By Sanctioning Turkey’s Role in Libya, Trump Emboldens Erdoğan in the Eastern Mediterranean

In Libya, US President Donald Trump has acted once again contrary to the prevailing consensus in Washington. By endorsing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s adventures there after Turkey’s involvement in Syria, Trump is emboldening Ankara and triggering a Turkish-Russian competition in Libya that seems to exclude the United States and its traditional allies while deepening conflicts in the Eastern Mediterranean.

After Trump assumed the presidency in January 2017, and as the so-called Islamic State (IS) was mostly eradicated from Libya, the United States shifted its focus away from North Africa. Russia, meanwhile, began its steady attempt to make inroads, stretching its influence from the Levant to southern Europe’s backyard by endorsing the self-proclaimed commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), General Khalifa Haftar, along with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

As Washington remained on the fence in 2017-2018 regarding what to make of this Russian move, Trump at some point seemed to be inching closer to the Russian-Egyptian-Emirati alliance by talking over the phone with Haftar in April 2019. That call was perceived as an endorsement of the general’s military offensive against the Libyan capital, Tripoli, where the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) is based. This call came a week after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “we have made clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital.” Trump’s brief support for Haftar in April-June 2019 was the first sign of the volatility of US policy in Libya.

Trump’s brief support for Haftar in April-June 2019 was the first sign of the volatility of US policy in Libya.

While the Trump Administration has indeed been primarily a spectator during the past three years, the Libyan conflict was turbulent with no diplomatic breakthrough on the horizon. This increased the pace of foreign intervention and the intensity of proxy wars. As Haftar’s march toward Tripoli faltered, the Turkish intervention that began in January tipped the balance toward the GNA, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.

As the GNA-led forces succeeded in defending Tripoli in early June, Turkey was hinting that Sirte to the east might be the next target. Russia and Egypt signaled that this strategic Libyan coastal city, which includes key military bases and oil fields, is a “red line.” One of the immediate consequences of this shift was that members of Haftar’s leadership have come under scrutiny, causing his backers to reassess their position but not enough to fully withdraw their support or end their role in Libya. Both Moscow and Cairo sought to limit the damage and preserve their influence in Libya; during a visit to Cairo on June 6, they ultimately pressured Haftar to accept an Egyptian brokered cease-fire. Turkey, through its Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoğlu, initially rejected the truce on June 9 as GNA-led forces sought to continue pushing the front lines through eastern Libya.

Emboldening Turkey in the Mediterranean

Since the discovery of gas in the eastern Mediterranean in 2009, an alliance emerged between Egypt, Israel, and Cyprus with a crucial common denominator: a shared animosity toward Turkey. The United States has endorsed this alliance as a strategic partnership that fits within the Trump Administration’s vision for an Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran, one that helps European allies rely less on Russian gas. The Trump Administration has even asked Egypt for a seat as an observer at the second meeting of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) in Cairo, giving a clear expression of interest to be part of a gas alliance meant to counter Turkey.

It might not be surprising that Ankara has been trying to disrupt this emerging eastern Mediterranean alliance, claiming a share in the gas exploration based on its control of Northern Cyprus, even threatening to use force in February 2018 to prevent gas drilling off Cyprus’s shore. The Libyan conflict offered Turkey a golden opportunity to alter the eastern Mediterranean gas dynamics: Ankara signed a memorandum of understanding on maritime boundaries with the GNA in November 2019 to establish an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) stretching from Turkey’s southern coast to Libya’s northeastern coast. This overlapped with Greece’s EEZ and opened the way for Turkey to claim a share of the eastern Mediterranean’s gas. While the US calculation might be to peel Turkey away from Russia, the Turkish intervention was not about Libya per se but about securing access to resources and maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean.

While the US calculation might be to peel Turkey away from Russia, the Turkish intervention was not about Libya per se but about securing access to resources and maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Trump Administration has emboldened Turkey and exacerbated tensions in the eastern Mediterranean. Washington looked the other way as Ankara provided drones that targeted Haftar’s supply lines, allowing the GNA-led forces to alter the dynamics of the battleground. Turkey then dispatched its own military advisors and Syrian opposition militants across the Mediterranean to Libya.

Washington did not invoke the United Nations embargo on Libya as a response. On the other hand, France suspended its role in NATO naval operations in the Mediterranean following the results of a NATO investigation did not back up Paris’s claim that one of its warships was harassed by the Turkish navy after it tried to inspect a Turkish vessel suspected of violating the arms embargo. The United States did not support France’s position, which weakened French leverage and led President Emmanuel Macron to shift policy on Libya in June after he had denied that Paris is backing Haftar.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s plan is already underway to explore oil in the eastern Mediterranean during the next few months, based on the maritime deal with the GNA. The European and Mediterranean countries are unable to deter this Turkish move without US support, which might lead some of these US allies to align their interests with Russia to balance what Erdoğan has described as a “new era” for US-Turkish bilateral relations.

Turkish-Russian Competition

As Ankara’s intervention in Libya progressed, the Trump Administration zeroed in on Russia’s role. Last May, in a rather unusual public rebuke, the Pentagon announced that Russian warplanes flying to Libya were allegedly repainted at a base in Syria to camouflage their origin. This public move was a clear message to Russia that the United States is closely monitoring its activities, which is technically an attempt to make sure that Turkey continues to have some edge in the Libyan conflict. The highest US priority is to prevent Russia from having a foothold in North Africa; this fits the larger context of US-Russian competition, including in Syria and Afghanistan.

After Haftar’s forces lost the al-Watiya air base in western Libya in May, Russia redeployed its mercenaries to the central part of the country, which meant that Moscow acknowledged the Turkish gains but would stand its ground in Sirte and the nearby al-Jufra military base. When Turkey rejected the Egyptian cease-fire initiative, a Russian high-level delegation delayed a trip to Turkey for talks as a sign of discontent with Ankara. Russia looked for the Trump Administration to help in pressuring Turkey to accept the cease-fire in Libya, which Ankara reluctantly did, at least temporarily.

Russia looked for the Trump Administration to help in pressuring Turkey to accept the cease-fire in Libya, which Ankara reluctantly did, at least temporarily.

As the Sirte front remains relatively quiet, the Russian-Turkish race to expand influence and control energy resources in Libya has already begun and the United States is actively rooting for the Turkish side. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar visited Tripoli on July 3 and met with Sarraj while the speaker of the Tobruk-based Libyan parliament, Aqila Saleh, was in Moscow on the same day that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced his country’s  plan to reopen its embassy in Libya.

While the most immediate impact is that the United States deterred Russia in Libya, the American endorsement of the Turkish intervention in Libya might have given Russia the impetus and alibi to gain influence there.

While allowing Turkish influence to expand steadily in Libya, the United States is making sure Haftar is denied Russian support. The Trump Administration praised and encouraged actions by Malta in May when it seized “$1.1 billion of counterfeit Libyan currency printed by Joint Stock Company Goznak—a Russian state-owned company—and ordered by an illegitimate parallel entity.” In a meeting with LNA representatives on July 1, the Trump Administration “emphasized that the LNA’s affiliation with the Wagner group, a Russian Ministry of Defense proxy, and perpetuation of the oil shutdown are at odds with U.S. and Libyan interests.”

The Turkish intervention has thrown the weakened Haftar in Russia’s arms and the United States is taking notice and sending subtle warnings to the Libyan commander, such as leaking an investigation about Haftar’s oil dealings with Venezuela outside of Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC), which is based in Tripoli and is internationally recognized as the sole legitimate trader of Libyan oil. Washington is denying Haftar all possible sources of revenue while warning him not to get close to Russia.

The control of oil fields has long been a key motivating factor in the Libyan conflict; most recently, it led Haftar to shut down oil facilities to force an agreement on the distribution of oil revenues between eastern and western Libya.

The control of oil fields has long been a key motivating factor in the Libyan conflict; most recently, it led Haftar to shut down oil facilities to force an agreement on the distribution of oil revenues between eastern and western Libya. The GNA’s recent advances allowed the reopening of the Sharara oil field; however, Russian mercenaries, according to the NOC, have entered this field and blocked its oil production once again. This Russian move is a blow for Turkey and denies the GNA a major source of revenue since the field has the capacity to produce 315,000 barrels per day, or one third of Libya’s crude oil output. Turkey’s inability to move the military campaign eastward and seize crucial oil and military facilities is a setback for Ankara’s ambitions in Libya, as Trump’s involvement managed to persuade Erdoğan to halt the GNA’s momentum on the ground.

US Policy in Libya Moving Forward

While this late US engagement is meant to de-escalate tensions in Libya, it is consolidating the recent gains made by Turkey and allowing Russia to regroup and hunker down in eastern Libya. This emerging trend in the Libyan conflict is giving Ankara and Moscow an opportunity to build up their influence over time, with Washington having little wiggle room to maneuver.

The Trump Administration is now attempting to restore its neutral posture in the Libyan conflict, but it might be too little, too late. The US meeting with representatives from the GNA and LNA gave a perspective on how Washington plans to build on its policy, based on the Turkish intervention. The statement issued by the State Department on June 26 notes that “the end of the siege of Tripoli has created a renewed opportunity and an imperative to address militias, in the west and in the east of Libya” and warns that “armed groups that attempt to spoil the political process or engage in criminal acts do so at a significant risk of international sanctions.” The Trump Administration is threatening to resort to US sanctions since it is not clear how it can impose international sanctions and bypass Russia’s veto at the UN Security Council.

There are, however, four challenges ahead for US policy in Libya. First, Washington must decide how to deal with Haftar. Russia is enabling the speaker of the eastern House of Representatives, Aqila Saleh, and gradually weakening the public profile of Haftar as an interlocutor with Sarraj. This path, however, does not provide guarantees that Haftar—and subsequently Russia—will not be pulling strings behind the scenes. There will most likely be growing tensions down the road between the two eastern Libya leaders, with Haftar no longer considered a viable interlocutor by Turkey while Saleh has remained under US sanctions since 2016. It is premature, however, to argue that the United States has fully given up on Haftar—but Washington certainly went along with weakening a Russian-backed Libyan commander.

It is premature,…, to argue that the United States has fully given up on Haftar—but Washington certainly went along with weakening a Russian-backed Libyan commander. 

Second, what happens in Sirte will define the Libyan conflict moving forward. Sirte separates eastern and western Libya and if the GNA attempted to seize this coastal city, Russia and Egypt might follow up on their threats and provide weaponry and support to defend their positions vis-à-vis the GNA-led forces. The current cease-fire is fragile and the conflict could spiral out of control, as evidenced by mysterious air strikes this month targeting al-Watiya airbase, which was recently captured by the GNA, and al-Jufra1, where Russian air defense systems and mercenaries were recently deployed.

The Pentagon announced in May that it was looking to activate its Security Force Assistance Brigades on the Libyan-Tunisian border, noting that, “As Russia continues to fan the flames of the Libyan conflict, regional security in North Africa is a heightened concern.” However, this timid US military role will most likely not alter the existing dynamics in Libya. Washington should simultaneously keep the diplomatic pressure to mitigate tensions in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, even though it is difficult to predict what Trump might do next. Turkey and the GNA might be overconfident and less inclined to compromise. For his part, Trump should be clear with Erdoğan that the highest priority should be to restore the UN-led Libyan political process. The Turkish intervention has empowered the once weakened GNA, and this new balance of power should be an opportunity to mitigate tensions in the Libyan conflict.

Third, the United States must find a way forward in the Libyan political process and restore its credibility as a mediator in the conflict by pressuring all parties to abide by the UN arms embargo. It should urge Turkey not to follow through with its plans for oil drilling in the eastern Mediterranean. Washington also needs to assist in reaching a resolution regarding sharing oil revenues between western and eastern Libya, which would help reduce tensions and lead to eventual peace talks. Resolving the political situation in Libya is a difficult process that requires sustained US diplomatic engagement. However, Washington has never had an appetite to intervene in Libya, and especially not in a US presidential election year.

Fourth, the United States must find a way to balance deterring both Russia and Turkey in Libya. By inviting Turkey to deter Russia in Libya, Washington has inadvertently empowered this complex yet strong Russian-Turkish alliance. Trump is outsourcing the deterrence of Russia in Libya to Turkey and abdicating US leadership in the eastern Mediterranean. While Erdoğan continues to playfully balance his relationship with Trump and Putin, benefiting from the competition as well as from the lack of dialogue between Washington and Moscow that has enabled Ankara to expand influence from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. From giving a green light to Haftar to march toward Tripoli to endorsing the Turkish intervention that empowered the GNA, the Trump Administration’s volatile policy is helping to complicate the military conflict in Libya without articulating a clear endgame.

Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here

1 Source is in Arabic.