It was no surprise to many that Libya’s long-awaited elections scheduled for December 24, 2021 were postponed. As the elections approached, the basic rules on presidential powers, who was allowed to be a candidate, and election enforcement mechanisms remained unclear.
When elections finally take place in Libya, they could be a crucial step towards its reunification after the civil war. They will also likely signal years of misdirected US policy in Libya, as they will reinforce rather than reverse important geostrategic military and energy objectives of Russia and other outside actors, as they are much less concerned about postponing elections in Libya.
Libya’s instability after Muammar Gaddafi has attracted a range of regional actors seeking to capitalize on the country’s transition. While the United States only sees the elections as both a means and an end to Libya’s future prosperity, key players such as Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have different goals. in mind: they always focus on the economic and strategic value of Libya. . And, unlike the United States, these countries have been willing to employ relatively limited resources to influence conditions on the ground.
Russia in Libya
Russia sees Libya as a valuable military and economic base south of the Mediterranean. He likely placed these interests ahead of any concerns about the future political structure of Libya. In this regard, like other actors in Libya, Russia positions itself on real interests, thus playing a completely different game from the United States.
Russia’s only naval base outside the former Soviet Union is in Tartous, Syria, which gives it access to the Mediterranean and the Levant. Russia learned that its base in Tartous offered tactical and strategic advantages during the last decade of war in Syria and, at little cost, realized it could influence the country’s trajectory and prevent the collapse of the regime. of Bashar al-Assad. Establishing a similar presence in Libya would expand Russia’s Mediterranean reach and again deter US and Western presence and influence. To achieve these goals, as it did in Syria, Russia has deployed at least a thousand Wagner mercenaries to support General Khalifa Haftar – one of the country’s leading presidential candidates – and the grip of his Libyan National Army (LNA) in eastern Libya.
Russia probably did not deploy its mercenaries to Libya to seek a democratic transition or simply establish its last military outpost. Instead, Russia likely intends to use its military presence to expand its political and economic influence to include Libya’s oil and gas sector. Parts of the Mediterranean and southern Europe are seeking to diversify away from Russian reliance on natural gas, and Libya’s oil and gas reserves could offer additional supplies to Russia’s adversaries or partners. In doing so, it may prevent Libya from integrating into an emerging Eastern Mediterranean and Southern European energy market.
The interests of other countries in Libya
But Russia is not the only foreign power to lend its support to Haftar or other efforts to resist the internationally recognized government of national unity (GNU) based in Tripoli. Sudan has also provided military support – largely funded by the United Arab Emirates – and France and Egypt have also backed these efforts. In this context, France and Egypt also weighed in to support the LNA and push Tripoli back. With Russian, Emirati and Egyptian support, as well as Sudanese military resources, Haftar and competing factions continue to militarily control large parts of eastern and southern Libya.
While this panoply of foreign actors exerts leverage in support of General Haftar in the East, Turkey, Qatar and Italy have also backed the Tripoli-based GNU. Turkey has deployed its forces, including key drone capabilities, as well as Syrian mercenaries for its political and economic interests. Turkish support was essential in preventing Haftar’s 2019 assault on Tripoli, where Ankara’s new drone capabilities were tested. Analysts have even argued that Turkey’s drone support was instrumental in preventing Haftar from seizing the Libyan capital.
Turkey’s objectives also focus on Libya’s current and potential economic and energy resources. While Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Greece and Cyrus formed the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), Ankara responded in 2019 with a maritime deal with Tripoli. This agreement served as a geographical veto for both the EMGF and the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Pipeline – a way for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to prevent Libya from drawing closer to Egypt and potentially being accepted into the EMGF. The Eastern Mediterranean Gas Pipeline would connect natural gas from Israel to Cyprus and southern Europe which, like the EMGF, inherently threatens Turkey’s territorial and maritime claims in Cyprus. Moreover, it was an additional signal of the future importance of Libya for the energy resources of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Whether it is the support of Turkey, Qatar and Italy for the GNU or the support of Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates for the LNA, the fight for the future of the Libya has always been about larger issues than a unified democratic system. As can be seen, these countries are keenly interested in how Libya’s geostrategic location and resources will benefit their regional aspirations.
Much has been said about the Berlin negotiations which aimed to pave the way for the withdrawal of foreign mercenaries and to draw up the electoral roadmap. However, the real negotiations – over Libya’s oil exports – took place in Russia between Haftar and Tripoli. This agreement lifted the blockade and determined the sharing of revenue from Libya’s oil exports. As Western powers diplomatically negotiated impossible-to-enforce political deals, such as the withdrawal of mercenaries by proxy, Russia and Turkey were determining their role in Libya’s energy future.
What about the United States?
We can now assess that the US policy of recent years in Libya will likely prove to be a strategic failure. The United States viewed Libyan political unification, fully codified through the theater of national elections, as both the means and the end of influence in Libya. Either way, US-backed democratic efforts will preserve US interests and, therefore, compete with key adversaries such as Russia. Instead, the reality is that the United States has played a completely different game.
Even if presidential elections and possibly parliamentary elections are held in Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Russia and a range of other external actors have devoted relatively small but sufficient resources to safeguard their interests, which range well beyond elections. Russia will retain significant influence over Libya’s oil and gas sector and will be well placed to capitalize on future gas development and exports. Additionally, Turkey has also positioned itself to militarily control Tripoli and leverage Libya against broader energy and diplomatic cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean. This situation is even more frustrating given the decades of experience of US energy companies operating successfully in Libya and the wasted potential of coupling US influence with business partners to build support in the country.
Nonetheless, the United States continues to champion the value of elections, regardless of their legitimacy or the power politics being played out behind them. The question then becomes how and why did the United States lose its strategic influence in Libya? Russia’s influence in places like Syria, Eastern Europe and now the Mediterranean are places where the United States should employ resources to secure strategic gains for great power competition with China. and Russia, rather than addressing them individually or not at all.
However, Libya is the latest example where the United States and the US Department of Defense, in particular, show the disconnect between rhetoric and reality and the belief that this competition is primarily security-driven. It is also in Libya that the United States has failed to realize and act on the key role that energy resources play in these regional competitive spaces. If the United States is to compete and win based on its relative strength, it will have to learn to balance using limited means to achieve its strategic goals. And he must decide to compete even in places like Libya, where he turns a blind eye to where great power competition is really taking place.
Matthew Zais is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and Vice President of Government Affairs for Hillwood and HKN Energy Ltd. Follow him on Twitter: @matthewzais.
Thu 21 Oct 2021
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