure” to withdraw 60 km., Arab News reported.
How does international pressure suddenly arrive in Libya after years in which the international community didn’t care about its conflict? We know the European Union was paying “Libyan militias” to keep migrants from coming to Europe, according to the Associated Press. We also know the EU had launched a naval mission in March to enforce an arms embargo.
But it appears the arms embargo is largely a fiction, as C-17 flights by Qatar airlines and even the US may have landed in Tripoli. The Twitter accounts @Gerjon_ and @ItaMilRadar have tracked many of these flights or tweeted about them over the last months. Flights also come from the UAE, allegedly to supply Haftar in Benghazi. Turkey also has a kind of air bridge operating to supply Tripoli and ships off the coast.
If this is what an arms embargo looks like, then it seems strange that the two sides in the Libya conflict probably receive more arms, or at least illicit flights, per week than any other conflict in the world.
To break Haftar, Turkey has used the same recipe it used in eastern Syria. First it begins to mobilize its pro-government media to label Hafter a “terrorist” and “warlord” and “coup supporter.” This is the same language Turkey uses for all its enemies. There is no evidence that Haftar’s forces are different or worse in terms of human-rights abuses than the GNA.
Both Haftar and the GNA accuse each other of running authoritarian militias. However, by supplying the GNA, Turkey forced Russia’s hand to send in more warplanes to Libya to bolster Haftar. Turkey then fed Western media stories about Haftar being supplied by the Syrian regime and Iran. The pro-GNA lobby that works Western governments for support also spun stories about Haftar’s forces being “terror forces.” Information was also fed to Western investigators asserting that Haftar was trading oil with Venezuela.
The goal of all this was to portray Haftar as part of a new Russian-Iranian axis in Libya. Reports leaked via Israel also said Haftar had Iranian-supplied antitank missiles. Turkey’s dubious role recruiting Syrian extremists – who had just ethnically cleansed Kurds in Afrin and Tel Abyad – to go to Libya was not probed.
Turkey appears to want to use Libya as a dumping ground for Syrians, paying them to secure Turkey’s energy interests and keeping them distracted while Ankara gives up pieces of Idlib to the Syrian regime.
Turkey’s media efforts have paid off. It had used the same recipe to portray the anti-ISIS factions in eastern Syria as “terrorists,” even though they never committed any terrorist acts. Turkey has learned the recipe of dealing with the West. Attack groups and force those groups to choose between being destroyed by Turkish-backed extremists or working with others like Russia and the Syrian regime, and then label those groups as “terrorists.”
It is a recipe that works well because most groups when being attacked will not choose to disband themselves but will seek support elsewhere. Haftar already had that support, also from US partners in Egypt and the UAE and France. Turkey has played up the Russia-Iran angle. By deploying aircraft to Libya on May 26, Russia forced the US’s hand to likely being more supportive for Turkey’s role in Libya.
In this equation, Haftar became the inevitable loser because his lack of “UN recognition” means he and his forces are hostages to Russia and other countries. The US and Europe no longer do major peacekeeping missions or try to solve conflicts, so Libya’s war will be brokered by Moscow and Ankara, the same countries that manage Syria’s conflict.
Russia doesn’t mind maintaining clients in areas like Libya or eastern Ukraine, but it wants its clients totally beholden to Moscow. Egypt and the UAE are not as good as Turkey at doing proxy warfare. The UAE already largely failed in Yemen.
The question about Libya is what comes next. The rising Turkish role has increased the alliance between Egypt and Greece to counterbalance Turkey’s desire to take over parts of the Mediterranean for energy drilling. But Greece and Egypt have not shown that they are willing to confront Turkey, much as the EU arms embargo on Libya is largely a fiction.
Mystery still surrounds what caused Haftar’s forces to collapse. Although their air defense was decimated by Turkey’s drones in mid-May, it is not clear how drones with a few smart munitions can win a war. In recent days, Haftar has gone to Cairo and the GNA leaders have gone to Istanbul.
After all the rhetoric by both sides calling each other terrorists, it doesn’t seem any kind of ceasefire will really work. Russia could try to do what it has done in Idlib – broker some kind of joint patrols on the ground. It may be also trying to get some deal for parts of Libya in exchange for parts of Idlib.
The media portrayal that wants to see Libya as some cut-and-dry conflict may be surprised to find out that behind the scenes, what has led Haftar to withdraw is more complex than military defeat on the ground.