Arabs Flex Muscles and Talk as Erdogan Ups Ante in Libya’s War
(Bloomberg) -- The black smoke billowing from Tripoli’s port as rival Libyan officials sat down for peace talks carried an unmistakable message to far-off Cairo and Abu Dhabi.
Shelling the facility was eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar’s way of making clear he wouldn’t let diplomacy in Europe halt his efforts to prevent Libya’s internationally recognized government securing military assistance from its new Turkish ally.
For the rulers of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, the episode summed up the dilemma they face. They back Haftar as a bulwark against Islamist groups that prop up the Tripoli administration, and which could find succor from an expansionist Turkey. But his determination to resist outside pressure to scale back his 10-month offensive on the capital and focus on a political process risks dragging them deeper into the Libyan mire.
So the Arab states provide military aid, along with Russia, but doubting Haftar has the fire-power to win the war without unacceptable costs in lives and infrastructure have also backed negotiations, said Claudia Gazzini, a consulting analyst on Libya at International Crisis Group.
“They were trying to do with diplomacy what they had been unable to achieve on the battlefield,” she said. The port attack last week briefly halted United Nations-supported talks but they have since stumbled on.
Haftar has long been an intransigent leader, with little patience for the messy compromises of negotiation. He has consistently signaled he sees ending opposition to his march on Tripoli as the only way to restore stability in a country that’s important to European security and sits atop Africa’s largest oil reserves. The nation’s only functioning international airport is shut more than open as a result of repeated shelling by Haftar’s forces.
“An end to hostilities depends on a number of conditions,” Haftar told Russian state news service RIA Novosti on Friday after talks in Moscow. “A withdrawal of Syrian and Turkish mercenaries, stopping Turkish arms supplies to Tripoli and wiping out terrorist groups.”
The U.A.E. has struggled with other recent military forays. In 2015, it joined the Saudi-led war to restore a friendly regime in Yemen only to announce a pull-out late last year with most of its objectives still far from achieved.
But for the country’s ruling family, Turkey’s intervention in Libya was a game changer, said a Western diplomat based in the Gulf.
Abu Dhabi doesn’t want to see a Libya where the balance of power is held by hard-line Islamist militias, the diplomat said, offering the opportunity for such groups and the Muslim Brotherhood movement to grow in influence. Most hereditary Gulf rulers have a deep-seated antagonism to political Islam based on popular franchise, and many have banned the Brotherhood.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party embrace the movement, and the U.A.E. watched with concern as Turkey reinforced ties with Qatar after it was ostracized by a Gulf Arab-led alliance in 2017, in part over its policy toward Islamists.
Turkish soldiers are training forces loyal to Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and Turkish-backed Syrian rebels have also joined the conflict. The country has suffered its first fatalities in Libya, with two soldiers confirmed killed.
The U.A.E.’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said on Twitter this month that his country was aiming for “a political solution that addresses the threat of extremism and terrorism in Libya.”
Egypt shares a 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) frontier with Libya that would be vulnerable to spiraling violence, and Cairo has invested greater efforts in finding a political solution. Its leader, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, was prominent in a huddle of global leaders at talks on Libya in Berlin in January.
Yet it still sees Haftar’s Libyan National Army as the best way to protect the border and halt Erdogan’s drive into the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean, waters where Egypt is trying to move ahead with plans to become a regional gas exporter, said Mohamed Anis Salem at the Egypt Council of Foreign Relations.
“It’s difficult to see Egypt standing back as long as the situation in Libya is not stabilized,” he said
Forces fighting with Haftar control the majority of Libya’s territory as well as its key oil facilities, and are on the outskirts of the capital.
“We’re not supporting him or his vision for Libya,” Hussein Haridy, a former deputy Egyptian foreign minister, said of Haftar. “What we’re supporting is his protection of the western border.”
But, Haridy points out, that approach has opened the door to Turkish involvement in the war and might need reconsidering.
“As far as Egypt is concerned, maybe its time for a deep reassessment of policies in Libya,” he said. “We have to review what we have achieved so far. We have to look at the new threat coming out of Libya -- out of the stalemate.”
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