Foreign Interference in the Libyan Civil War: Is Libya Going Adrift?

The civil war in Libya is taking a distinct trajectory, full of uncertainty and risks.

Between July 27 and 29, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud paid visits to Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco to discuss the Libyan crisis. The tours, official but unplanned, aimed at addressing the Libyan civil war’s challenges and exchanging views on the possible mechanisms of conflict resolution. The diplomatic exchanges revealed an agreement on the dangers of foreign interference terrorism and violence and the necessity of a Libyan solution.

Still, the timing of the visits generates mixed feelings on the motives of Saudi Arabia and the evolution of the Libyan civil war. Saudi Arabia was not explicitly present in the Libyan scene, let alone the Libyan battlefield. And the foreign visit coincided with a number of incidents.

In June, the Government of National Accord (GNA) achieved a major territorial victory. Turkey and Russia signed a ceasefire agreement. Various countries condemned Turkey’s military involvement, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi threatened to launch a military intervention, and the United States expressed its discontent on the worsening landscape. Morocco received Libyan representatives Aguila Saleh Issa and Khalid al-Mishri to discuss Morocco’s role in ending the crisis.

With this, the Libyan conflict is taking a new trajectory, the end of which is difficult to foresee.

Turkish intervention: A turning point

On January 2, the Turkish Parliament approved a one-year mandate to allow Turkey to deploy troops and weaponry in Libya, strengthen the Libyan elite forces, and merge intelligence and expertise to better track illicit operations. The intervention, conceived to level up the power of GNA leader Fayez al-Sarraj, depicts Ankara as a strategic stakeholder in the conflict for two rationales.

First, the geopolitical position of Libya, in the Mediterranean basin and in proximity from Europe, is opportune for Turkey at the symbolic and the material levels.

The arena recalls the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire as space and idea. President Erdogan wants to revive the legacy of Ottomanism, according to which Turkey is to be a model country in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Besides, the prevalence of gas and oil across the Mediterranean is crucial for a country whose economy needs regular boosts.

In November 2019, Turkey and the GNA signed a maritime deal to legalize the former’s exploitation of mineral resources in the Libyan shores, which demarcated the maritime borders between the two countries in the form of a corridor crossing the Mediterranean.

Second, Turkey intervened militarily to counterbalance the weight of foreign actors that support Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army (LNA).

In 2011, the collapse of institutions in Libya, the rise of political Islamism in some MENA countries, and the security vacuum that emerged in other countries compelled the pro-Haftar camp to take revisionist actions to uphold their economic and regime security.

The UAE’s military support was unique since it stood vigorously to strengthen the posture of Haftar and expand the control of the LNA over eastern Libya. One instance is the growing number of Wing Loong II drones in the Libyan battlefield to arm Haftar with sophisticated weaponry.

Facing this reality, Turkey was in no position to remain neutral, mainly because the external efforts to support Haftar were paying high dividends. Hence, it used all the means possible to safeguard the area of al-Sarraj.