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[Research Reports] Libyan Conflict and Its Interaction with Geopolitical Dynamics in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea

Amane Kobayashi (Senior Researcher, The Institute of Energy Economics, Japan)
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‘Middle East and Africa’ Research Group # 4
The "Research Reports" are compiled by participants of research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate in timely fashion the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The Research Reports represent their authors’ views. In addition to these Research Reports, individual research groups will publish “Research Bulletins” covering the full range of the group’s research themes.

Developments in the Libyan Conflict: Future of the Ceasefire Agreement

Since the civil war in Libya in 2011 and the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, the country's reconstruction has been stalled and political and security turmoil has continued. The Government of National Accord (GNA) established in 2016 under the initiative of the United Nations is fragile and only able to govern the area around Tripoli. Furthermore, Libyan National Army (LNA), an armed force led by former general Khalifa Haftar has been effectively ruling eastern Libya, impeding national unity.

In addition, various countries have intervened in post-civil war Libya for their own interests. UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, concerning the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in North Africa, have been supporting the LNA confronting Islamist forces. Turkey and Qatar have supported the GNA, which is in cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to expand their influence in the region and support the Brotherhood. In recent years, Russia has been stepping up its military assistance to the LNA in an attempt to gain a foothold in its advance into the Mediterranean following Syria, and has dispatched Wagner, a private military company close to the Putin administration. On the other hand, the policy of Western states toward Libya has not been aligned, with Italy supporting the GNA and France siding with the LNA, resulting in protracted turmoil in Libya1.

In April 2019, the LNA launched an attack to Tripoli to eliminate the GNA and take over the entire country, leading to a large-scale battle with the GNA-affiliated armed forces and militias. The LNA continued its attack against Tripoli with support mainly from the UAE and Russia, but from the end of 2019 Turkey increased its military support to the GNA and deployed over 15,000 Syrian fighters in addition to drones and surface-to-air missiles, enabling the GNA forces to push back the LNA. On June 4, 2020, the GNA forces seized control of all of Tripoli and the LNA withdrew to the east2.

Amid continued tensions, the GNA and the eastern-based House of Representatives (HoR) announced a ceasefire agreement in August, proposing an immediate end to all fighting and holding of elections by March 2021. In October, the GNA and LNA signed a ceasefire agreement in Geneva, agreeing to remove all mercenaries and foreign fighters from Libya within three months before January 23, 2021. In late November, the UN-led Libya Political Dialogue Forum was held in Tunis, and it was agreed that elections would be held by December 24 of 2021. Oil fields and facilities blocked by the LNA were also released, and crude oil production recovered to over 1.2 million barrels per day in early November.

However, the road to implementation of the ceasefire agreements remains a rocky one, and there are a number of issues to be resolved for long-term stabilization. According to the UN, in 2019 alone, more than 200,000 people were displaced by the fighting around Tripoli, and enormous damage was caused to civilians. Unless progress is made in the treatment of General Haftar and the LNA, the disarmament of militias, the GNA's governance of the entire country (which has never happened before) and the eradication of the growing extremist terrorist network in Libya, the feasibility and effectiveness of the March 2021 elections will be jeopardized.

Interaction with Geopolitical Dynamics in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea

The protracted and complex Libyan conflict is entangled with intensifying geopolitical competitions in the eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea regions. In particular, in the eastern Mediterranean, geopolitics and competition for energy development are interlinked, and multi-dimensional cooperation and confrontation are developing among countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. The eye of the storm is Turkey, which is stepping up its intervention in Libya.

When GNA's Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj visited Turkey on November 27, 2019, he and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed two agreements: (1) a military agreement on the provision of weapons and military training by Turkey to Libya, and (2) a memorandum of understanding on the establishment of a maritime boundary between the two countries in the Mediterranean. In the memorandum, Turkey and Libya set a line of 18.6 nautical miles (approximately 35 kilometers) where the two countries' exclusive economic zones (EEZ) converge, as their maritime boundary. On December 5, the Turkish Parliament and the GNA ratified the memorandum. The GNA, which had been in a desperate situation after the LNA invasion of Tripoli, and Turkey, which had been isolated from the natural gas development by Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel in the eastern Mediterranean, had shared common interests for deepening the bilateral corporation. However, the agreement between the two countries is considered as unilateral demarcation by neighboring countries opposed to Turkey, which are rebutting this move as violation of international maritime law3.

  In June 2020, the Turkish military conducted a maritime exercise near Libya and announced a plan to establish two military bases in Libya. High-level government and military officials, including Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Chief of the General Staff Gen. Yaşar Güler, have visited Tripoli and held talks with the GNA. Turkey is believed to be aiming to deepen its political, economic and security involvement in Libya.

  On the other hand, countries in the Middle East and Europe that are at odds with Turkey are intensifying pressure on Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean. For example, the UAE participated in a foreign ministers' meeting of neighboring countries in May 2020 to condemn Turkey's natural gas drilling in the Mediterranean Sea as "illegal"4, and in August sent F-16 fighters to Greece to join the military exercises over the Mediterranean5. In the same month, Egypt and Greece signed a memorandum of understanding on their EEZs and maritime boundaries, which is seen as a response to the maritime boundary agreement between Turkey and the GNA6. The confrontation between Turkey and other eastern Mediterranean countries may worsen in the future, with Libya serving as the arena.

  Similar geopolitical competition has intensified along the Red Sea coast. Turkey established a large military training facility in Somalia and in 2017 signed a long-term lease contract for Sudan's Suakin port, raising the prospect of a military base there. However, the advance into Sudan has become difficult since the collapse of the Bashir administration in April 20197.

Meanwhile, the UAE is stepping up its military intervention in Libya from the Red Sea coast. In 2015, the UAE and Saudi Arabia signed a contract to use the port of Assab in Eritrea for 30 years, and the UAE reportedly has been using the port for military operations in Yemen and military intervention in Libya. Between January and March 2020, the UAE is believed to have flown arms and munitions to Libya more than 100 times, some of which seemingly from Assab8. In addition, the port of Aqaba in Jordan, which faces the Red Sea, is reportedly being used as a transit hub for the UAE to transport military vehicles and weapons to the LNA. It has been confirmed that the UAE has built several military bases in Libya, some of which have been used by the LNA to invade Tripoli and by the Russian private military company Wagner9.

In August 2020, Israel established diplomatic relations with the UAE and Bahrain and in October agreed to normalize relations with Sudan. In the same month, Israel and the UAE reportedly signed a memorandum of understanding to transport the UAE's crude oil and petroleum products from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean via Israeli pipelines10. Israel faces both the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, and it is at odds with Turkey over natural gas development off the Mediterranean coast, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and relations with regional countries. Current rapprochement between Israel and the Arab countries will be an important factor in changing the geopolitical dynamics of the eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

Future Prospects

Even though a ceasefire agreement has been reached, there is still a multilayered structure of conflict in Libya, and it is unlikely that stability will progress in the short term. Furthermore, the Libyan conflict has been entangled in regional geopolitical competitions, such as the competition over energy development in the eastern Mediterranean, sphere of influence in the Red Sea and the civil war in Syria; thus foreign military intervention could not be easily brought to an end. Given Libya's abundant energy resources and geopolitical importance, countries will continue to fight for influence in its political process even if they ostensibly cease interventions.

Since the civil war in 2011, unstable Libya has become a gateway for migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean and a hub of extremist terrorist organizations and armed groups. Volatile production of Libyan crude oil due to the security deterioration has become a disturbing factor in global oil markets. If the turmoil in Libya continues, it could further destabilize the political and security situation in the North Africa and greater Sahara-Sahel regions.

At the same time, political tensions in the eastern Mediterranean and along the Red Sea coast are rising. The possibility of sudden armed clashes or attacks by non-state actors, as those happened around the Strait of Hormuz since 2018, is low in these areas. However, the situations in Turkey and the UAE, which have increased their military presence in the regions, Libya, Syria, the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt and Somalia, where conflicts and terrorist attacks continue, require close attention.

The support of the international community is indispensable for regional stability, but the engagement of major countries is limited. Europe could not play a leading role in stabilization and mediation, as it is occupied with dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in addition to ratcheting up pressure on Turkey in deference to EU member states Greece and Cyprus. Only Germany is willing to talk with Turkey and Russia, and recently presided over a peace conference on Libya in Berlin. However, it has yet to involve the whole EU member countries.

The US had already disengaged from the Libyan conflict before the end of the Obama administration, leaving it to Europe. The Trump administration has not considered the eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea strategically important, and has been reluctant to engage or facilitate communication in those regions. It is prospected that Libya is unlikely to figure any higher in the USs' priorities than it has done over the last six years11. However, the President-elect Joe Biden is said to have close ties with Greece12, and the US's pressure on Turkey may increase after the Biden administration takes office.

On the other hand, China and Russia are showing an eagerness to advance into the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea: China in view of the expansion of the "Maritime Silk Road" under the "Belt and Road Initiative" concept; and Russia in view of energy and arms exports and geopolitical aspects. The two countries may further increase their presence, as they could communicate with most regional actors including Turkey. How will the complex cooperative and confrontational relationships among countries change in the vast region from the eastern Mediterranean to the Red Sea coast, and what will be the impact on the Libyan conflict? Both microscopic analysis and macroscopic prospects are required.

(This is a revised paper that was originally written in Japanese as of November 6, 2020.)

1 Amane Kobayashi. "Middle East Report 5 Libya: Disruptions continued by external interventions (中東レポート5 リビア:各国の介入で分裂が続く)", Foreign Affairs (Gaiko), Vol.60m March 2020. (in Japanese)
2 Amane Kobayashi. "Contentious Libya Conflict I - Military Interventions by Turkey and Russia (緊張高まるリビア紛争Ⅰ-トルコ、ロシアの軍事介入)", International Information Network Analysis (IINA), Sasagawa Foundation, August 13, 2020. (in Japanese)
3 Masaki Kakizaki, "Turkey's Diplomacy toward Africa at a Turning Point--With Special References to Somalia, Sudan, and Libya--," Research Reports, The Japan Institute of International Affairs, October 21, 2020.
4 Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "Joint Declaration adopted by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece and the United Arab Emirates," May 11, 2020.
5 "UAE sends F-16s for training with Greek military amid tensions with Turkey," Middle East Monitor, August 24, 2020.
6 Mahmoud Murad, "Egypt and Greece sign agreement on exclusive economic zone," Reuters, August 6, 2020.
7 Kakizaki (Ibid.)
8 "Suspected military supplies pour into Libya as UN flounders," Guardian, March 11, 2020.
9 United States Africa Command Public Affairs, "Russia and the Wagner Group continue to be involved in both ground and air operations in Libya," July 24, 2020.
10 "Israeli firm signs deal to pipe UAE oil to Europe," Times of Israel, October 21, 2020.
11 Nadine Dahan, "A Little Leeway for Libya?," Sada Middle East Analysis, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 10, 2020.
12 "Greece, Egypt seek Biden role in eastern Mediterranean dispute," Aljazeera, November 11, 2020.