X Close

Will Libya tear Nato apart? The North African state is a disaster zone slowly sucking in the region's belligerents

2020 is just great isn't it. Photo by Amru Salahuddien/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

2020 is just great isn't it. Photo by Amru Salahuddien/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images


June 22, 2020   7 mins

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. 

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 MevlĂŒt ÇavuƟoğlu 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.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

arisroussinos

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

15 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

A very powerful and sobering final paragraph, although most of us had reached this conclusion some years ago. It is not ‘liberal democracy’ that will spread from Europe outwards (as was once widely believed), but illiberal savagery that will gradually collapse Europe and the UK as our politicians enthusiastically import it, wholesale, with no end in sight. This weekend’s events in Reading are just one example, with many, many more to come.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

The total failure of the EU, as outlined by Basil Chamberlain below, has much to do with the abject selfishness of France. Even if it is impossible to form a ‘proper’ European Army due to France’s hereditary terror of Germany, then perhaps a European Navy?
Spain, Italy, and France must be able to produce a Naval force capable of defending what used to be called “Mare Nostrum”.
Those caught attempting to ‘invade’ Europe by sea must be returned whence they came, by force if necessary. Those European idiots who assist in this invasion must also be disciplined.
If this works, we should them employ, the otherwise, redundant, and woke infested (Royal) Navy to do the same in the English Channel. It would improve recruiting enormously.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

Fascinating and disturbing article. It’s not of course surprising to find France and Turkey on opposing sides here; it’s more than a little worrying to find France and Italy dogged pursuing their own agendas.

“The EU, equally, had long hoped to be a new kind of superpower”; but one of the curious things about the EU is its resolute failure to craft some kind of common foreign policy, surely a prerequisite for any kind of superpower status. The observation above about rapprochement between France and Russia is significant evidence for this – this is merely a reversion to traditional French self-interest. France traditionally pursued an alliance with Russia because the Russians were too far away to menace France itself. But it’s obviously not self-evident that an EU stretching as far east as Vilnius can logically support a pro-Russian foreign policy… not, at least, unless there were some way of actually bringing Russia inside the club.

The EU even failed, when the euro was introduced, to take significant steps to promote it as an alternative reserve currency to the dollar, for instance by encouraging oil-rich nations (many of which are not friendly to the United States) to demand payment in euros rather than dollars. This, unlike most other aspects of the deeply problematic monetary union, would self-evidently have been in Europe’s interests… and it would, also incidentally, would have been a tangible manifestation of “soft power”, so perhaps the EU is deficient in that as well as the “hard” variety.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

I reached the conclusion some time ago that if the EU collapses it will do so not necessarily because its objectives are illegitimate or unachievable. Instead, if it collapses it will do so because for a long time now it has been run by fools, mostly very unpleasant fools.

And, ultimately, the lack of democracy within the EU’s structures and processes may be a weakness. These people have been able to act without any heed to the wishes of normal people. As well as making normal people angry, this is also liable to lead to bad decisions because it enables the worst kind of arrogant incompetents to come to power.

Had meaningful democracy been integrated in to the EU\s structures as it evolved. normal people might have been more likely to get onboard, and better decisions might have been taken.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

An excellent summary of the failures
the EU.
Your mention of France’s historic alliance with Russia, omitted to mention that the raison d’ÃÂȘtre for such a policy was that Russia posed a mortal threat to Germany, France’s nemesis ever since 1870.
We/Europe have had to pay an enormous price to achieve revenge for Sedan.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago

Good article.

I would go further on the final paragraph. The EU/European nations are as guilty and naive as the US has been in the past – expecting democracy, prosperity and order to spread purely because people have been seduced by it.

However the US at least has always backed its words up with Teddy’s big stick. Europe tries to act the hard man in a region overflowing with them, but has no clout.

France has taken an admirable lead in recent years – even under more ‘progressive’ and left wing leaders (Hollande, Macron). Britain, with perennial weak leadership has had governments that merely chase the political football about to little or no effect, too often caught up in domestic and other issues. That doesn’t look to change any time soon given the political lightweights we currently have in the house.

Other European nations are barely worth mentioning – to be blunt – given their capability.

Germany however is virtually non-existent as a hard power, with understandable historical reasons. It is now one of the most stable countries in the world, with exceptionally high standards of living, and its economy inextricably attached to that of its neighbours. Is it not time that the world’s 4th largest economy took more of a role in contributing to the relative global security we currently enjoy? Before that ship sails.

David Bell
David Bell
3 years ago

Europe (the continent) and the Mediterranean area of Africa have been a region of conflict for thousands of years. After WW2 this area had a period of peace due to the exhaustion and devastation caused by that war and the ongoing “cold war” between USA and USSR, with only a few hot conflicts eg Israel and Cyprus. Somewhere around the early 1990’s several wars started eg the former Yugoslavia. The number of conflicts have gradually escalated and we are seeing a rising tide of war and tension through out a number of zones in the region.

The EEC/EU did not bring peace to Europe, it only had the good fortune to exist during a time of peace. It is uniquely illequipped to deal with the problems facing the whole region over the next 10 years not least because of it’s own arrogance and inflexibility. A new European conflict is brewing and none of our politicians seem to know how to put the fire out!

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

Agreed – the European Union is a symptom of peace in Europe, not the other way round.

Though it must also be said that economic cooperation and unity makes conflict less likely too, certainly once peace was secured post 1945.

But the two key drivers for creating the peace were nothing whatsoever to do with EU: namely the existence of a potential hostile neighbour for c.45 years (USSR) and the thousands of NATO (mainly US) troops in the continent in deterrence of the Cold War becoming ‘hot’.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Should also add the billions of Marshall Plan dollars that rebuilt a large part of the continent

ÎœÎ±ÏÎłÎ±ÏÎŻÏ„Î± Î€ÎŹÎœÏ„ÏƒÎ·
ÎœÎ±ÏÎłÎ±ÏÎŻÏ„Î± Î€ÎŹÎœÏ„ÏƒÎ·
3 years ago

We are heading towards the post-NATO era. It’s time Europe to grow up and take over the responsibility of defending alliance’s interests not relying in US. The imminent conflicts involve cultural features, hence, we cannot band together with powers that don’t share them with us just because it is US’s will. It is essential US to remain our greatest ally but we, Europeans, have to prepare for the contingency to fight alone against NATO allies.

aa
aa
3 years ago

“Turkish threats to send drill ships into Greek and Cypriot waters…..”

Greece has no waters in the eastern Mediterranean beyond 3 miles of Crete, Karpathos and Rhodes.

Clive Mitchell
Clive Mitchell
3 years ago
Reply to  aa

You’ll find that this isn’t true.

aa
aa
3 years ago
Reply to  Clive Mitchell

If you can not map read… or unless you promote Enosis…

Either way Turkey rightfully will have the final say!

Clive Mitchell
Clive Mitchell
3 years ago
Reply to  aa

Deleted

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
3 years ago
Reply to  aa

Nah, we’ll fix them before they do, just wait and see.