MAGHREB – May 2020
NATO’s last chance in Libya
The seizure of the al Watiya airbase by forces affiliated with the Government of National Accord (GNA) represents a turning point in the Libyan conflict, highlighting its prevailing international dimension over local dynamics. Turkish drones (including the TB-2 Bayraktar and allegedly TAI Anka-S) played a crucial role in the latest developments, destroying 7-8 Pantsirs S-1 air defence systems believed to have been provided to the Libyan National Army (LNA) by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The loss of the airbase trailed the launch of the Operation Peace Storm in late March, which led the GNA to retake control of Sabratha and Sorman and pushed the LNA on the defensive in western Libya one year after the start of the attack against Tripoli.
Facing the sudden reversal of fortune, the main international sponsors of the LNA (including Egypt, Russia and the UAE) are facing the dilemma of doubling down or leaving Haftar behind. Following reports on the arrival of at least six Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters, most probably an SMT or 9.13 version, and two Sukhoi SU-24M2 Fencer (flown into eastern Libya from the Syrian Hmeimim airbase in Syria) in the Jufra airbase, it seems that the former option has prevailed.
Despite the belligerent statements by the LNA, which said that all Turkish forces and assets in Libya will be legitimate targets, the scope of the Russian fighter jets could be to act as deterrent, preventing the GNA-affiliated forces from pushing on their counteroffensive eastward. The phone call between the Foreign Ministers Sergei Lavrov and Mevlut Cavusoglu calling for an immediate ceasefire shows the common interest in preventing any major escalation between Russia and Turkey in Libya. However, previous attempts by Ankara and Moscow to push the warring factions to a ceasefire have showed the limited extent to which the two main powers control on their local proxies.
In a context marked by a faltering multilateralism, NATO’s most recent initiative is remarkably far from the power politics played by Russia and Turkey in Libya, which is fluctuating from the monopolization of a damage control initiative to a dangerous brinkmanship. In a phone call with the GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj on the 16th of May Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reaffirmed NATO’s readiness to support Libya, assisting with building up its defence and security institutions. According to some reports, Stoltenberg also expressed concerns about the presence of Russian company Wagner in Libya and stressed the need to fully implement the arms embargo.
Responding to a request from the GNA, the North Atlantic Organization aims at retaking the initiative on the security sector reform, previously challenged by the alternative track of the unsuccessful Cairo talks. At the same time, NATO’s offer of assistance has clear international implications. Facing Russia’s increasing assertiveness, it represents an important message to Moscow about how the organisation is seriously following major developments that could result in a changing balance of power on its southern flank.
More importantly, NATO’s latest initiative is also instrumental in bridging the gap between member states at row over oil and gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. Coordinating NATO’s assistance to the GNA with Turkey’s training and advisory mission already in place could represent the last chance to save Turkey from its perverse waltz with Russia, which is pushing Libya on the edge of a dangerous escalation.
Umberto Profazio – Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he was previously Libya Analyst for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa region.