A year ago, Turkey suddenly signed an important agreement with Libya’s internationally recognized government, a deal that pushed a simmering proxy war into the open. In the months since, both war and peace efforts have intensified: the militia of General Khalifa Haftar tried to take the capital city, while both Egypt and Italy publicly tried to mediate a peace agreement between the warring sides.
Far from cooling the situation, in the past year, the Libyan conflict has become just one part of a much bigger puzzle. This week, the European Union will meet to decide whether to sanction Turkey for its activities in the Eastern Mediterranean – actions that are part of a wider clash with France for influence across the region.
From one perspective, Turkey’s agreement was a power-grab. But it was also an attempt to end, in its favor, the simmering proxy war that has developed in Libya since the country descended into civil war in 2014. Since then, numerous countries have pushed their way on to the battlefield. France, Russia, Egypt, the UAE, Turkey and Italy have all embroiled themselves in the conflict in various ways, each for its own reasons. Nor have they pushed in tentatively. Chinese surface-to-air missiles, American anti-tank missiles, advanced Turkish drones, Russian air-defense systems – all have been documented inside the country, making the proxy war one that is waged with advanced weapons.
Why has the Libyan battlefield become so crowded? In many ways, Libya has overshadowed the long proxy war in Syria and even eclipsed it, drawing countries in Europe and the Middle East into a struggle for the Mediterranean itself.
One reason for the influx of foreign powers into Libya is opportunism. For four decades under Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s long borders and coastline were controlled by the state. After a Nato military coalition toppled Gaddafi in 2011, state control evaporated and militant groups filled the security vacuum, limiting themselves to local areas.
This sudden opening up of Libyan territory both created and coincided with a number of separate developments. The migrant crisis expanded and as the route for migrants through Turkey, the Balkans and into northern Europe became more heavily policed, so smugglers and migrants turned to the Mediterranean route, of which the unguarded borders of Libya posed the easiest entry point. That made it essential for European countries, to which the migrants were headed, and Egypt, next door, to reestablish stability and state control.
For the Gulf states, which had previously got involved on the Syrian battlefield, Libya was a chance to reclaim the advantage they felt they had lost to Turkey in that conflict. In some ways, therefore, Libya was a continuation of what happened in Syria – a clear continuation on the part of Ankara, certainly, which used Syrian soldiers from the Turkish-sponsored Free Syrian Army to fight in Libya.
Not everyone, however, is convinced it was mere opportunism. “All the countries involved have interests within Libya and they’re trying to ensure that whatever future Libyan state forms, it is built to service those interests,” Tarek Megerisi of the European Council on Foreign Relations told me.
For Megerisi, Libya and Syria are practically one battlefield. “On a more geopolitical level this seems to be an era where various middle powers are attempting to build themselves out internationally and effectively fill the vacuum created by this perceived American withdrawal. Libya is a key frontline in the inevitable clash between all these powers.”
No country exemplifies this view of the whole region as one battlefield better than Russia. Unlike Syria, where Russia had a military base at Tartus for decades, Moscow had fewer interests in Libya. When Vladimir Putin first visited Libya in 2008, it was the first visit by a Russian president since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Buoyed by its success in propping up the regime of Bashar Al Assad, Russia has gleefully entered Libya, sending weapons, fighter jets and shadowy military contractors to Haftar, the side Moscow has chosen to back.
Libya, therefore, has not replaced Syria as the proxy battlefield for external powers in the Middle East; it has expanded it. Russia, Turkey and the United States are still tussling in Syria, even if other Arab countries have stepped back from supporting opposition groups. The difference with Libya is that the conflict can no longer end at the borders of the country. Libya is now an international conflict, whether the Libyan groups want it or not. That is what this past year has shown and it is a situation created – deliberately – by the agreement Ankara signed with Tripoli.
That agreement established maritime boundaries between the two countries. But it also defined them in a way that others in the region don’t like – meaning any conflict over energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean now has to draw in Libya. Multiple political conflicts are now tied together. The agreement turned a conflict in which many states decided to meddle in, into a conflict in which many states were forced to meddle in to protect their own interests.
If Libya has become a proxy battlefield, it is in significant part because those fighting on its territory were determined to expand that conflict as far as possible.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.