As military power shifts in Libya, Turkey and Russia control its fate
By SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN | The Washington Post | Published: May 23, 2020
CAIRO — A series of swift military reversals in Libya has diminished a warlord's hopes of ruling the North African oil producer and allowed Turkey and Russia to deepen their imprint on one of the world's most strategic regions.
In recent weeks, Turkish drones and air defense systems have helped the U.N.-backed government to retake nearly all of western Libya from the forces of Khalifa Hifter, who is backed by Russia and has tried since last year to overrun the capital, Tripoli.
Hifter announced a withdrawal of his fighters from some front lines in Tripoli last week. But his foes continued to press their advantage, adding to their capture of a string of coastal towns and a key air base. Hifter's forces are now under pressure in their last western stronghold.
"Hifter is facing his worst crisis in six years," said Anas El Gomati, a Libya analyst who heads the Sadeq Institute, a Tripoli-based think tank.
But the conflict is far from over, say U.N. officials and analysts, with rising worries it could draw Turkey and Russia into another proxy confrontation and transform Libya into a Syria-like battleground.
The 76-year-old Hifter still controls much of Libya and has significant backing from outside powers. Last week, a top official in Tripoli asserted that Russian warplanes had come from Syria to bolster Hifter, adding to the Russian weaponry and Russian mercenaries that have aided the strongman.
The United Nations acting envoy to Libya, Stephanie Williams, warned the U.N. Security Council that an "alarming military buildup" was unfolding in violation of a U.N. arms embargo.
"We have reached another turning point in the conflict," she said, noting that escalation could trigger "a pure proxy war."
In many ways, Libya is already that kind of war — one of the world's most internationalized conflicts — in a contest over lucrative oil and gas resources, territory, ideological and geostrategic ambitions.
Several thousand civilians have been killed or wounded, including more than 200 since April 1, while around 200,000 have fled their homes in the last year alone, according to U.N. figures.
The United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are also supporting Hifter, whose offensive on Tripoli in April 2019 has ushered in the most violent period in Libya since the 2011 Arab Spring revolts and NATO intervention led to the ouster and death of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The Europeans are divided. Nations such as France and Greece are supporting Hifter while Italy and others back the U.N.-installed Tripoli government. The United States ostensibly backs the government, but has sent mixed signals by keeping channels open with Hifter, a dual-U.S. citizen and former CIA asset who spent years in Northern Virginia.
Today, Turkey and Russia have emerged as kingmakers in Libya. Each stand to gain billions of dollars in oil, gas and construction contracts, as well as military bases to serve as gateways to build influence across Africa.
Few observers expected Turkey to turn the tide of the war so quickly.
Less than five months ago, Hifter had the upper hand with an fighting array including Russian mercenaries and defense systems and UAE-provided drones.
He controlled eastern and southern Libya, as well as most of Libya's oil facilities. His forces - groups of militias operating under the name Libyan Arab Armed Forces - were pushing forward on several Tripoli front lines and they had seized the strategic Mediterranean city of Sirte in January.
By then, the Tripoli government, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA), had signed agreements with Turkey, allowing it access to Mediterranean Sea gas fields. In exchange, Ankara increased military support, dispatching drones, Syrian mercenaries, military trainers, and armored vehicles, among other weaponry.
Last month, militias aligned with the GNA pushed back against their rivals, seizing towns along the coast west of Tripoli. But their most significant capture in months was the Al-Watiya air base, roughly 80 miles south of the capital, that Hifter had held since 2014.
That bolstered the morale of the GNA forces, who paraded a seized Russian Pantsir air defense system on the streets of Tripoli. The capture, and destruction of several other Pantsirs by Turkish drones, embarrassed Moscow and Hifter's other military partners.
On Saturday, GNA forces were advancing on the city of Tarhouna, Hifter's last western stronghold.
Now, the war's trajectory hinges on the response of Hifter's foreign backers, especially Moscow and the UAE, and their efforts to "check Turkish ascendancy," wrote Tarek Megerisi, a Libya analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations this week in a commentary.
On Thursday, the chief of Hifter's air force vowed in a statement to unleash "the largest aerial campaign in Libyan history" including against Turkish targets.
He spoke as Fathi Bashagha, the GNA's interior minister, told Bloomberg that at least six Russian MiG 29 fighter jets and two Sukhoi24 aircraft had flown in Hifter's eastern stronghold from Syria. Security experts and analysts described them as a warning to Turkey. The Washington Post could not independently verify the presence of the Russian warplanes.
But if Moscow did send the MIGs, it would represent a significant escalation. As of now, Russia's most significant role has been through hundreds of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a shadowy firm linked to the Kremlin, who helped Hifter gain ground.
Moscow has not responded to reports of arrival the warplanes. But it did join Ankara this week in backing calls for a cease-fire and a U.N.-led political peace process, in an apparent effort to avoid confrontation.
Both powers also tried in January to reach a cease-fire, but Hifter abruptly walked out of the process, embarrassing Russian President Vladimir Putin.
European powers and the United States also tried in January to find a political solution to end Libya's war. But the talks in Berlin did little to prevent the UAE from expanding its military support to Hifter, triggering Turkey to become more aggressive.
Hifter's losses in the west has caused fractures within his camp, said analysts. So has his recent annulment of a political agreement and declaring himself in full control of eastern Libya, which has alienated many of his political allies and influential tribes.
"Hifter's call for a return to military rule wasn't popular," said Gomati. "His political allies in eastern Libya don't trust him and smell blood and are in exploratory talks with the GNA as a result. His international backers want to support him but find him militarily ineffective and politically erratic. He is fighting too many internal and external battles."
Russia, a key ally, could be looking for alternatives to Hifter. Moscow has backed a new political initiative by Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the parliament for a rival government in the east.
Megerisi said "Europe's window of opportunity is closing."
"It needs to move fast if it is to forcefully protect its interests and its role as a barrier against Russian encroachment into the country," he added, "while preventing the development of another Syria-style conflict in its neighborhood."