Creating new perspectives since 2009

Is the US using its NATO ally Turkey to counter Russia in Libya? 

July 2, 2020 at 9:00 am

The flags of members of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are seen at the Headquarter of NATO in Brussels, Belgium on 26 June 2020 [Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency]

Watching the recent military development in Libya, the obvious question is: does the US have a coherent strategy to counter the fast-growing Russian presence in the North African country? It seems it does not.

The US’ overall strategy, in the entire Middle East and North Africa, appears to be one of retreat. At best, it is built on shambolic ad-hoc steps, rather than on well-designed, pre-planned, consistent geopolitical ones. President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed his determination to withdraw from regional wars that previous US administrations have engaged in. From Afghanistan to Syria, the US is down-scaling its involvement, if not leaving hotspots, and refraining from any further engagements. In Syria, for example, Russia appears to be having free hand in its own show of geopolitics, while leaving the peripheries to Turkey.

The Trump administration certainly becomes chaotic under pressure. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton in his book describes an incompetent president consistently failing to grasp world affairs. Trump, conforming to his investor mentality, views geopolitics from a short-term cost-benefit analysis, instead of seeing beyond the horizon in a long-term context.

Libya, after Syria, is becoming a stark example of the US administration’s failure to come up with policy options to counter its main adversary—Russia. While the US keeps its publicly-stated position of recognising Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) as the only authority in the country, it has so far failed to translate this into meaningful prospective. Lately, the US administration seems to prefer supporting Turkey’s widening involvement in Libya, than to take action itself.

READ: The Arab League’s resolution on Libya: Too much ado about nothing 

This is becoming evident in the United States Africa Command AFRICOM’s increased contact with the GNA in Tripoli. The command is now leading any US efforts to stand up to Russian activities in Libya, at least by exposing them publicly. While Russia continues to deny having any presence in the country, it has been increasingly bolstering General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA)’s fighting capabilities.

AFRICOM’s top officer, General Stephen Townsend, and the US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland, on 22 June met the GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj. Little was said about the visit, but AFRICOM’s statement did confirm that “violence [in Libya] fuels the potential risk of terrorism” and that foreign military interference in Libya is neither “welcomed nor helpful”. Commander Townsend also pointed to the dangers “posed by Russian-sponsored Wagner operations,” according to the statement. Wagner mercenaries are fighting on the side of the LNA. A week earlier, AFRICOM, in another statement, published photos of what it alleged were Russian fighter jets landing in Libya’s Al-Jufra Airbase to help Wagner fighters.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (L) hold a joint press conference at Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey on 4 June, 2020 [Metin Aktaş/Anadolu Agency]

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (L) hold a joint press conference at Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey on 4 June, 2020 [Metin Aktaş/Anadolu Agency]

Last February, the GNA’s hawkish Minister of Interior Fathi Bashaga offered the US military a military base in Libya, “if interested”. However, the US seemed uninterested despite the increasing Russian footprints in the North African country. Bashaga was present during the 22 June meetings in Zuwara, west of Tripoli, but did not confirm whether the US followed up on his questionable offer.

Whatever the Russians are doing in Libya, it does have long-term strategic security connotations. Libya, after all, is minutes away from major NATO surveillance and reconnaissance installations in Southern Italy. NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg just last month expressed the alliance’s “concern” about the widening Russian presence in Libya.

But the alliance, particularly its biggest member, the US, seems unable to produce a cogent strategy towards Libya, nine years after it helped to destroy the country. If the US like what Turkey, a NATO member itself, is doing in Libya, viewing it as an extension of a NATO mission there, France, another major NATO member, does not. On 29 June, President Emmanuel Macron accused his Turkish counterpart of playing what he called a “dangerous game” in Libya. Macron is clearly not concerned with the Russian military activities in Libya, but more about Turkey importing “Syrian fighters to Libya”. Thousands of Syrian fighters have been brought to the conflict by Ankara, in its efforts to ward off the LNA’s now failed attack, to unseat the GNA from the capital of Tripoli.

READ: How Haftar squandered his near secure victory, and why 

Paris, accused of supporting Haftar’s LNA, does not share the US view of the situation in Libya when it comes to Turkey’s dominant role in the country. France, after all, under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, led the military intervention in Libya in 2011, eventually toppling the late leader Muammar Gaddafi. Now it wants to be part of any future political settlement of the conflict, however, lacking any clear political strategy to do so, in light of both Turkey and Russia’s role in the oil-rich country.

If the US believes what Turkey is doing in Libya is in the long-term interests of NATO, it is wrong. Turkey has its own agenda, mainly to become a more assertive force in the Mediterranean region—both economically and militarily. To President Erdogan, Libya is not about countering Moscow’s influence in North Africa, but more about having a foothold in the country as a gateway to the entire North Africa and beyond. Over the years, Ankara has been pushing its African policies with investments and other economic projects. Libya, apart from its oil riches, as a gateway to Africa, is critical to such policies. In North Africa, Erdogan is clearly favouring political Islamists in the post-Arab Spring era, and Libya is a good starting point after Islamists lost out in both Egypt and Algeria, while still clinging to power in Tunisia.

Foreign policy issues rarely feature in US presidential elections, and this election year is no exception. President Trump, facing re-election in less than five months, is overwhelmed by domestic issues including racism and economic downturn due to COVID-19, and will certainly forget about Libya and NATO altogether. In the meantime, Moscow is winning the geopolitical game NATO started in Libya nine years earlier.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.