This is a tale of two cities twinned by treachery. Syria’s Jabal Al-Zawiya might be 1,800 miles away from Sirte in Libya, but their fates are very much intertwined as military forces threaten to put the regional powers of Turkey and Russia on a collision course.
In Sirte, trenches are being dug around key sites by renegade Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s troops, Russian and Janjaweed militias and other rogue mercenaries supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Libyan armed forces loyal to the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), meanwhile, are bolstered by Turkey and preparing to prevent what they see as an impending massacre.
Meanwhile, further east along the Mediterranean rim in Jabal Al-Zawiya, Turkish troops supporting the last free rebel stronghold in Idlib province against Bashar Al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces and other militias, are bracing themselves for what could be the final battle in a devastating civil war which has seen more than half of Syria’s 22 million population displaced.
Since Turkey’s intervention in Libya — where Ankara has defence treaties with the GNA — Russia has sent more military equipment to its Wagner-hired mercenaries in the North African country and stocked up its arsenal on the ground in Syria. Despite being blatantly in breach of an arms embargo in Libya, Moscow seems unconcerned at breaking the rules by arming fighters from the Wagner Group.
Libya’s conflict, like Syria’s, has become increasingly complicated and tangled because of the lack of coordination and support by the international community. Without intervention by Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, there would have been massacres and humanitarian disasters on an unimaginable scale in Syria and Libya. Now there is an uneasy standoff in both countries.
“There are the same players on the ground in Sirte as there are over here in Syria,” US journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem from OGN News told me. “On one side you have Turkey backing rebel forces and on the other Bashar Al-Assad being backed by the Russians. In Libya, you have the exact same scenario with Haftar backed by Russian forces and mercenaries and the GNA supported by Turkish forces.”
The two sides are in identical situations, he added, before pointing out that the Assad regime in Damascus is desperate to re-take Jabal Al-Zawiya. “The serious fighting hasn’t begun yet because they are waiting to see what happens in Sirte.”
The journalist has lived and worked in the region for two decades. He believes that Jabal Al-Zawiya will be attacked “the moment that Sirte is attacked.” Pointing out that all sides have much to lose in any military defeat, the big prize in Sirte is oil, whereas the loss of Jabal Al-Zawiya would cut the size of rebel-controlled Syria by one third. “As you can see, the stakes are high and everyone is waiting to see what everyone else is doing. The two conflicts are not independent of one another.”
The stakes are indeed high, and the situation is exacerbated further by the Egyptian parliament authorising President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to deploy troops to “defend Egyptian national security”. This increases the possibility of a clash between Turkey and Egypt if the Egyptian army crosses the border into neighbouring Libya. Erdogan has made it crystal clear that Ankara is committed to preserving the territorial integrity of Libya and is vehemently against efforts to partition the country in what is viewed as its “Somali-isation” leading to a civil war without end.
Should that nightmare scenario unfold, along with the total collapse of Syria, such instability will have a direct impact on neighbouring states, including Egypt. Moreover, it would also be a major threat to Europe’s security.
If ever there was a need for a unifying world power or universally respected body to take control of the situation it is now. Among the chaos and complexity there are millions of human lives at stake as well as the prospect of endless civil and, who knows, world wars. This could be the UN’s last realistic opportunity to step up to the plate and live up to its role as a purveyor of international peace and security.
Should the UN fail to act decisively and give support to the legitimate GNA in Libya, while also stopping the genocidal ambitions of President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, then its fig leaf of credibility will fall away. That would expose it as a corrupt, toothless sham of an organisation. If that day arrives, then helpless and innocent people all over the world will fall prey to ruthless power-crazy tyrants who feel free to do whatever they want and act with impunity. God help us all.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.