June 22, 2020

It seems Libya’s unhappy fate is to always be the arena of conflict between great powers, and a testing ground for new forms of war. In 1911, the Italian pilot Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti, serving in the Italian expeditionary force fighting to capture what was then called Tripolitania from its Ottoman Turkish rulers and incorporate it in Italy’s new Mediterranean empire, wrote home to his father: “Today I have decided to try to throw bombs from the aeroplane. It is the first time that we will try this and if I succeed, I will be really pleased to be the first person to do it.”

The experiment succeeded beyond Gavotti’s wildest dreams: the concept proven, aerial bombing would dominate the warfare of the ensuing century, levelling Europe’s cities in the following decades, and later the historic trading cities of the Levant in the Arab Spring wars. 

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Exactly one hundred years after Gavotti’s fateful flight, protestors in the eastern city of Benghazi rose up against the dictator Muammar al-Gadhafi and the current Libyan war began. Nato intervened, winning UN approval for a humanitarian intervention to protect Benghazi and its lightly armed rebels from Gadhafi’s vengeful army, whose tanks were just entering the city’s outskirts when they were incinerated from the sky by the high-tech descendants of Gavotti’s experiment. It is safe to say, at this point, that the results of the Nato intervention were not as intended. 

The dreams of an Arab world breaking off the shackles of authoritarianism and joining Europe and America in liberal democratic harmony were shattered by the chaos that followed. Russia’s displeasure at the humanitarian intervention it had reluctantly acceded to escalating into regime change led directly to Putin’s refusal to countenance Western airstrikes against the Syrian government, and to Russia’s own, brutal and — so far — successful aerial intervention to prop up Assad’s rule. Even Benghazi’s Italianate architecture, its unique glory, has been destroyed, not by Gadhafi’s tanks but by the bitter fighting which ravaged the city in the decade since the Western alliance declared victory.

The Nato intervention promised at the time to herald a new wave of military campaigns for humanitarian ends, and to give the Atlantic alliance a cause to justify its continued existence long after the end of the Cold War. Instead, allies are now locked in a naval standoff off Libya’s coast which threatens to break the alliance apart, and to drag European militaries into the ever-widening chaos of the Arab Spring wars. 

The current Libyan conflict derives from longstanding regional rivalries within the country, but has become subject to the antagonisms destabilising the region as a whole, sucked into the Middle East Cold War now playing out from the Red Sea to Italy’s shores. 

The Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, along with its financial backer Qatar saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity to promote revolutionary Muslim Brotherhood governance projects across the Arab world. It also supports the Tripoli administration of Fayez al-Sarraj, which nominally leads an unstable coalition of Islamist groups, regional autonomists from the coastal city of Misrata and from the western Amazigh Berber minority, and urban militias indistinguishable from organised crime cartels.

On the opposing side, the counterrevolutionary Gulf kingdoms of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, along with their local client Egypt, back the would-be strongman Khalifa Haftar and Libya’s rival government in the eastern city of Tobruk. The Libyan National Army forces there are composed of Cyrenaican tribesmen and quietist Salafist militias, along with mercenaries from Sudan and Chad.

Having taken control of almost all the country, Haftar’s LNA forces, heavily-armed and lavishly equipped through the largesse of the UAE, launched a push to seize the capital last April. It precipitated an intensified Turkish intervention to prop up the Tripoli government. Erdogan flooded the battle space with Bayraktar drones, armoured vehicles, Turkish military advisors and thousands of Syrian mercenaries from Turkey’s proxy militias, still notionally referred to as Syrian rebels.

The Turkish intervention changed the course of the war, with Haftar’s forces retreating from Tripoli in disarray, harried by drone strikes from the air and artillery on the ground. Last week, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and spy chief Hakan Fidan visited Tripoli in triumph, promising a new era of strategic and economic cooperation between Erdogan’s government and its Libyan client.

It is the expansionist nature of this cooperation that most alarms European officials. Earlier this year, shortly before intervening in force in Libya, the Turkish government signed a memorandum of understanding with Sarraj’s besieged Tripoli administration, dividing up much of the Eastern Mediterranean, and its plentiful undersea deposits of oil and gas, between them. This MoU, which saw Turkey claim for itself Greek waters up to the coast of Crete, immediately drew condemnation from the European Union and the United States. 

The discovery of petroleum deposits beneath the Eastern Mediterranean had already drawn the region into a Cold War of sorts, with Greece and Cyprus assembling a regional defence and energy coalition including Israel and Egypt to box Turkey in and divide the potential oil wealth between them. The United States backs the alliance, seeing a future Eastern Mediterranean oil pipeline as a rival to Russia’s petroleum exports to the EU, diminishing the diplomatic leverage Putin’s market dominance holds over Germany and central Europe.

Turkish threats to send drill ships into Greek and Cypriot waters, along with Erdogan’s alternating requests for Greece to demilitarise its eastern islands and threats to invade them, already risk an incident in the Eastern Mediterranean escalating into a war between the two notional Nato allies. France, increasingly hostile to Turkey and a major strategic player in the Eastern Mediterranean for the first time since the mid-19th century, has stepped in as Greece’s military patron, conducting joint naval and aerial drills, and deploying frigates and an aircraft carrier to ward off Turkish encroachment in Greek and Cypriot water. The defence partnership has been derided by the Turkish foriegn ministry as the “axis of malice”. 

Indeed, Emmanuel Macron has now emerged as Erdogan’s fiercest critic within the Nato, accusing the Turkish government of supporting ISIS in Syria, of destabilising the region by launching wars against America’s Syrian Kurdish allies, and of accelerating the “brain death” of the Western alliance. Quietly backing Haftar, France now finds itself working alongside Russia in Libya, with the wartorn country emerging as the testing ground for Macron’s rapprochement with Nato’s eastern rival.

Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, perhaps paid for by the UAE, are now deployed against the Tripoli government and its Turkish and Syrian mercenary allies on the battlefields of Libya. Advanced Russian fighter jets, perhaps also piloted by mercenaries, have been flown to Libya to counteract Turkey’s aerial superiority in the conflict, as each escalation leads to counter-escalation on the part of the rival factions’ external patrons. As Haftar’s forces pull back towards the east of the country, neighbouring Egypt, another American client state at odds with Turkey since its military ruler Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew his predecessor Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in 2014, has threatened to intervene directly. With the possibility of outright victory likely to elude each side, a division of the country into two warring entities, each a proxy of rival regional powers, is emerging on Europe’s southern doorstep.

For the European Union, Libya’s growing chaos is a strategic disaster. With the country both a training hub for terrorism and the central launching ground for the migrant boats upending the continent’s politics, EU officials had hoped that Libya would become the trial run for the continental bloc’s new policy of strategic autonomy. After all, a Turkish government that so vigorously uses migrants as a diplomatic weapon against the EU’s eastern borders will surely not be a reliable partner controlling migration from the south.

Similarly, Turkey’s indulgent attitude to jihadist fighters in Syria does not bode well for its role in Libya, or in the wider Sahel where French and European forces are already struggling to control a growing jihadist insurgency. “It’s a danger to ourselves,” French defence minister Yves Le Drian told Le Figaro last week, “an unacceptable strategic risk, because it’s 200 km from the Italian coast.”

Yet the EU’s Irini naval operation, which sees French and Greek warships join German reconnaissance aircraft in a mission to enforce the UN arms embargo on the warring factions, was slow to begin and controversial from the start. By focusing on shipments by sea, Irini has no mandate to monitor or intercept weapons shipments to Haftar’s LNA forces from the UAE and Egypt, validating Turkish claims that the mission is biased against its own intervention. Yet by fusing the separate disputes over the Eastern Mediterranean’s oilfields, the Syrian war and the battle for control of Libya into one interwoven and escalating conflict, Erdogan’s Turkey has created an intractable mess almost impossible to de-escalate, with the risk of open warfare between Nato members growing every day. 

Only last week, France accused Turkish warships of locking their missile-launching radar onto the French frigate Courbet, an “aggressive act” designed to deter the French navy from intercepting arms shipments to Tripoli. “The Turks are behaving in an unacceptable manner and are exploiting NATO,” a French official told the press, “France cannot just stand by.” Turkey’s foreign ministry responded with a statement claiming that “the support France has provided to the putschist and pirate Haftar … has exacerbated the crisis in Libya.  What should actually be a cause for concern are France’s dark ties. It is unacceptable for a NATO ally to behave this way.”

Similarly, Greece’s defence minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos warned this month that Greece is ready for war with Turkey, telling journalists that “we are preparing for any scenarios. Among these possibilities is also military intervention. We do not want to go there, but we want to make it clear that we will do whatever it takes to defend our sovereign rights to the fullest extent possible.” 

The Nato intervention in Libya almost a decade ago was surely the high water mark of American hegemony and its post-Cold War justifying ideology of liberal interventionism. America and its European allies were able to overthrow a brutal dictator, but soon found themselves entirely powerless to influence what replaced him. Now the United States finds itself a backseat spectator to the region’s spiralling chaos, the security of its European allies threatened by the jostling for position America’s growing weakness has unleashed, and the future of the Nato alliance itself threatened by the fruits of its own poorly-conceived campaign. 

The EU, equally, had long hoped to be a new kind of superpower, where soft power and the assumed appeal of the European way of life would obviate the need to sully itself with the rough business of force. Yet as the escalating crisis in the Mediterranean shows, Europe’s inability to project hard power leaves the continent’s security at the mercy of smaller but more forceful actors. European states who had hoped to export democracy to Libya instead find themselves importing terrorism from the country, as shown by Saturday’s lethal attack in Reading.

In a reversal of Gavotti’s historic experiment, it is Turkey and other Middle Eastern states who are now the expansionist military innovators in Libya and the wider region and European governments who are passive spectators to history, defensive and fearful of what is coming next.