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by John Helmer with translation of report by Gevorg Mirzayan, Moscow 

If the war in Libya continues the way Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan thinks it has gone in recent days, the Eastern Mediterranean will be a Turkish sea for the first time since Napoleon defeated the Ottomans and took Egypt and Syria between 1798 and 1801. But with Russia engaged against the Turks on the ground, in the air and at sea, not yet.

In escalation of the civil war in Libya in April and this month, Turkey has added ground forces from Syria, as well as Navy frigates, Air Force F-16s, and the capture of the Al-Watiya air base west of Tripoli. The Turkish side has now created a reinforced corridor for ship and airborne supplies of men and arms into Libya in support of the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj.   

The Greek Air Force has watched the Turks go by with aerial antics and diplomatic protests amounting to a white flag. No Greek or Cypriot military source has issued an appreciation, let alone criticism of this historic rout of the Hellenes in their own territorial waters.

Russia has reinforced the capability of the Libyan National Army of General Khalifa Haftar to deter the Turks and in an operation with MiG-29s early this week attacked a Turkish frigate off the Libyan coast and a Turkish freighter in Tripoli port.  

The US has taken the Turkish side, announcing through Army General Stephen Townsend, commander of the US Africa Command in Frankfurt: “Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya. Just like I saw them doing in Syria.”

Detailed Russian situation briefs from the General Staff’s military intelligence agency (GRU) have been appearing in Vzglyad, the internet analytical publication in Moscow. In the translation to follow, a strategic assessment by Gevorg Mirzayan indicates what is now at stake in Libya.

For the Russian original, published on May 27, click to read.
For the GRU battlefield assessment of the Al-Watiya capture by the Turks, read this.  For more on the MiG-29 counter-strike, click  and this.

GEVORG MIRZAYAN REPORTS: Until recently, it seemed that the Libyan field marshal Haftar was one step away from final victory over his opponents. To be sure, the Arabs, France, Russia, and even the United States had helped him. However, Turkey was bound to intervene in this conflict — and now it seems that Haftar is on the verge of total defeat. Why has Turkey made such gains, and what does Erdogan want from Libya?

Libya itself is already difficult to call a state. Rather, it is a territory governed by numerous clans, groups, gangs, and militias which enter into situational alliances with each other. And a formal civil conflict is taking place between two of these major collective forces. On the one hand, the Islamist government recognized by the majority of countries, the so-called Government of National Unity (GNA) led by Fayez Sarraj. On the other, the Libyan Parliament and the army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Disposition of forces

Recently it seemed that Islamists from the GNA were on the verge of military defeat. Behind Khalifa Haftar were not only an obsolete but still capable Libyan army, but also serious external players. Thus, he received military-technical assistance from Russia (which hoped to establish itself in Libya, sign a number of contracts for the reconstruction of the country, and generally have good personal relations with Haftar). In addition, Haftar was helped by Egypt, whose military leadership was extremely concerned at the emergence of Libyan Islamists at its western borders and the transformation of eastern Libya into a foothold for Egyptian Islamists. Military-technical assistance also came from France — Paris viewed Haftar as a tool to draw the Libyan space into its sphere of influence (it used to be an Italian zone, but Rome, albeit sluggishly, has been supporting Sarraj).

The large Haftar military banquet was funded by respectable people from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. There,  and for their elites,  the Muslim Brotherhood (a moderate Islamic movement which focuses on political Islam and is present in a number of Arab states, including Libya ‘s government) are deadly enemies and an existential threat to the very existence of the Wahhabite monarchies of the Middle East. The UAE and the Saudi kingdom have done everything possible to clean out the Muslim Brotherhood from the corridors of power, and have now taken up Libya.

With such influential friends behind their backs, Haftar ‘s troops took control of all of Libya ‘s eastern territories, most of the oil fields and port infrastructure,  and even stepped into the outskirts of the capital [Tripoli]. It seemed Saraj was doomed.

However, assistance came from Ankara —  not only moral and material, but also military. Since the beginning of the year, Turkey has dramatically increased the number of its military advisers in Sarraj ‘s armed forces, and has deployed drones and Syrian fighters fed by Ankara to help him. Taking control of the sky, Turkish and pro-Turkish troops inflicted a series of defeats on Haftar’s troops, lured a number of militias to their side (which traditionally and opportunistically  anticipate when the balance of power is about to shift), and repulsed the Field Marshal ‘s forces away from the capital.

The pantry, the gate and the shield

Turkey’s activity is simple to explain. First, Ankara has many interests in Libya. Second, in defending these interests, Recep Erdogan has no political shyness or moral constraints.

Libya is a hydrocarbon reserve (tens of billions of barrels). These hydrocarbons are not only easy to extract, but also easy to sell — right under their nose is the largest European market. And since the EU has proclaimed the principle of diversification of supplies (so as not to depend on Gazprom), North African producers, including Libya, are one of the few real alternatives to Russian gas for Europe.

Libya is a gate to Africa; that is, a country which could become a springboard for Turkish attempts to oust France from the Muslim countries of the west of the Dark Continent, as well as a gate out of  Africa. By taking control of Libya’s space, Erdogan will be able to manage the second (after Turkey itself) direction of migration flow to Europe. Manage — and use it to his advantage. For example, Turkey promised Malta to close this exit gate and prevent African migrants from flowing on to the island. In response, the Maltese government blocked the allocation of money for Operation IRINI [for details, click  ]; this is aimed at sea patrols to support the UN arms embargo against Libya.  That is to say, in plain language, to intercept Turkish weapons sent to Sarraj, because Haftar received his mainly through the Libyan-Egyptian land border.

Finally, Libya is what Turkey calls the ‘Mediterranean Shield.’ Ankara has signed a memorandum with Sarraj on the demarcation of maritime zones and continental shelves in the Eastern Mediterranean. If we look at the map of the signed memorandum [for details, click ], we can see that the continental shelves which these two countries call their own, abut each other, thereby cutting off the Cypriot, Egyptian, Israeli, Lebanese and Syrian parts of the rest of the Mediterranean.

In this way, Erdogan not only formalizes his claims to a huge chunk of the sea area, but also creates the notorious Mediterranean Shield, thereby cutting off any projects to build an underwater pipeline (i.e. bypassing Turkey) from the offshore oil and gas fields of the Eastern Mediterranean countries to Europe. It is clear that Greeks, Cypriots, Israelis and the rest do not recognize this demarcation, but Ankara is confident that they will have to respect it. Of course, that depends on the government of Fayez Sarraj loyal to Ankara – or another authority which  will respect arrangements on maritime borders – staying in power in Tripoli.

That last point means Turkey does not need Sarraj ‘s total military victory over Haftar’s Libyan army to achieve all these goals. It is enough for Ankara to obtain the consent of the members of the Haftar coalition and its external sponsors to remove Haftar himself. The main obstacle to that, according to some experts, is to reach a compromise deal between the Libyan players (and thus their external sponsors). The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already accused the field marshal of requiring a ‘military dictatorship’ and total control over a country where Ankara will have no place. If agreements can be reached between the parties, Turkey aims to retain sufficient influence in the country to defend its interests. So far Turkey has managed to implement this policy. Already the media are reporting dissatisfaction with Haftar ‘s stubbornness and his failures in the corridors of power in Cairo and Moscow.


Satellite photograph dated May 24 of the Libyan sea coast, off Misurata, showing the Turkish Navy, upper left (west), neutralizing  the Italian Navy, right (east) on patrol to deter outgoing people smuggling and incoming deliveries of arms in violation of the UN embargo on arms deliveries to Libya. This is the area of Libyan territorial water, known as the Gulf of Sidra, in which the US Navy attacked Libyan Air Force patrols in August 1981.   That US operation, first planned by the Carter Administration and implemented by the Reagan Administration, opened the way to naval and other operations between US and Libyan forces, including terrorism, which culminated in the US and NATO bombing of Tripoli in an attempt to kill Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi; that was in August 1986.  In January 1989 there was another US Navy engagement against Qaddafi in the air to the west, off Tobruk.  

We envy and we study

European and American media already recognize that Turkey has become the dominant force in Libya. How did she manage it? The secret is a kind of Olympic Games principle of Turkish policy towards Libya – closer, faster, bolder.

Yes, Haftar has a lot of powerful sponsors. But, as in Krylov ‘s fable [“The Swan, the Pike, and the Crawfish” — 1814], there is no agreement among them. Washington and Moscow support the field marshal – but they are playing against each other. Up to the point that the Americans oppose Russian military assistance. “The presence of some 2,000 Wagner mercenaries and the modern military equipment available to them is not a respect for Libya ‘s sovereignty or territorial integrity. We believe that Russia can pursue its legitimate interests in more conventional ways,” declared U.S. Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland.

Source: https://twitter.com/USAfricaCommand/

Source: https://www.africom.mil/ 

As part of a new series of accusations, the United States is loudly resentful that Moscow, allegedly, is moving combat aircraft to help Haftar; that is, giving the field marshal a concrete way to regain control of the sky, which in turn is the only way to reverse the course of the war.

In addition, Haftar ‘s sponsors, though powerful, are hesitant. They all helped Haftar, but none of them has opened direct combat in Libya. Some were afraid of the reaction of the locals. For example, Egypt —  the attitude towards Egyptians among Libyans is very negative, and the possibility of intervention by Cairo could consolidate the country against Haftar. So the situation is that one of Haftar’s backers has no army (UAE), and another (for example, Russia or France) is afraid to be drawn into the Libyan quagmire without proper compensation. Paris has already involved itself once before — during Qaddafi ‘s overthrow, when for their help French companies were promised the lion ‘s share of Libya’s oil and gas fields. The promises were made, but then dumped.

By contrast, Turkey was not fearful – and as western experts note, it has used Russia’s ‘Syrian scenario’ for the Turkish purpose.

The internationally recognized government of Sarraj officially asked Erdogan for help – and received it. And now it will be even more difficult for the other countries to send expeditionary forces to help Haftar, because they will have to fight, not against the Libyan militias, but against Turkish soldiers.

Finally, Turkey behaves extremely harshly and brazenly in Libya – up to threatening a full-fledged war in the country. Ankara has already stated that an attack on ‘Turkish interests’ will have very serious consequences for the field marshal. This is intended for the local militias that are supporting the field marshal. Which, in turn, motivates in the militia not the desire to fight Turkey, but the desire to ‘anticipate in good time’ who will come out ahead, and therefore to shift to the Turkish (and thus to Sarraj’s) side.

Who has lost?

Turkish victories in Libya are certainly a defeat for the other players. But the main loser is not Russia, however much the western media want to report this is so.  Firstly, this is because Moscow placed its eggs properly — supporting Haftar and at the same time doing business with Sarraj in parallel.

Left: Khalifa Haftar with Chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, in Moscow in November 2018.  Right: Haftar at the Russian Foreign Ministry,  January 14, 2020.

Left: Sarraj with Putin in Sochi, October 24, 2019.   Right: Sarraj with Erdogan in Istanbul, December 13, 2019. Read more.

Secondly, Libya is not the most important field of activity for us, and we can always change it within the framework of bargaining with Erdogan (for example, in exchange for concessions of the latter on Syria). In turn, the Turkish president himself, although grumbling about Russia’s relations with Haftar, respects Moscow ‘s interests. Russia is the only great power among Turkey’s neighbours with whom [Erdogan] has maintained a more or less working relationship.

The main loser is Europe. The EU’s passivity and inability to take real steps to counter Turkey — the very European IRINI mission is just a handful of ships and planes — make the Old World even more vulnerable to Turkish blackmail on migrants, oil and gas. It never dawned on the European leaders that while they were fighting the Russian threat in their minds, a real enemy has grown up right under their noses. An enemy who really threatens both European interests and intra-European stability.

The question is whether the EU will be able to understand all of this in time – and, most importantly, whether it will be able to get out of its state of political suspended animation and start doing something. Because if you do not resist Turkish expansion in Libya today, then tomorrow you will have to do it in Italy or Germany.

NOTE: Gevorg Mirzayan (right) is a regular essayist and political analyst in the Russian press. He is also  Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science of the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation and a lecturer at the Faculty of World Politics of the Russian State University of Humanities.  

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