Since its beginning in April 2019, the Libyan civil war has torn an entire State, damaging the wealth of a nation that, in 2015, was the sixth biggest economy in the African continent. The conflict, which is between the official Government of National Accord (GNA), held by Fayez Al-Sarraj, and the Libyan National Army (LNA) spearheaded by the general Khalifa Haftar, seems to increasingly attract more international interest, the longer it goes on.

So far, the GNA has been mainly supported by the UN and Qatar, while the opponent LNA is backed by Russia, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which financed and assisted the rebel fringe, sending mercenaries, aircrafts and weapons and contravening a UN-established military embargo. There’s tangible evidence that France also supported Haftar’s army. The month of December 2019 has witnessed the intervention of yet another foreign actor, the Republic of Turkey, entering the Libyan power game. Eventually, Libya has become an international arena, in which foreign powers intervene strategically. It goes without saying, the more powers come into play, the more unsteady and unpredictable the geopolitical situation gets. Given that, the question to be addressed is twofold: what happened during the last month, and why?

Tracing back a timeline of December, a lot has happened in a very short period of time. In a single, but crucial, month, Turkey managed to establish itself as the new leading actor in the Libyan conflict. The first, triggering event is dated 27th of November, the day when the GNA signed a controversial Memorandum of Understanding with Turkey. The agreement established a military cooperation which could be triggered at the request of GNA’s leader Al-Sarraj. The agreement turned out to be immediately crucial: between the 24th and 29th of December, 650 Syrian mercenaries were unofficially sent to Tripoli from the Turkish Government in order to defend Tripoli, stronghold of the GNA, from the continuous attacks of the LNA.

Due to bald-faced operations undertaken by the Haftar’s army (the seizure of a Turkish vessel and the conquest of the Tripoli Airport), the pressure imposed on the GNA increased consistently. This led to the set in motion of the Memorandum, and to the official request for military support. On the 2nd of January 2020, the Turkish Parliament ratified the request with 325 votes in favor and 184 against. The Turkish military intervention exacerbated the LNA’s offensive: on the 4th of January, different raids shelled the Mitiga International Airport and a military academy in Tripoli, causing dozens of deaths. According to the Libya Observer, Haftar’s spokesman Khaled Al-Mahjoub claimed credits for the attack; nevertheless, he personally denied LNA’s involvement, discrediting the announcement as fake news. On the 6th of January, the LNA succeeded in seizing the city of Sirte, hometown of the former dictator Ghaddafi and key-point for oil-plants.

The warlord Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, General of the LNA. He has been its leader since March 2015 //Wikimedia Commons

Although it managed to gather the opponents together, The Moscow Conference was a diplomatic failure. Nevertheless, the high-political-profile adopted by Russia and Turkey within the Libyan conflict woke up the – hitherto quite slumbering – European States, which convened in a Berlin-based conference on the 19th of January strongly promoted by Angela Merkel. The Conference also gathered several non-European countries, including Russia, Turkey, the UK and the US. The outcome of the panel, signed by every participant, declared the commitment to ‘refrain from interference in the armed conflict or in the internal affairs of Libya’ and to support both a ceasefire and a military embargo. Al-Sarraj and Haftar, despite being in Berlin, did not sign – nor took part – in the agreement. Nearly a month circa after the conference, the commitments to live up the ceasefire and the arms embargo had already been violated several times. The traditional diplomatic channels did not manage to solve the faltering situation.

It is surprising to state that, at the same time as a dull sense of political uncertainty surrounded the activity of the Western countries represented by the European Union – as stated by its very spokesman Josep Borrell – foreign countries like Turkey or Russia acted resolutely, gaining political power, clout and control. However, it has to be asked, what has led these major actors to intervene?

In order to fully understand the driving factors of the Libyan internal conflict, it is necessary to relate it to the broader, Eastern Mediterranean, situation. Indeed, Turkey signed the Memorandum with the GNA in response to a former energetic agreement between Egypt, Greece, Israel and the GCA (Greek Cypriot Administration), from which it has been excluded. The quadrilateral consortium is planning to create a gas Pipeline called Eastmed, streaming gas extracted from the Eastern Mediterranean to Southern Europe. Important gas resources were found in the maritime area nearby Cyprus. That is also the reason why Turkey was excluded from the agreement: following a diplomatic dispute that goes back to 1974, Turkey does not recognize the GCA as representative of the entire island, which also comprehends the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, established in the Northern part of the island.

The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has recently become a crucial geopolitical actor in Libya // Pixabay

Being ruled out of the agreement, Turkey intensified the diplomatic relationship with Libya with the aim of blocking the Eastmed project. Indeed, the Memorandum of Understanding also introduces an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the South-Eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea, which de facto appoints Turkey and Libya as the competent authorities in control of Mediterranean waters. This goes to the detriment of neighboring powers, especially Greece and Egypt.

Delimiting the maritime jurisdiction in the management of the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey managed to prevent itself from being excluded from the issue. It goes without saying that the other Mediterranean countries dismissed the agreement as simply invalid. Greece, especially, pointed out that the attempt to define a Libyan-Turkish EEZ is invalidated by the physical presence of the Island of Crete in its middle.

Despite backing two different sides within the Libyan conflict, Turkey and Russia – another crucial actor, since April 2019 – share the same modus operandi in their foreign affairs policy, which consists of carving out a space of relevance in the politics of European neighbors. This strategy puts pressure on the European Union, undermining its influence. The two powers seem to mutually cooperate in the fulfillment of common objectives, as attested by the signing of the Turkstream, another energetic channel connecting Moscow to Istanbul. This gives rise to an additional, tricky question: will the European Union keep up with the gumption undertaken by Putin and Erdogan?

Lorenzo Lombardi