In forty-hours of momentous fighting in Libya’s civil war the forces of the government in Tripoli re-took a strategic city and captured sophisticated anti-tank weapons from the eastern Libyan government leader’s forces. Increasingly the two sides, one backed by Turkey and its allies; and the other backed by the United Arab Emirates and its allies, is seen as an important battle that could decide the future of the Middle East’s power blocs. The transfer of weapons and armored vehicles by both sides to their local allies now risks a wider escalation.
For many years, after Libyan dictator Muammar was overthrown and killed in 2011, the country sank deeper into crises and civil conflict that was largely misunderstood and reported only in fragments. When it came into the spotlight, such as the murder of US ambassador Christopher Stevens in Banghazi in 2012 or in the battles for Sirte between ISIS and Tripoli’s forces in 2015-2016, Libya has been seen as momentarily important before it is largely forgotten again.
Libya is increasingly seen as particularly important by two alliances in the Middle East, one centered around Ankara and another around Abu Dhabi. This was only loosely understood for many years because many countries sought to get influence in Libya. The UAE, Qatar, Russia, France, Italy, the US, Egypt and Saudi Arabia all played a role since 2011.
The breakdown of Libya and the outsources of its conflict came in the context of the Arab Spring and the transformation of the Syrian conflict and Egypt. In Syria the regime of Bashar al-Assad faced off against Syrian rebels. Soon that conflict changed as Islamic State stepped in and Turkey began to back the rebels. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood won elections and came to power in 2012, only to be ousted in 2013. The Brotherhood in Egypt was seen in a positive light by Qatar and the ruling party in Turkey. But the Middle East was shifting. The UAE and Saudi Arabia began to see Brotherhood-linked groups, as well as Iran, as the chief challenge in the region.
Khalifa Haftar, a former general who had returned to Libya to support rebels in the east, soon found himself leading what he termed Operation Dignity to root out Islamist groups in Benghazi. With backing from Egypt he was able to retake eastern Libya in 2014. For Egypt this made sense. Haftar was a military man, like those who had pushed the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi out in 2013. He also had brought stability to eastern Libya. Egypy wanted to stop the terrorists and weapons trafficking by them that was seeking to penetrate Egypt’s southern desert from Libya. Haftar was the key. But it took him years to consolidate control until in February 2019 he took the strategic oil crescent cities on the coast. He visited Russia in November 2018 and he met the French President in May. Turkey’s state TRT network accused Russia of arming Haftar’s forces and sending mercenaries in March 2019.
In April Haftar’s forces, called the Libyan National Army, launched a major offensive hoping to take the capital of Tripoli. Ostensibly this is a battle between the LNA and the Government of the National Accord (GNA) which is often posited to be the “UN-Recognized” or internationally recognized government. That internationally recognized government controls only a small part of Libya. The LNA and its backers hoped to seal its fate in April and present what was left of its backers with a fait accompli.
Turkey had other ideas. According to reports it sent Kirpi armoured vehicles to Tripoli to bolster the GNA’s flagging forces. Would this lead to a crises with the countries backing Haftar, including Egypt and the UAE? The Middle East Eye and The Arab Weekly reported the transfer of the vehicles as Ankara’s way to “balance” the UAE and other allies of Haftar. Turkey had acquired 529 of these Kirpi vehicles from BMC in 2017. In May it seems dozens of them were sent to Libya from Turkey.
The support that the GNA got in May helped it launch counterattacks in June and push some of Haftar’s forces back. The LNA was pushed out of Gharyan, a strategic city south of Tripoli. LNA forces suffered casualties. But the LNA said it was a tactical withdrawal. Al-Jazeera in Doha claimed the LNA has “mercenaries” from Chad and Sudan fighting in its ranks. The GNA also captured weapons in Gharyan, including photos of the US-made Javelin anti-tank missile. Four of them were found and the Libyan Express accuses the UAE of supplying them to Haftar’s forces. They were allegedly sold to the UAE in 2008 from the US. Frederic Wehrey, author of a book on Libya and a Senior Fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace discussed the transfer of the UAE’s Javelin’s with The New York Times on Saturday.
Now the LNA is angry. They have slammed Turkey’s involvement in Libya. The Javelin weapons may have been given to the LNA after the armored vehicles were provided to the GNA as a way to balance Ankara’s involvement. But it is embarrassing that they fell into the wrong hands. Now the LNA is threatening Turkish flights and ships that arrive in Tripoli, arguing that they are bringing weapons. According to Reuters Turkey has supplied drones and trucks to the Tripoli government.
The battle is now reaching a more international scope because of the weapons flowing from various Middle Eastern countries into this proxy war. If before the cash and weapons were small, now they are out in the open. The western powers have largely abrogated responsibility in Libya, even though it was European and US intervention that helped remove Gaddafi. European countries have sought to stop the flow of migrants and Italy’s government particularly does not want humanitarian boats picking up African migrants off Libya’s shores. This means that the European Union has an interest in keeping the GNA in power or at least working out some kind of deal. Haftar has come a long way from Benghazi but there is pushback against him because he is not “internationally recognized” and because he is supported by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The transfer of the armored vehicles in May was largely ignored, but now the conflict is coming out of the shadows and it will impact both Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers.