U.S. Vacuum: How Libya Is Descending Into A Russia-Turkey Proxy War

Libya has been torn by civil war since longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi was killed in an uprising in 2011 following a NATO-led bombing campaign.

The conflict has descended into a proxy war as regional and international powers jostle to secure their own interests in the oil-rich North African nation.

The escalating war has hastened international efforts — including a major conference hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on January 19 — to reach a political reconciliation, although the prospects of peace appear far off.

Escalating Violence

Libya has been divided since 2011. The country’s west is ruled by the internationally recognized and UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in the capital, Tripoli. Eastern Libya is run by a self-declared administration based in the city of Tobruk that is backed by military strongman Khalifa Haftar.

A former general, Haftar has portrayed himself as a figure who can restore stability and combat the Islamist militants that have grown in influence in the lawless country. His critics accuse him of carrying out a coup and wanting to create a military dictatorship.

In 2014, Haftar assembled former Qaddafi soldiers and, after a three-year battle, seized the main eastern city of Benghazi. He also captured the south with its crucial oilfields.

In April, Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army launched an offensive against the Tripoli-based government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Haftar’s forces have been unable to reach central Tripoli but have gradually advanced to its suburbs.

The clashes around Tripoli have killed more than 280 civilians and some 2,000 fighters, while at least 140,000 people have been displaced, according to United Nations figures released in December.

Internationalized Conflict

Since NATO pulled back from Libya following its 2011 intervention, a host of regional players have looked to fill the vacuum, providing military support to their local proxies.

Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt have backed the 76-year-old Haftar, a former ally of Qaddafi.

The United Arab Emirates has deployed jets and drones to aid Haftar. Russia has sent weapons, while there has been an influx of hundreds of mercenaries allegedly from the Kremlin-linked Vagner private security firm. Moscow has denied sending private mercenaries to support Haftar. With greater support from Russia, Haftar’s forces have made a renewed push to seize control of Tripoli.

There are also up to 3,000 mercenaries from Sudan, Niger, and Chad fighting for Haftar.

Established by the UN in 2016, the GNA is officially supported by the United States and other Western countries. But practically, Tripoli’s only foreign backer is Turkey, which has provided armored vehicles and drones to Sarraj.

Addressing the imbalance on the battlefield, Ankara this month sent dozens of military advisers to Tripoli and has deployed up to 2,000 Syrian fighters to support the government.

Russia-Turkey Proxy War

Moscow and Ankara have become the two most active international players in Libya.

Russia has condemned Turkey’s decision to increase its military assistance to the Tripoli government. Meanwhile, Ankara has slammed the presence of Russia-linked mercenaries in Libya.

The result, Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based political analyst said, was an “increasingly overt Russia-Turkey proxy war” in Libya.

“There is a danger that Turkish military personnel embedded with GNA units could be wounded, killed, or captured in clashes with Russian-supported LNA units and the growing number of Moscow-supported Russian mercenaries in Libya,” said Jenkins.

Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said Turkey’s military intervention is likely to aggravate the conflict.

“It’s possible that Haftar’s foreign backers will respond to Turkey’s increasing intervention by boosting their assistance to Haftar [and] escalating the war further,” Lacher said.

Competing Economic Interests

Turkey has allied itself with the GNA to advance its strategic and commercial interests, analysts said.

In November, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Sarraj signed a military cooperation agreement and a separate deal on maritime boundaries that would give Turkey drilling and pipeline rights over a large swath of the Mediterranean Sea between the countries. The deal has been widely criticized.

Large reserves of gas have been discovered in the eastern Mediterranean and Erdogan has said he envisages joint energy-exploration activities with Libya there.

Libya, which has a long Mediterranean coastline, controls vast oil reserves and produces 1.3 million barrels a day despite the war.

Ankara’s tensions with Egypt, which is run by the military, is viewed as another reason for Turkey’s troop deployment. Erdogan was an ardent backer of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government that was overthrown by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2013.

“Erdogan believes that he needs the GNA to survive in order to try to legitimize Ankara’s claims to natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean,” said Jenkins. “This agreement is designed not only to try to legitimize Ankara’s natural gas claims but to create a barrier to Cyprus, Egypt, and Israel jointly exporting eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe.”

Jalel Harchaoui of the Clingendael Institute in The Hague said Russia viewed Libya as a “commercial” but also “geostrategic and symbolic” opportunity.

He said Russia’s involvement in Libya permitted Moscow to counter NATO and EU influence in North Africa and illustrate that it can succeed where the West had failed.

Peace Efforts

Germany on January 19 brought together the leaders of 11 countries for talks that ended with a commitment by outside powers to stop fueling Libya’s war with troops, weapons, or financial support.

The Berlin summit was aimed at relaunching a political process and preventing what some fear could become another Syria-like flood of refugees from Libya.

Since 2011, there has been a lack of engagement by the United States and Europe in Libya.

“As a result, the war has raged on and gradually drawn in Turkey and Russia,” said Lacher. “Europeans now have no influence in a conflict on their doorstep that is driven by faraway powers like Russia.”

Moscow and Ankara appear to be trying to work together to resolve the conflict, brokering a fragile cease-fire between Haftar and Sarraj that came into effect on January 12. The following day, the two men met in Moscow to sign a cease-fire deal, but Haftar pulled out of the talks.

Expectations remain low of a lasting peace anytime in the near future.

Lacher said a negotiated solution will be difficult given Haftar’s ambitions to establish authoritarian rule, and the deep distrust he inspires among his adversaries.

“Both Turkey and Russia would therefore have to shape the military landscape, which would require months of further, violent conflict,” he said.