Analysis of the Geopolitics of the Libya Conflict
(Dr. Walid Phares, June 16, 2020)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Dr. Walid Phares served as a foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump and Mitt Romney and is Fox News national security expert.
Dr. Phares is an engaging and highly sought after Middle East expert and pacesetter, often predicting trends and situations on the ground years before they occur. He is a Fox News Expert, advisor to the US Congress and the European Parliament and served as a senior advisor on national security foreign policy to presidential candidate Mitt Romney 2012.
Dr Phares is the only expert/author who predicted the Arab Spring a year before it occurred in his pacesetting book, The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East (Threshold, a division of Simon and Shuster 2010). Dr Phares holds an extensive CV and noteworthy achievements in the fields of academia, government strategies, media and publishing critical advice on combating terrorism and countering jihadi radicalization both stateside and abroad.
Dr Phares holds a Ph.D in international relations and strategic studies from the University of Miami, and a Political Science Degree from St Joseph University and a Law degree from the Lebanese University in Beirut and a Master in International Law from Universite’ Jean Moulin in Lyons, France.
Dr Phares taught political science and Middle East studies at Florida Atlantic University between 1993 and 2004. Since 2006, he has taught Global Jihadi strategies at the National Defense University in Washington DC. Dr Phares lectures on campuses nationwide and internationally, including at the US Intelligence University. He lectured at Georgetown University, George Washington University, American University, Columbia, University of Chicago, Pepperdine, Boston College, Brandeis, UC Berkley, University of Colorado at Boulder, Loyola New Orleans, UC Santa Barbara, and many others including Ecole Militaire of France in Paris. Dr Phares lectures also to various academic associations including the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa in Washington DC and Middle East American ethnic organizations.
After having authored six books on Middle East politics and history (in Arabic) in the 1980s, Dr Phares authored another five in English stateside since the mid 1990s. His most important volumes were published after 9/11 starting with Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against America, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and a critically acclaimed book that was ranked in the top ten books of the 2006 Foreign Affairs List. Future Jihad was read and cited by many members of Congress and the European Parliament. Dr Phares predicted the rise of jihadi urban networks and set forth strategies to counter them in the West and overseas.
Dr Phares published two more books on global strategies: The War of Ideas (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) explaining the ideological indoctrination and The Confrontation, a policy strategy book designed to isolate radicals. Media and colleagues alike rave about Phares’s hallmark book, which predicted the Arab Spring a year before it occurred: The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East (Simon and Shuster, 2010). The book was endorsed by US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and praised by many leading figures in Congress, political circles and media on both sides of the Atlantic.
Dr Walid Phares is a native of Beirut, Lebanon, and immigrated to the United States in 1990. He speaks fluent Arabic and French as well as English. Prior to moving stateside, Dr Phares was a student union leader, a lawyer, a publisher, a university professor, and founded a social-democratic party, which he represented in several political coalitions.
Phares previously spoke at Westminster on the subjects of A New U.S. Response to Upheaval in the Middle East and Geopolitics of the Jihadi Threat: Assessment of ISIS and Iran’s Strategies.
Robert R. Reilly:
Hello and welcome to this online lecture of the Westminster Institute. I am Bob Reilly, the director, and I am delighted to welcome back to Westminster Dr. Walid Phares, who is an old and dear friend. He was born in Beirut, Lebanon, where he spent the first half of his life until emigrating to the United States in 1990.
He received two Bachelor’s degrees from Saint Joseph University in Beirut in public law and the second in political science and public administration. He then went on to receive a Master of International Law degree from the Universite’ Jean Moulin in France. In 1993, he obtained his PhD in international relations and strategic studies from the University of Miami.
I do not have time to address his distinguished academic career or all of his public activities because we want to hear from him, but I must mention that Dr. Phares has published twelve books in three languages (English, Arabic, and French) on the Middle East and international terrorism. Some of his notable post-9/11 books include Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against the West, published in 2005, the very important book The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy, published two years later, then The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad from 2008, and The Coming Revolution: The Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East, published later. The Coming Revolution projected the popular uprisings in the Middle East before they occurred later in 2011. His most recent publication is the Lost Spring: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Catastrophes to Avoid.
We are delighted to welcome Walid here to address the subject of Libya, of what is unfortunately currently taking place in that country, who is active there, the number of foreign countries that have interfered for their own purposes, what they are doing there, what are their objectives, and how should the United States address this problem. Thank you, Walid Phares, for joining us.
Thank you, dear Bob. I would like to thank you, Dr. Reilly, and thank the Westminster Institute for an amazing job in educating and in informing the American public. This is basically the most important exercise that we who are involved in academia and research, advisers, policymakers, opinion-makers, can offer to the American public and to American democracy. Our public needs to be informed about these conflicts and these issues worldwide to be able to make the right choices here at home in the selection of our lawmakers and leaders.
The topic of Libya is really in the heart of the field I have been in for the last thirty years. I have taught, published, been interviewed, interacted with politicians, leaders, NGOs, across the Middle East, including in Libya, but Libya in particular I have been following since I was a teenager. Back in the old days in Beirut I was looking at the events both in Lebanon and then the war in Lebanon, and the developments in the Middle East around my mother country.
And for about forty years I have been following the developments in Libya. Eighty percent of it was basically what one single man – dictator Qaddafhi – has been doing since 1969, the end of 1969, when he took over the rein of government in a coup d’état, all the way to his demise in 2011, and then the very tense and dangerous years since the revolt in Libya in what was called then the Arab Spring, which we in America got involved in as well as our partners in France, in Europe, then other players in the region.
And now Libya is in the midst of a very violent confrontation between at least two camps, and those camps are backed by regional actors. So that in a nutshell is my own interest. I have briefed, testified, been interviewed, met with Members of Parliament of Libya, human rights activists and others. So based on those experiences that I have had for forty years, ten of these years in the Middle East, and the other thirty in the United States. One of the challenges that the U.S. policy has since the so-called Arab Spring, and I would say even since the end of the Cold War, but more specifically since the upheavals in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, other places, and of course, Libya, was to make sure that the choice we are making as Americans is the right choice, is not going to cost us later in terrorism and economic problems.
In Libya the challenges are even greater because of who is there and who is involved, so let us do this historic journey first to see how the war started, and then we will move to what is the current situation, and then we can do a summary discussion about what would be the best options that the United States now and after the elections would or should have with regard to Libya.
Libya is a very large country in the Middle East as we can see in ‘Map 1’, and most of it is desert. It is inhabited by a majority Arab population, but it also minorities, including Berber-Amazigh, and then in the south it has Africans. It was the battlefield in World War II that we are all familiar with. Then it had a few years with the independent regime under King Senussi. And in 1969 Muammar al-Qaddafhi, a young officer in the Libyan Army then conducted a coup d’état, which some say was backed by Egypt and Abdel Nasser at the time.
Now who was Muammar al-Qaddafhi ideologically and politically? It is very important to understand. It is going to allow us to understand against whom that revolution took place in 2011. Muammar al-Qaddafhi was part of what was known in the Middle East as the Arab nationalist movement. Arab nationalism is a pan-Arab movement. They want to establish a one-nation Ummah nation from Morocco to Iraq, including all of these countries. It is a kind of return of a settler-Caliphate. It is modeled after the German reunification project, the Italian reunification project, but it has multiple political parties operating.
In the east in Syria and Iraq, the most notable Arab nationalists were the Ba’ath regime of the Assad family and of Saddam Hussein. In Egypt you had Abdel Nasser, the great leader of the ’50s and the ’60s, the one who was clashing with Israel in two or three wars, that is Egypt and Israel. And in Libya, Muammar al-Qaddafhi represented that trend, which was very radical, but in addition to that, he promoted himself as a socialist leader, a third world-type of socialism. And in addition to that he had a third component. He brought in what he called the Islamic Green Revolution, not to be confused with the green movements today.
So he created this ideology that has one dimension that is Arab nationalist, another dimension that is socialist, and a third dimension that is really a Qaddafhi dimension, the Islamic Green Movement, which is different from the Islamists, the Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood. Qaddafhi was not very clear on what he was talking about. That is why very few in the Arab world followed him, but he meddled in many if not all the crises in the Arab world.
He had a huge income in oil. Libya has among the largest reserves in the world, the largest before Nigeria became [an oil power] in Africa as well. Because of that cash that he obtained, he created a very large army in equipment, not really in soldiers, but he funded many terrorist organizations across the Middle East. He supported the PLO, but he criticized them. He supported other organizations. He found himself in the ’70s and the ’80s backing radical groups that operated in Europe and elsewhere, but he was also an ally to the Soviet Union.
So Qaddafhi was a unique, unusual leader. Sadat used to call him the boy, the adolescent, the teenager because of his style and speeches. The bottom line is that Qaddafhi ruled from 1969 until 2011. He survived many changes in the world and in the Middle East, including the collapse of the Soviet Union. So those changes are going to take us to 2011 and the revolution.
The first and most important change that occurred with regard to Qaddafhi’s policies in the region from being a very radical, pro-terrorist leader was a massive retaliation by the Reagan administration in 1986 in order to punish the Qaddafhi regime for being involved in a terror action against an American airliner, the famous Pan-Am 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland with hundreds of people killed. The United States waged an air raid over Libya, killing many people surrounding Qaddafhi. Since that moment, Qaddafhi disengaged from a direct confrontation with the Unites States and the West. He understood. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was reforming under Gorbachev. Qaddafhi understood that he was not going to have the backing of the Soviet Union, which was busy in glasnost and perestroika.
The second shock to Gaddafhi was in 2003 when the Bush administration moved into Iraq, removed Saddam Hussein, changed that regime by force, and then captured Saddam Hussein. They gave him to the Iraqi interim government at the time, which was militias, and he was tried and executed. This shocked Qaddafhi, and in a meeting with the Arab League after that in ’04, he said where are the Arabs? One of our leaders was captured and executed. It is going to happen to each one of us, [that is] what he said. Indeed, it happened to him years later.
What happened after the fall of Saddam was that Qaddafhi announced that he is going to let go of his weapons of mass destruction system because he had them. And he asked the international community to come and dismantle his weapons of mass destruction, his long-range missiles, the bio-chemical capabilities. From then on he not only let go of that system of weapons, he started to cooperate — probably in a very confidential way — with U.S. and European agencies to go after terrorists, including Al-Qaeda.
So now we are in ’04 and Qaddafhi has shifted against the jihadists, against the Salafists and the Islamists. That created enmity between the Qaddafhi regime and all of the Islamist organizations and movements that ranged from the Muslim Brotherhood all the way to Al-Qaeda, and other affiliated organizations.
In 2011, the so-called Arab Spring begins and it hit many Arab countries. In Egypt, there was an uprising against the Egyptian government at the time, the Mubarak regime, in Syria against the Assad regime, in Yemen against the government of Yemen (Abdel al Saleh), and in Libya there was a series of demonstrations against Qaddafhi for the first time since he came to power.
And his reaction was very violent from the beginning. Unlike Assad or Ben Ali of Tunisia or the leader of Yemen or his neighbor in Egypt, he immediately resorted to massive power, including [the use of the] air force, tanks. There were massacres, including in Benghazi. That prompted all of his enemies, all of his foes, to come together and rise very quickly against him.
Now, who were the foes of Qaddafhi in 2011? He had all of the liberals who he had suppressed, put in jail, tortured. Some of them were in Europe, others hiding, other elements in the Arab world. They rose against him, but the liberals basically were mostly visible in newspapers or on TV. The second component was officers within the Libyan Armed Forces, including his Chief of Staff at the time. They knew that Qaddafhi was lost, and they wanted to guide Libya slowly from where it was into engaging the international community, meaning they wanted to have a military-controlled, interim-government like in Egypt, and then give it to civilians.
The third component, the most important component, were the Islamists. When we say the Islamists, it is a collection between the far-jihadists, Al-Qaeda and all of the satellite organizations, the Salafi-jihadi fighting groups on the one hand, to the more political network of groups under the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood. So these three components were competing to replace Qaddafhi.
U.S. Policy Towards Libya
What was U.S. policy at the time? The Obama administration between 2009 and actually 2016 had adopted a different policy than the Bush administration and even all of the previous administrations. What was that policy? With regard to the Middle East there were two directions that the Obama administration had adopted. One was the Iran deal, and because of the Iran deal there was a dialogue or a discussion between the Obama administration and the Iran regime to get to the Iran nuclear deal, which meant that the United States will disengage from its strong posture against that regime with, of course, consequences in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, and elsewhere.
The other arm was to engage with and to partner with the Muslim Brotherhood. Many ask the question: why would the Obama administration engage with the Muslim Brotherhood? Because the Muslim Brotherhood influence in America for the previous forty years has impacted think tanks, universities, media, and then little by little into the bureaucracies, and made the case that the Muslim Brotherhood is a better alternative than Al-Qaeda or the violent jihadists at least since the ’90s. So when President Obama went in 2009 to Cairo and delivered this speech, most of the prominent VIPS who were in the audience were either close to or part of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In Libya, Qaddafhi was basically seen by the international community, by the U.S., and Europe as a lost case, so they were looking for an alternative. And the intelligentsia in Washington at the time under the Obama administration thought that partnering with the Muslim Brotherhood and with the allies of the Muslim Brotherhood would be the best alternative both in Egypt and in Libya, but also possibly in Tunisia and in other countries. So among the three oppositions to Qaddafhi, those linked to the Brotherhood were in the best position because they were assured almost that when Qaddafhi would fall, they would either be directly or indirectly under that name or a different name the transition.
So now in those critical months between March 2011 and the end of the year, those months were critical to see the race between the three components. The liberals were in the media, making the case that Qaddafhi’s regime is bad so he was lost. The military, including high ranking officers who became dissidents from the Qaddafhi regime, tried to control the ground for the benefit of the army then, and then of course the Islamists benefited from the action to weaken Qaddafhi to bring him down. And of course there were the jihadi militias who actually killed him.
In the weeks and months after Qaddafhi was eliminated, there was a quick race between the Islamists and the branch of the army that rose against Qaddafhi. There was an incident in the east of the country where a former Chief of Staff of the Army was assassinated. It was said, allegedly, [to have been done] by jihadi militias. So as of 2012 basically, after Qaddafhi, the country had many political parties and factions and tribes, but the strongest central force was the Brotherhood or the Brotherhood-linked groups, and obviously they profited from the fact that both Europe and the Obama administration kind of partnered with them, shepherded them, or let them do whatever they wanted. That is in terms of substance.
In terms of form, they were several attempts by the UN and the international community to organize the transition of power in Libya between 2012 and 2015. Meanwhile, there was an election in 2014. It is a crucial stage in the evolution of Libya, 2014. Elections were organized, sponsored by the United Nations, monitored by NGOs, and the result was surprising to me. Though the Islamists, militias, and the Brotherhood were the most active, winning control of the bureaucracies at the time because they controlled the various ministries, the result was that civil society in Libya brought to the parliament a majority of non-Islamists, a majority of anti-jihadists, a combo of liberals, tribes, social democrats, and of course a significant component of Islamists, but the majority was not.
And that parliament opposed the control by these militias of the capital Tripoli and of course of Benghazi. As a result of that, in 2014 the parliament was ejected out of Tripoli. The last elected body was ejected out of Tripoli and went into exile to the far east of Libya to the famous city of Tobruk. So as of the end of 2014 to 2015, Libya has in Tripoli a bureaucracy controlled by the Islamist militias plus their allies. And in the far east in Tobruk you had a parliament that is elected by the people of Libya and is anti-Islamist.
Libyan National Army
Also in 2014 another phenomenon occurred, and now it is going to get us closer to the events that Libya is living today. Out of the desert in the eastern side of Libya, a number of officers and soldiers who were part originally of the Libyan Army, then followed the line of the dissidents against Qaddafhi, but were very concerned about the rise of various jihadist and Islamist militias, formed what they call the Libya National Army.
The Libya National Army is, in fact, a branch or a piece or brigades of the original Libyan Army, but with volunteers right and left, coming to join the effort. What was the goal of that force? That force was aimed at going first of all against Al-Qaeda factions in Libya which were mostly found in Derna in the east, in the center of the country on the coast mostly, and as of the end of 2014 and 2015 who would come to Libya? ISIS.
ISIS, which started basically in Iraq and Syria, had cells operating in a variety of Arab countries but in Libya they found a great location to re-establish or establish an emirate, so the LNA started warfare in the east. It seized or they call it ‘liberated’ Benghazi from these militias, and then slowly and surely in 2015 and 2016 it marched across the country, mostly in the east and the south.
Now comes another very important chapter, which is in 2015. In 2015, the United Nations intervened again and a collection of governments from the international community, from Europe, and the Obama administration pushed the Libyan factions to a meeting in Morocco, in the city or the town of Skhirat. This is a name that has now been used as the origin, the legal constitutional origin of the current government of Libya.
During that meeting most of the factions of Libya came together: that would be the authority in charge of Tripoli, an interim authority; that would be the Libyan Parliament; the LNA; and other components and political parties. All of these forces came together. They were recognized – and that is a crucial element in understanding today’s situation. They were recognized by the United Nations as the founding fathers of the new Libya.
So what was that summit or convention about? It was about creating a new government that would unify all of these forces. It would be called the GNA. That is the interim government that would rule Libya. It would have a presidential council and then executive branches. It will be recognized by the Libyan Parliament. In any government in any democracy the executive branch would have to be recognized by the parliament. And it will have the LNA as one of the components of its army.
GNA Unity Fails
That was the deal that was blessed and recognized by the United Nations because often today we hear the term of the GNA, which rules in Tripoli, is the UN-recognized government. True, but the GNA is one of the various components recognized by the United Nations in Skhirat in 2015. That means that also the parliament of Libya, the last elected parliament. — the GNA was not elected, it was appointed, the parliament was elected — is also UN-recognized. And the LNA because it participated in the Skhirat Agreement, indirectly though, and recognized as such by the parliament, they are all UN-recognized.
The GNA came to Tripoli and there was an attempt as of 2015-2016 to create that unity. The Obama administration was supportive of that process. What was the problem? The problem is that the parliament of Libya, which is made up of a majority of moderates or at least non-Islamists or jihadists, said I will give approval to that government, the GNA, if they disband the militias. No country can rise and combat democracy. We cannot do more elections. We cannot move forward if we have militias, and the militias in Tripoli were basically either connected to the jihadists in central Libya or they were Brotherhood.
So now the GNA refused to disband the militias, did not get the approval of the parliament. What does that leave Libya with now? The essential UN recognition of the Skhirat Agreement and to the GNA government was based on the fact that the government would be recognized by the parliament. It was not, so a new status quo has emerged, and that status quo is a de facto division in Libya. On the one hand in Tripoli (I am talking about 2016), you had the GNA government under Mr. Sarraj as the chief executive of a body of nine members, and then in Benghazi you have now the Libyan Parliament and the LNA. Both of them equally legitimate, equally recognized by the international community from Skhirat.
Now, many may not agree with my terminology, but that is how you read it from a legal perspective based on international law. The Obama administration left, the Trump administration came, so the question is what has the policy of the U.S. been since 2017 with regard to Libya? The new U.S. administration took some time before it developed a new policy, so it was basically the bureaucracy, the foreign policy bureaucracy of the previous administration, that managed the Libya dossier until a couple of things started to change in Washington in terms of new policy.
On the ground something else happened in 2017-2018: the forces of the LNA on the ground were able to seize a lot of territory. It took all of the territory to the east all of the way to the Egyptian border. It went to the south as you can see now in Map 2, and it was able to control almost the entire coasts, which are rich in oil, that is the oil ports for exports. And it came closer and closer to the west, so all of that was achieved in 2017-2018, but Libya remained divided in two portions in two parts; the west was the GNA and the east was the parliament and the LNA.
International and Regional Intervention
Now, international and regional intervention. Over the past three years we have witnessed a rise in the level of intervention of outside actors. The GNA was supported initially and then increasingly by two important players and by a movement. The two important regional players (who did not hide that intervention) are first Qatar, which has been backing Tripoli and its institutions and funded a lot of the political activities worldwide in support of the GNA, and then came Turkey with the President Erdoğan government, which also and very publicly said we are supporting the GNA. So now you have a regional bloc which is backing the GNA on the military level, political, diplomatic, and financial.
On the other side you have other players. You have Egypt backing the LNA and the parliament under President Sisi’s government. You have the UAE under the leadership of MBZ, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. You have also other players not always with very visible [involvement] but from the Arab world who started to back the LNA, which is under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
So who is the commander of the Libyan National Army, known as General Khalifa Haftar or as his rank in his own army says ‘Field Marshal’ Khalifa Haftar? General Haftar or Field Marshal Haftar was a high ranking officer in the Qaddafhi Army initially in the ’80s. Then he quit Libya because of disagreements with Qaddafhi and he was hosted in the United States where he lived for twenty years in Virginia as an exile in opposition to Qaddafhi.
As soon as the war started in Libya, he and other officers and soldiers of the Libyan Army or ex-military members of the Libyan Army decided to go and help Libya get rid of the militias, and of Al-Qaeda, and of ISIS. And he was the one who actually launched what became the LNA as we mentioned earlier. So General Haftar or Field Marshal Haftar became the commander of that force, expanding in the east.
He was recognized (and his army obviously) by the parliament, so unlike what some are claiming, he did not impose himself, though on the ground, obviously, his army did against the jihadist and Islamist militias, but he obtained a recognition by the parliament, which basically was in Tobruk and moved to Benghazi.
LNA’s Foreign Relations
So the LNA is not an ideological army. Obviously, it is anti-jihadist, anti-Islamist. Second, it is not aligned to international great powers like Qaddafhi was with the Soviet Union. Thirdly, Haftar and the LNA wanted to establish (as far as they said) good relations with the international community. He is an ally to Egypt. Egypt is an ally to the United States. He is an ally to the UAE, and the UAE is an ally to the United States. The LNA wanted to establish good relations with the United States, but it was not able to do so obviously under the Obama administration, which backed the other side, the Brotherhood side.
However, the LNA was able to establish strategic relations with France, a NATO member and our partner. So there is something complicated about the relationships here because Turkey is a NATO member so the U.S. has good relations with Turkey and therefore Turkey represents part of NATO, but on the other hand, France represents also NATO, which means that NATO on Libya backs both sides. Turkey backs Tripoli, and France backs Benghazi, which complicates issues.
The U.S. Position
So back now to the U.S. position. The United States bureaucracy or foreign policy establishment chose to recognize Tripoli, what they called the UN-recognized government, but they did not want to have enmity with the LNA. So the general idea was to try to bring both of them to the table of negotiations with a little tilt, one must add, to Tripoli, until 2019.
In 2019, there was a surprise event or development, which created another manifestation of U.S. policy towards Libya. The phone call came from the White House to Benghazi, and President Trump spoke with Field Marshal Haftar. Not only did they speak, but there was a statement issued, stating that the U.S. president and the commander of the Libyan Army (that is the title that was given) discussed efforts against terrorism, and President Trump praised Haftar for his efforts against terrorism.
So now you have two policies; one coming from the foreign policy establishments and institutions that have a tilt towards Tripoli, but wanted a political solution under the UN, and another policy coming straight from the White House from the President that says Haftar and the LNA, and therefore the parliament, should be our partners against terrorism, which was not easy to understand in the Arab world or in the Middle East or even in the international community.
So now let us bring it back home to paint a tableau, a picture of what has been happening over 2019 and 2020. On the ground, the LNA forces were able to terminate ISIS and Al-Qaeda on the coasts around Sirte and take control of the oil zone. They ended the jihadist enclave that was in Derna in the east and then Haftar and the LNA gathered their forces and moved towards Tripoli.
Meanwhile, obviously, Turkey and Qatar were backing Tripoli and Mr. Sarraj. And for the first time over the past maybe six months, you had a direct intervention by Turkey in Libya. That was not the case before. Qatar and Turkey used to send weapons and other support. UAE and Egypt non-officially and other countries would support Haftar. So what changed the geographies or the geopolitics of it was that Turkey intervened directly by sending military attachés and advisors, equipment, anti-aircraft missiles, and mostly an army of drones, of flying drones, to push back against the LNA forces.
A few months ago another development also changed the landscape on the ground, which is that President Erdoğan’s government signed an agreement with Mr. Sarraj’s GNA government, the provisional government of Libya, whereby they did something that nobody expected. They not only created a security agreement, but divided international waters, the economic zones between Libya and Turkey. They created (look at Map 3). They created a zone between Turkey and Libya to be partitioned between the two countries in terms of economic zone. That created a crisis in the Mediterranean that has nothing to do with the fight in Libya but it will be intertwined with this fight.
So we are talking 2020: the Libyan conflict moved from local in Libya to become a Mediterranean crisis. Why? That water zone and high seas basically is rich in oil, petroleum, and other riches and wealth, but that is in international waters. It cut off Greece’s access to those energy deposits in the Mediterranean. It also put pressure on Cyprus’ ability to take advantage, and obviously, on Egypt’s ability.
So as of Spring of 2020, you have now Greece moving in. Greece is tilting towards Field Marshal Haftar and the LNA. Cyprus is moving in. Both of them are members of the European Union, complaining about Turkey creating that new equation in the Mediterranean. Greece is coordinating with Egypt, with Israel to a certain extent, and with Cyprus, so the landscape in the Mediterranean has changed and added to the conflict in Libya.
So on the one hand, you have Turkey and Qatar backing Tripoli. And now you have Egypt and the UAE, and Greece and Cyprus all coalescing with the east of Libya. So at this point in time you have the two superpowers — we are the superpower, but another superpower, Russia, is interested in the game.
Here, let me say a couple of words about Russia’s role. On the outset of the LNA in ’14, ’15, and ’16, questions were asked in Washington and Brussels as well, what would be the relationship between Field Marshal Haftar and Russia, why? Because the officers of the old Qaddafhi Army had ties to the Soviet Union. But that is what happened with Egypt. Egypt had excellent relations with the Soviet Union until Sadat changed the policy, but their equipment was still Soviet and Russian for a long period of time. Both Egypt and the UAE, though they are direct allies of the United States, have relationships with Russia for a variety of other reasons. So the east of Libya does not have a preferential treatment between America and Russia. They meet with both officials, but they do have a relationship with Russia in the same way Cyprus has relationships with Russia as well. So that was level one.
Level two: A Russian aircraft carrier came a couple of years ago to the coast of Libya and invited Haftar to visit the aircraft carrier. He went in and, of course, his photo was taken, and then his opponent camp accused him of preferring Russia and bringing the Russians to Libya. It did not actually happen. Had there been a U.S. aircraft coming to Benghazi, inviting Haftar to go, he would have been very happy I imagine – or a French carrier or an Indian carrier, he would have visited because Field Marshal Haftar and the LNA need international backing.
You have the United States superpower is now interested in it. You have Russia as a great power in the east interested in Libya, and questions were asked in Washington and in Brussels from the onset of the LNA in ’14, ’15, ’16, into ’17 about the state of the relationship between the LNA and Russia. Why? Because most of the officers in the LNA were officers in Qaddafhi’s Army, and Qaddafhi had great strategic relations with the Soviet Union, therefore with Russia. That is the same case with Egypt, which was an ally of the Soviet Union, and then it let go of the Soviet Union. It turned to the United States under Sadat. And all of its equipment became American, and there were trained missions between U.S. and Egyptian forces for twenty-five years.
Egypt and the UAE are partners with the United States, yet they visit and meet and talk with Russian leaders. So the LNA basically and Field Marshal Haftar are too small in size to basically become the ally of one or the other but they want all the allies possible against the jihadists and the Islamist militias, which explains why the LNA obtained an alliance with France, which is in NATO and is an ally of the United States.
But the Russians were pushing. They wanted basically to show that Haftar and the LNA are in their zone of influence. There was an incident a few years ago when a Russian aircraft carrier came close to the Libyan coast and invited Haftar to visit, which he did. Had it been an American aircraft carrier, a French, a British, or an Indian aircraft carrier, Haftar would have visited. Why? Because the position of the LNA in the parliament is to obtain as much as possible international recognition.
So that was that point, and that picture taken then was used by the opposition to Haftar as he is closer to the Russians. Then, of course, with time when the LNA got closer and closer to Tripoli, Turkey sent more and more weapons, and these were weapons under NATO, and that started to put pressure on the LNA. Observers started to see a Russian presence in the east, and that presence was identified as a mercenary, a private security company, the Wagner Group company, which actually is Russian, but is not the Russian government, but in smaller numbers. Yet this was a signal that made Washington very nervous because they saw Russian elements in the east. There was no base for Russia like in Syria. There is no open strategic relationship, but there is a presence and the LNA considered that presence a private presence, which would be the equivalent of Blackwater if the Americans had been hired or engaged in the east of Libya, and actually, there were American elements in the eastern part of Libya.
Now, let us come to the current situation.
Now you have the LNA pushing all the way to Tripoli, almost controlling the areas between Tripoli and the Tunisian border. So Tripoli was the last enclave along with Misrata, the other strong enclave controlled by the GNA Islamist militias. Then things started to change. Turkey sent significant amounts of equipment, used its air drones, and its assets on the ground to shell and push back against the LNA and indeed, the LNA withdrew from around Tripoli and rapidly started to withdraw all the way to the center of Tripoli as this map shows you. So now you have west of Sirte all of the way to the Tunisian borders, you have the GNA government under Mr. Sarraj and the Islamist militias and the jihadi groups in charge and from Sirte to the east all of the way to the Egyptian borders, you have the LNA and the parliament in charge.
Ten Thousand Jihadists
Another element of concern other than the Russians – but this time in the west of Libya – were thousands of jihadists who were transferred from northern Syria by the Turkish authorities almost openly (documents and videos are on YouTube and actually, that was an open decision by the Turkish government in Ankara to bring volunteers, jihadi volunteers or Islamist volunteers, who were in Idlib, Syria or in other part of northern Syria or even elements within the refugee population inside Turkey. The Human Rights Council or Association of Syria issued a press release, stating that close to ten thousand jihadists have been shipped and transferred to the west of Libya and are operating under the GNA and Turkey against the LNA.
So now in terms of involvement, you have in the east the LNA, plus you have a few elements from the Russian private company. We do not know much about what there status is now after the withdrawal from the west, but in the west you have (if you believe the Syrian Human Rights NGO) close to ten thousand jihadists.
So why don’t we talk about ten thousand jihadists. This is a quarter or a third of the entire ISIS caliphate that existed in Iraq and Syria. These are not hundreds of jihadists or a couple thousand jihadists, these are ten thousand jihadists. Now, as it is right now, Libya is divided in two parts.
Impacts on Security
What are the impacts of the current situation on regional and Mediterranean and international security? With the presence of the Russians in eastern Libya, this matter has to be dealt with between the United States and Russia, and the U.S. position is that those private consultants or mercenaries should be withdrawn from Libya, and that will be a good thing because the less internationalization of Libya in terms of military involvement, the better it is, but that is not really even comparable with the other problem that now we have in western Libya under the GNA, this huge army of jihadists who are linked to Al-Nusra, are linked to Al-Qaeda, and others, and at least are working with the Muslim Brotherhood. Why? Because from western Libya these jihadists can easily cross into many countries in the Sahel, that would be from Chad to Niger to Mauritania, and eventually hook up with Boko Haram in Nigeria.
This is huge. This is not just Libya. We are talking about one-fifth or fourth of Africa that could be penetrated by these thousands of jihadists, in addition to Tunisia, which already has some instability, Algeria, which witnessed a civil war in the ’90s between the same type of jihadists and their army, and, of course, Egypt. So that is going to pose a big problem in Africa, but there is a another wing to that problem. Jihadists who are deployed in Libya are one water crossing from Europe.
Europeans now are very nervous just to think of the idea that thousands of jihadists are massing in Libya, including as refugees into Italy, Spain, and France. Everything we have seen over the past twenty years in terms of Al-Qaeda or ISIS activities in Europe will pale in comparison with that new wave.
And the last problem: the Erdoğan government had allowed (or some would say helped) hundreds of thousands of refugees who were present in Turkey, in south Turkey, mostly from Syria, to head towards the borders with Greece in Thrace, and we have seen in the media that the Greeks have opposed that movement backed by the European Union. Bulgaria has also closed their borders because they know and they project that there will be radical elements within this mass population of refugees, plus the argument that those refugees should go back to Syria.
Why are they uprooted from Syria and sent to Europe? If Turkey controls Idlib, Turkey controls northern Syria. This is where they should go. On the international community, on the European Parliament, support them financially in Syria, but these refugees are helped and pushed towards those borders.
Now we have a crisis on the Greek-Turkish land border. There is a concern in Europe that if those refugees cannot pass through the Turkish-Greek borders, they will be shipped to Libya. They will be deployed or they will be put in camps in Libya, and if that happens, the concern would be that these refugees would be then ‘helped’ to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe, and through them the jihadists could infiltrate their ranks and then get to a European country.
So now there is a major shift in European positioning with regard to Libya. They know that if the jihadists will stay, it is going to be a security threat. They know if the refugees are sent (and they may be sent without their consent) to Libya, there could be another humanitarian crisis across the Mediterranean, which the Europeans already lived through a few years ago.
The U.S. Position Today
The U.S. position to close. The United States foreign policy has been over the past three-and-a-half years under a lot of pressure. The Trump administration is dealing with the Iran challenge, which is huge, the defense of the peninsula, the presence in Iraq, we were in east Syria, the Kurdish issue, obviously the matter of the Iran deal, so that consumed a large segment of our Middle East policy. In addition to that, the fight against Daesh, ISIS, has consumed a lot of resources, and it is not a secret in Washington, that the domestic challenges that the administration went through and against have been huge.
So because of all these fronts both overseas and at home, little attention or little energy was being given to the crisis in Libya, but one can summarize that the current position, which I believe is not going to change until the next election in the fall, is going to still based on two considerations; the foreign policy bureaucracy would like to see a balance in Libya between the two forces, and start some sort of talks, negotiations. The President is concerned and his advisors are concerned about the terrorist factor and want to see who of the two forces on the ground is going to be more helpful to the United States in fighting against remnants of Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the other Islamist radical militias.
So with this I would say that Libya is a very important place for U.S. policy to see stabilized, unified in the best place possible. The recommendations are that in any solution there should be a participation of all factions and communities in the process. There should be elections when the militias are disarmed, which means that the key, the most important key for any process in Libya in the next few months will be who and when and how these militias will be disbanded and disarmed (if they want to be political parties, that is fine), how they can integrate into the army and how the country cannot go into any dictatorship, but become a representative democracy and a republic, and let us see how that will help.
Robert R. Reilly:
Turkey’s Involvement: Neo-Ottoman Pretensions?
Walid, thank you very much for that fascinating lecture, exposing the mind-numbing complexity of the situation in Libya. May I ask you a question about Turkey? Is Turkey’s involvement from neo-Ottoman pretensions or Muslim Brotherhood allegiances? What is its ultimate objective there, and does Erdoğan see any danger of being at loggerheads with Russia and Libya as indeed they were in Syria?
First of all, there are two levels in Turkey’s involvement in Libya. The level that we actually see is the level of the narrative, and yes, the fact that the Erdoğan government, which is the AKP Islamist Party in control of Turkey, follows the line of the Muslim Brotherhood thinking without being necessarily part of the Brotherhood, and therefore, we get involved in northern Syria, Libya, Iraq, southern Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, in all of the places where the Brotherhood has some influence and has a case. That is not a secret, but it is below the level of ideology and policies.
You also have the economy. The Erdoğan government is very conscious that if they partner with at least a piece of Libya, which is significant, that would be the western part of Libya and Tripoli, they will have huge access to oil and gas and other riches in Libya. And from an economic perspective that would be huge in terms of interests. Actually, as we speak these days there are talks between Ankara and Tripoli about special contracts, special concessions to Turkey in Libya in terms of a permanent military base, permanent airfields to be used by Turkey, and obviously contracts between Turkish companies in Libya, so it is even moving from the secret economic interests to becoming open economic interests.
With regard to Russia, I think that President Erdoğan is very skillful in politics and policies. He was able to create a kind of equation in northern Syria whereby by backing those militias in the north, Islamist militias, he was able to negotiate with President Putin of Russia some sort of Brest-Litovsk kind of agreement. You have your agreement with the Assad regime (says Erdoğan to Putin and I have my interest in this part), so it looks more like the 19th century division of Poland or of the Balkans between large powers, which promoted Turkey as becoming – though it is smaller than Russia – but as equal in terms of negotiations, so I think the same would be happening in Libya with one difference. Turkey has more influence in western Libya than Russia has influence in eastern Libya. That is a major difference.
Now, from Washington’s perspective I need to add this point because you made it; Turkey and Tripoli and the Sarraj government, the GNA, and Qatar have established a very strong platform of influence through lobbying. I mean our system, you know it, everybody knows it. If you sign up with lobbies, then they will conduct the actual influence for you, and that is not to say that the other side does not have lobbies. Everybody has lobbies here, but the success of the Qatar and Turkey-contracted lobbies has been to a point where they have been able to influence U.S. not just positions because that is something the U.S. sovereignty does, but U.S. perception in the media.
Haftar has been perceived as a warlord, as an ally of Putin and Russia, and nothing was said about the ten thousand jihadists. I mean if we were after 9/11 in the Bush years or during the Trump years dealing with ISIS, and someone had said there were ten thousand jihadists in Libya, it would have been a full mobilization. Nobody in the media is talking about it, which is a huge PR success for Turkey and Qatar.
Robert R. Reilly:
What can Egypt do?
Dr. Phares, President Sisi has to be extremely worried about the developments that you just went over. Is Egypt in a position to do anything about them?
Egypt is very concerned because it is at home. Egypt has maybe a thousand miles, kilometres border with Libya, so if the jihadists of the west reach Benghazi or closer, then they will be in Egypt’s face. Egypt will be sandwiched between Libya and those operating in the Sinai. Egypt is the most concerned in this, but beyond Egypt, the Saudis are the most concerned. The UAE, the Gulf is concerned. And beyond them, Israel is concerned because the actual final goal of the jihadists marching east is to hook up with Gaza with Hamas. That is why you have this collection of Israel, undeclared partnership with Israel, Egypt, the Gulf, and Greece, not just because of economic matters, but because of security matters.
Robert R. Reilly:
Thank you very much, Walid. My last question actually was going to be about Israel’s interests in this, but you just folded that in, and I know that we are out of time now, so I would thank you very much in your generosity for giving another outstanding Westminster lecture.
Thank you so much for inviting me.