Bernard Haykel: Libya’s civil war is the Middle East’s tragedy on a smaller scale

The country has become a battleground for larger powers competing for its oil and attempting to dominate the Arab world, writes Bernard Haykel

Bernard Haykel: Libya’s civil war is the Middle East’s tragedy on a smaller scale

The country has become a battleground for larger powers competing for its oil and attempting to dominate the Arab world, writes Bernard Haykel

THE war in Libya is a microcosm of the tragedy of many Middle Eastern countries. The fighting in Libya could sow instability in neighbouring countries, like Tunisia and Egypt, and trigger more waves of refugees fleeing to Europe.

The Libyan crisis is a civil war among groups divided by tribal and regional loyalties and by ideological beliefs. All are vying to control the country’s oil revenues.

Yet, there are principally two sides to the conflict: the Islamist-dominated, internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), which still controls the capital, Tripoli; and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and the Libyan National Army (LNA), which are under the command of the anti-Islamist field marshal, Khalifa Haftar. While most of the country is now under the authoritarian nationalist Haftar’s control, Tripoli has yet to fall.

Behind each of these warring camps are outside powers pursuing their own interests. While Turkey and Qatar have backed the GNA, Egypt, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates have supported Haftar. International media coverage of the war has attributed this outside interference to competition — mainly between Turkey and Egypt — for oil and gas resources.

The Egyptians have a gas project that could potentially link up with facilities in Israel, Cyprus, and Greece to supply Europe. But that objective conflicts with Turkey’s goal of creating an exclusive maritime zone with Libya, and of securing sole control over Libya’s energy resources.

But the contest over energy is not the whole story. There also complex links between geopolitics and ideology.

A victory for the Islamists in Tripoli would allow Turkey and Qatar not only to extend into a major oil-producing state on the Mediterranean; it also would offer them strategic depth, strengthening their influence over other countries, such as Tunisia and Egypt (a longtime rival).

Hence, for most of the war, Qatar has sponsored the Islamists, mainly by providing financial support to a single person: the religious activist and scholar Ali Muhammad al-Salabi.

With the help of Qatar’s resources, al-Salabi has emerged as the GNA’s de facto leader. But late last year, the GNA was on the verge of defeat, so Turkey intervened on its behalf. Turkey has since committed weapons, drones, soldiers, and even Syrian fighters to the battle for Tripoli.

On the other side of the divide, Egypt and the UAE do not want a petrostate capable of producing 2.5m barrels per day to fall into the hands of Islamists who are beholden to their regional rivals. A victory for the GNA would turn Libya into an Islamist stronghold and a beachhead for undermining Egypt and the UAE’s authoritarian vision for the region.

Haftar — a uniformed, ornamented military dictator, straight out of central casting — would establish an order more to their liking. If he is victorious, Libya’s oil resources could be leveraged in the broader fight against the Islamist bogeyman across the region.

Russia’s motive for siding with Haftar can be summed up in one word: revanchism. Although Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has sent mercenaries (mainly those associated with the paramilitary Wagner Group) to join the fight, Haftar himself is not the Kremlin’s top candidate to rule Libya.

Putin wants to install Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the son of the late Libyan dictator, Muammar el-Qaddafi, who ruled the country from 1969 to 2011.

With the support of former regime loyalists, Qaddafi has joined forces with Haftar. But the Russians do not trust Haftar: they regard him as a US intelligence asset, because, as an American citizen, he lived in Langley, Virginia (the site of CIA headquarters) for two decades.

By making Qaddafi Libya’s next ruler, the Kremlin hopes to prove a point to the Americans and Europeans, who helped to topple his father. Having kept Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, in power despite overwhelming odds, Putin wants to show that it is he who will dictate Libya’s future and call the shots in the region. In that case, what would happen to Haftar?

The complex situation in Libya is surreal. But the suffering of the Libyan people is very real; they are caught between the competing factions.

The US has ignored the crisis in the hope that other regional powers will restore order. In fact, those powers are the ones spreading chaos, and only the US has the diplomatic leverage to end the conflict.

Should the conflict continue, its effects will spill over to other parts of the region. More refugees will flee to Europe, especially if the conflict turns out to be a harbinger of civil wars to come. Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, or Lebanon could become the next theatre for regional and international powers to fight proxy wars, while fantasising about becoming the Arab world’s next hegemon. As the rubble that is now Syria makes clear, to the victor will go spoils that no longer justify the effort.

Bernard Haykel, professor of near eastern studies and director of the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia at Princeton University. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

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