The GNA’s militias and Turkish forces backed by Syrian refugee-mercenaries in Libya are no match for the combined firepower of General Haftar’s LNA, allied militias, and a host of powerful countries, such as the UAE and Egypt, with Russian mercenaries added in for good measure.
Yet, against all odds, with Haftar at the gates of the capital and ready to take control of Libya, the Turks have managed not only to halt his push into Tripoli but to force his retreat from key strategic areas.
Nearly everyone was in Haftar’s corner in a conflict that featured a vast gathering of major external forces, all eyeing a piece of the balance of power in this post-Gaddafi oil-rich setup.
Turkey has been successful largely by default, as Haftar’s allies have pressed the pause button. Erdogan has deployed surface-to-air missile defense systems to Libya, and that has been a bit of a spoiler for the UAE’s armed drones for Haftar, making it difficult for the General to win an aerial campaign.
The past couple of weeks have seen Haftar lose so much ground that his goal of taking Tripoli now seems rather remote.
On Monday, the General lost a key airbase.
On Wednesday, the GNA captured a Russian-built, UAE-financed air defense system.
On Thursday, the Government of National Accord (GNA) launched airstrikes against Haftar’s forces as they were withdrawing from the front lines of the capital, Tripoli. A key target was the General’s stronghold of Tarhouna.
So what happens next?
Where it concerns Haftar, this isn’t the end. The General will now specifically target Turkish forces.
Saqr Al-Jaroushi, Haftar’s air force chief, has vowed to unleash the “largest aerial campaign in Libyan history” with all Turkish positions now “legitimate targets for our airforce.”
Tripoli also says that a Russian base in Syria had recently delivered Soviet-era jets to Haftar. Russia, for one, has been humiliated in Libya–even though it has maintained plausible deniability for those mercenaries on the ground. Putin is now effectively fighting Turkey–its ally–in two venues: Syria and Libya, and while their goals sometimes align over desires to control the natural resources of the Mediterranean, it is difficult to imagine the Russian president allowing a scenario in which it is bested by the Turks. Hence the new shipment of jet fighters that will most definitely target Turkish forces.
So, what about the UAE? It also has a lot of skin in this game and has likewise been humiliated.
The UAE is eyeing a number of spoils from Libya, but the problem for Haftar is that it would also be content to see the country partitioned, with Haftar solidly in control of the east if he can’t take and keep Tripoli on his own.
How Washington responds to Haftar’s recent losses in Libya will depend on what the UAE wants to a large extent. That’s because Washington is the benefactor of piles of cash from the UAE’s immense lobbying power.
To put this into perspective, in 2018 alone, there were 20 firms registered as foreign agents for UAE clients in the US, and those firms received over $20 million just for public information campaigns in the United States.
What does the UAE want, exactly?
In Libya, for starters, it’s the highly lucrative task of rebuilding the country post-conflict, and building influence in a new government along the way. This would still be lucrative for the UAE (and the Saudis, as well) if Haftar only manages to secure eastern and southern Libya, which would mean he would still control the oil production, if not the oil revenues.
The UAE would also like to gain sea access through Libya as its DP World port company is eyeing expansion in the eastern Mediterranean, which means access through Benghazi in eastern Libya.
The problem for Haftar is that the UAE–the biggest contributor to his war effort–is not exactly sold on the idea that Haftar can unify the entire country, so right now, it is hedging its bets, and control of eastern Libya is far more important for the UAE.
But the Turkish gambit will force the UAE into a more immediate decision on this.
And Haftar is now in trouble in the east, his power base, as well as his eastern allies waffle.
Earlier this month, armed militants linked to General Haftar stormed the headquarters of the Brega Oil Marketing Company in Benghazi, removing the company’s director by force because he was supporting the eastern government’s efforts towards a political agreement with the GNA in Tripoli.
Such an agreement would go against Haftar’s recent declaration of a “popular mandate” to rule all of Libya.
If the UAE steps up to the plate to enforce a partition of Libya into east and west, Haftar doesn’t need Tripoli because he would control the bulk of the oil production and the ports, and eventually, he would begin exporting without the GNA. UAE lobbying money would likely see to it that he is recognized as the legitimate exporter in the end.
What the UAE won’t stand for is a Turkish move on spoils in the eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey’s state-run oil firm has applied for an exploration permit–a move condemned roundly by Cyprus, Egypt–another power player in the Libyan conflict on Haftar’s side–and Greece.
So, the ball right now is really in the UAE’s court, but regardless, Haftar will now be regrouping for a major assault on the Turks.