Turkey is fighting a proxy war in Libya against a series of other countries, including Egypt, the UAE and Russia. This week, Turkish backed fighters aligned with the government in Tripoli took a military base called Watiya. They also captured and destroyed Pantsir Russian-made air defense trucks. This is important because it shows that despite the backing of important countries, the fighters of Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which is based in Benghazi, were forced to retreat.
Turkish media is celebrating this as a great victory. Turkey has recruited poor Syrian rebels to fight in Libya and violates an arms embargo. But Ankara gambles that might makes right and western powers are weak. It brushed aside the Americans in Syria, it hosts Hamas and it can do what it wants in Libya. Turkey’s role in Libya is not a secret. It sends drones and armored vehicles. It sends mercenaries. Its media, including the plethora of pro-government propaganda channels such as TRT, Anadolu and Daily Sabah, all are reporting on the victory in Libya. In Turkey, journalists who are critical of government policies end up in prison, so it’s natural that the campaign in Libya is reported on in a positive way.
Turkey appears to be winning in Libya because it set limited goals. It sought to prevent Tripoli from falling to Haftar. Haftar, meanwhile, had boasted for months that the LNA would take the capital. Turkey set narrow goals, while the UAE and Russia and Egypt had unclear goals. This is important because it appears that the policy shortcomings of Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Moscow are similar to their struggles in Yemen, Sinai and Syria. These countries are not that good at winning proxy wars. They are good though at keeping conflicts going. Russia learned this in Georgia and Ukraine. Russia saved the Assad regime from defeat in 2015, but also likes to play both sides and simultaneously sells Turkey S-400s and agreed to let Turkey take over areas in Syria, such as Afrin, Idlib and Tel Abyad.
Russia appeared to be winning everywhere between 2015 and 2020. This was largely a result of US global retreat. When Washington retreats, Russia goes in. That was clear in eastern Syria where a successful campaign by the US against ISIS was scuttled in October 2019 as the US walked away and let Kurdish partners be massacred by Turkey. Russia swept in to sign a ceasefire. Russia likes to swoop in. But when it comes to actually training the Libyans to use the Russian Pantsir system, it’s unclear if the Russians helped. Why did Haftar send his Pantsirs to Watiya base and near Sirte, to be knocked out one by one, apparently by Turkish drones? Air defense is supposed to defend against drones, not be hunted down. We don’t know why the Russian systems failed, or precisely how they got to Libya. It’s possible that they arrived via via the UAE or Egypt. But however they arrived they are destroyed now, and there is not an endless supply of them. There is, however, an endless supply of Turkish Bayraktar drones made by the Turkish president’s son-in-law and sent to Libya so that Turkey can learn what works.
Turkey’s goal is to checkmate the UAE and Egypt and Russia and then to squeeze Moscow for more for its S-400 deal while portraying itself as “fighting Russia” to US Cold War era policymakers such as Syria envoy James Jeffrey. Turkey also wants to break a Greek pipeline deal with Israel and pressure Israel into some kind of arrangement. Turkey sets clear, obtainable goals. Russia plays both sides, just as it does in Syria. They US policy on Libya, like Syria, is chaotic and unclear, probably with members of one part of the US government working against members of another part of the government and both listening to friends outside the administration who are paid by foreign lobbies. That’s who US policy works more often these days: Foreign governments plow money into Washington-based firms or think tanks and then try to create an echo chamber that can feed information to friends in the administration to advance policies that are either pro-Qatar, pro-Ankara, pro-Riyadh or even amenable to Iran and Russia.
Libya is at this crossroads. It is a failed state being exploited in a proxy war, hollowed out and used by others. In December, Haftar gave the Turkish-backed militias three days to leave Tripoli. They are still there. Turkey is exporting the same chaos, Muslim Brotherhood-aligned groups and extremist rabble to Libya that it exported to Afrin to harass Kurds to leave a once peaceful part of Syria. France and other countries that appear sympathetic to Haftar may want to enforce an arms embargo on Libya to reduce the Turkish arms flow. Russian media is so embarrassed by the Watiya defeat that it doesn’t even mention it.
Now Haftar is pulling his forces back several kilometers, and UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash has tweeted about a political process in Libya. The problem is that if you just lost a strategic base it’s hard to then ask for a diplomatic solution. You have to be winning to present enemies with a fait accompli. For now, Ankara smells victory in the air and will continue to try to humiliate Egypt, Abu Dhabi and even Moscow.
This is a war for the hearts and minds of the Middle East. The UAE sent aid to the Palestinians via Israel on May 19. The unique flight was about several different things. UAE media said that it shows the UAE is impartial and helps others while Turkey and Qatar only send aid to get things. It does seem Turkey and Qatar are using aid for influence peddling and they seem to be successful. The point is that Libya is part of the conflict to see who will win in the great struggle for the Middle East. Turkey and Qatar, Iran, Russia or Egypt-Saudi Arabia and the UAE?
Did Turkey turn the tide in Libya. Media is portraying it that way and that’s what matter to Ankara. It wants to show its model works. That is what it did in Syria by embarrassing the US and fighting the Syrian regime. It also bombs Iraq to show it can control Iraq’s airspace. Can Haftar’s backers change the narrative or at least prod him to stay in the game? They couldn’t carry him to the goal line and it looks like Turkey was able to shore up Tripoli for now.