Libya war dramatically escalates as Russia expresses concern over possible Turkish intervention

Anti-Turkish feelings run deep throughout Libya, based on centuries of perceived Ottoman misrule.
Sunday 22/12/2019
A powder keg waiting to blow. A fighter loyal to the Government of National Accord carries a bullet belt as he and fellow fighters hold a position south of Tripoli. (AFP)
A powder keg waiting to blow. A fighter loyal to the Government of National Accord carries a bullet belt as he and fellow fighters hold a position south of Tripoli. (AFP)

TUNIS - The struggle for control of Libya, pitting the Libyan National Army (LNA) against the Government of National Accord (GNA) , has dramatically escalated, moving into a stage that could either see the civil war end in an LNA army victory or widen into a regional conflict.

The Government of National Accord announced it had activated the agreement in which Turkey is to provide military support to troops and militant militias backing the GNA.

The details of the agreement have not been disclosed but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkish troops would be sent to Libya if the GNA requested their intervention. GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj said he was not yet asking for such help but that was before the Libyan National Army intensified its bombardment of Tripoli and edged closer towards the city centre.

It has not been officially announced, either by Ankara or Tripoli, that Turkish troops would be sent but the GNA’s activation of the agreement was considered a formal request for such an intervention.

Contrary to speculation that Russia could agree to Turkish deployment in favour of the GNA, there were clear signs of disagreement between Moscow and Ankara over that prospect. Erdogan said on December 20 that Turkey would not remain silent over support by Russian “mercenaries” to the LNA while Moscow openly criticised Turkey’s plans for military deployment in Libya.

Erdogan was referring to the support which the Wagner Group, a private Russian military company close to the Kremlin, is said to be providing to LNA’s troops led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

“Through the group named Wagner, they are literally working as Haftar’s mercenaries in Libya. You know who is paying them,” Erdogan told Turkish broadcaster NTV. “That is the case and it would not be right for us to remain silent against all of this. We have done our best until now and will continue to do so.”

Russia earlier said it was “very concerned” by the prospect of Turkey sending troops to Libya and that the agreement between Ankara and Tripoli “raised many questions” for Moscow, the Interfax news agency reported.

There was speculation that Turkish troops deployed in Libya could greatly change the military situation. In the case of Turkish intervention, the LNA could be forced to withdraw and its retreat could lead to Libya being definitively divided into eastern and western parts.

Egypt would be pressured to send in forces in response. A Turkey-Egypt confrontation in Libya could devolve into a regional war.

Anti-Turkish feelings run deep throughout Libya, based on centuries of perceived Ottoman misrule. Turkish forces would be unwelcome and resented as bitterly as would Italian troops. As a result, the GNA might see itself accused of treachery by Libyans for delivering the country to Turkey and Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman agenda, which could develop into hostile protests. There would probably be a surge in Libyan nationalism across the country.

Everything depends on a Turkish deal with Russia but Turkey is unlikely to go ahead with deployment plans against the objections of Russia. With Russian “mercenaries” fighting alongside the LNA, neither Erdogan nor Russian President Vladimir Putin want a confrontation between the two sides. They managed to avoid that in Syria and, following a phone conversation December 17, both men agreed to meeting in January in Turkey for further talks.

The LNA, pitted for nearly nine months in fierce battles against the GNA troops on the outskirts of Tripoli, is trying to force the situation before Turkey intervenes. It issued a statement December 20 telling pro-GNA Misrata militias to withdraw from Tripoli and the city of Sirte within three days.

The Misratans, along with militants forced out of Benghazi and Derna by Haftar, constitute the main force fighting the LNA. They could continue to fight, although there are reports of contingency plans being drawn up for defence of their city should they be forced to retreat.

Against the dangerously escalating and evolving situation, with its potential for a regional confrontation, other outside players are trying to secure a diplomatic deal.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio was in Tripoli for a meeting with Sarraj and in Benghazi to talk with Haftar on December 17. His efforts have the backing of the French, the British and the Germans, and probably the Americans, although the latter’s prime interest is getting the Russians out of Libya. There seems little prospect of those efforts succeeding, however.

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