Are Egypt and Turkey heading for war in Libya?

In recent weeks, the potential for open conflict between various states in the South-Eastern Mediterranean has increased dramatically. The Communist Tendency (IMT section in Greece) has already released a statement on the escalation of war tensions between Greece and Turkey over access to hydrocarbons in specific areas of the Mediterranean Sea. Since then, the Turkish air force and navy have been carrying out military exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean, which the Egyptian and French navy have countered with their own joint training drills.

These developments come just days after the Egyptian parliament voted unanimously to send ground troops to Libya, six months after the Turkish government authorised their own army’s intervention there. There are genuine fears – particularly in Egypt – that the two largest military powers in the region are heading for war.

The Egyptian government also signed a maritime agreement with Greece on 6 August, which provides an exclusive economic zone for oil and gas drilling rights. This agreement is a response to Turkey’s own memorandum of understanding with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) last year. That agreement also asserted a shared exclusive economic zone in the waters between the two countries signing it – the very same waters to which Greece and Egypt are now claiming exclusive access for drilling. In reality, the agreement between Egypt and Greece is the formalisation of an alliance on this question that existed long before Turkey’s deal with the Tripoli government, and also includes Cyprus and Israel.

Our previous detailed analysis of the scramble for hydrocarbons in the South-East Mediterranean and Turkish President Erdogan’s aggressive turn towards expansionism can be found here. We are now witnessing the conflicting interests of various states vying for their own share of the oil and gas resources of the Mediterranean Sea coming to a head. Late last month it was reported that Turkey had withdrawn some warships from an area off the Greek coast as the situation came a little too close to open conflict. Now, there is the very real possibility of the Egyptian Armed Forces entering into direct combat with soldiers carrying out the orders of the Turkish state in Libya.

The Haftar offensive

General Haftar Image MagharebiaThe Egyptian state has been backing the forces led by General Khalifa Haftar, which control Eastern Libya, known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), since early on in Libya’s civil war / Image: Magharebia

The Egyptian state has been backing the forces led by General Khalifa Haftar, which control Eastern Libya, known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), since early on in Libya’s civil war. Meanwhile, Erdogan’s Turkey has been in close contact with Tripoli-based GNA – now led by Fayez al-Sarraj – since its inception. The Turkish state was initially keen to protect the interests that Turkish construction companies had held in Libya since the days of Gaddafi. One contract given out by the precursor to the GNA had a Turkish company extending the coastal road in Tripoli. Most of the construction contracts from the last years of Gaddafi and the years after he was deposed soon turned to dust as civil war took hold of Libya and the country descended into barbarism.

However, now the Turkish regime has found an opportunity to turn the links it has to the GNA to its advantage.

Last year, with the support of Egypt and several other countries including France, Russia, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, General Haftar launched an offensive with the aim of taking Western Libya, and in particular its capital Tripoli. This result would have given his forces decisive control over the country. The LNA did make considerable advances: by January this year they had taken the strategically important city of Sirte in the heart of the country’s ‘oil crescent’, along with Sidra – Libya’s largest oil depot. They also have control over the al-Jufra airbase – the largest in Libya – which they use as a command centre, and for importing weapons and supplies.

But Erdogan’s decision to intervene late last year has likely been a major factor in the LNA’s failure to capture Tripoli. There’s no doubt that Turkish-supplied troops and weaponry played a key role in the retaking of the al-Watiya airbase by the GNA in May this year. The LNA had been using this base as a launch pad from which to attack the Libyan capital. When it lost the base, it was forced to withdraw its forces from parts of Tripoli and come to the negotiating table.

Turkish intervention in Libya

Soon after signing the memorandum of understanding with the GNA last November, the Turkish Army began flying hundreds of soldiers over to Libya. These were not soldiers of the Turkish Army, though; they were mercenary Islamist fighters from northern Syria, who had gained experience from fighting Kurdish YPG forces and pro-Assad forces in their home country. Thousands more of these mercenaries followed earlier this year, along with armed drones. Turkish guided-missile frigates are also stationed off the Libyan coast. There is at least one confirmed case of them shooting down an LNA drone to defend Tripoli airspace. Some Turkish military officers have been sent to Libya in ‘advisory’ roles.

We have discussed Turkey’s motives for intervening directly in Libya in our previous articles. Erdogan is looking to attain a geopolitical position for Turkey in the Mediterranean region that more closely reflects its growing economic and military clout (with the second biggest army in NATO, and one of the most advanced), and his imperialist aspirations. The current situation in Libya presents the perfect opportunity for the Turkish ruling class to advance its regional position. The more immediate catalyst for the intervention, though, is the Turkish state’s desperation to get a seat at the table when newfound natural gas resources are explored in the Mediterranean Sea; and when the spoils of the Libyan Civil War (chiefly oil reserves) are divided amongst the foreign powers who meddled on the side of the victors.

It is also true that Erdogan’s imperialist dream grows in inverse proportion to the waning of his popularity and his regime’s stability at home. By portraying himself as the figurehead of a new Ottoman empire, the president hopes to distract from the devastating economic crisis and accompanying austerity measures the Turkish working class is facing. This may be a temporary fix among certain layers, but sooner or later, pent-up class division within Turkish society will burst to the fore on a mass scale.

Yet the neo-Ottoman pretensions of a wing of the Turkish ruling class, and their desperation to exploit gas reserves, are to the detriment of Turkey’s nearest rival powers – Greece and Egypt. They are having a destabilising effect on the entire Mediterranean region.

Are Egypt and Turkey on a collision course?

F 16 Fighting Falcon Turkish Image Robert SullivanDespite the muscle-flexing, the idea of a direct, full-blown conflict between the Egyptian and Turkey armies is still unlikely even as events in Libya continue to gather momentum towards a war footing / Image: Robert Sullivan

The idea of direct, full-blown conflict between the Egyptian and Turkey armies is still unlikely even as events in Libya continue to gather momentum towards a war footing. Each power is more than flexing its muscles, and exchanging threats which are not entirely idle in relation to the other’s actions. But the political and economic costs of a general, all-out engagement in conflict for either ruling class would be so severe that they will be extremely wary of being drawn into such a situation.

For Egypt, there is the additional danger that a war being fought on their own land border with an army the size of Turkey would bring. For Turkey, Egypt has the only standing army in the entire region which can match them for numbers and weaponry. The Turkish armed forces may have far more advanced naval and missile capabilities, but Egypt has aircraft carriers and French-produced Dassault Rafales multirole combat planes with long-range Storm Shadow missiles capable of evading lower altitude air defences. These planes were used to devastating effect in a surprise attack on the al-Watiya airbase in July, not long after it was captured by the GNA. Of course, the Egyptian Air Force didn’t acknowledge it was behind the attack.

Both military powers are aware of the damage that could be done by an opponent of these capabilities, and the huge consequences it could have for their respective regimes. They are each testing how far they could push the cause of consolidating their regime’s interests without crossing the line into open warfare. One problem with this strategy is that both regimes are prone to impulsive, heavy-handed decisions – a tendency embodied by their leaders Erdogan and President Sisi of Egypt. One false step in this situation with tensions so high could lead to a serious military clash.

Nevertheless, it’s important to recognise how the civil war in Libya is being fought to understand the limited scope for a full-scale direct intervention from either Egypt or Turkey. The Syrian mercenaries shipped over via Turkey are a slight upgrade from the rag-tag bands of Islamist militias fighting on behalf of the GNA. It’s one thing for these fighters to successfully defend the Libyan capital – the stronghold of GNA support – with the help of Turkish drones and missiles. It’s something else entirely for them to launch a counter-offensive with the aim of taking both Sirte and the al-Jufra air base, as the GNA and Erdogan claim as their next move. There are already reports of infighting between some of the native militias and the Syrian Islamists.

While General Haftar is the renegade former chief-of-staff of Gaddafi’s Libyan Army (and was later involved in a coup attempt against Gaddafi), his forces are scarcely more homogenous and well-drilled than the GNA-backed militias. Until Turkey’s entrance on the scene they were certainly better armed and funded – by Russia and the UAE in particular – but their forces on the ground are propped up by around 1,500 Russian mercenary soldiers who also have a background fighting in Syria.

These mercenaries, for their part, have taken over the port of Sidra and Libya’s largest oil fields, effectively placing the control of most of Libyan oil in Russian hands for the time being.

The scale of direct military intervention in Libya required by either Egypt or Turkey to tip the balance in the civil war fundamentally would be a huge commitment and a very big risk. Sisi’s ‘red line’ of Sirte is very unlikely ever to be crossed by GNA and Turkish-backed forces in their current form – which is probably why he used it as a threat. Egyptian ground forces are still stationed on the Libyan border as they have been since 2011. The idea of them going as far as even central Libya to grapple with thousands of heavily armed militias, when they have struggled so badly to deal with several hundred ISIL guerrilla carrying more primitive weapons in Sinai, is not very feasible. Meanwhile, for GNA forces to reach anywhere close to Sirte would need a huge operation from the Turkish side, almost certainly meaning the Turkish Army would have to put thousands of boots on the ground. The Turkish Air Force would also probably need its own air bases within Libya, given that it doesn’t have Egypt’s advantage of being only a few hundred kilometres from potential targets.

Yes, both states are committed to backing their sides in this vicious proxy war with a lot of firepower. The Egyptian government has been increasing its military spending – specifically on modernising its naval and air fleets – over the last five years with precisely this situation in mind. And from the Turkish side Erdogan means business. But this does not mean they are ready to engage in direct combat with each other.

And that’s without bringing larger imperialist powers into the equation, powers which – in the event of a war between Egypt and Turkey – would have to take some action to protect their own interests. The French government, which is backing Haftar in Libya, has already taken Erdogan’s move to intervene as a severe provocation. Their joint naval exercises with Egypt in the Mediterranean are only a hint at what could happen in the event of a full-scale Turkish invasion of Libya. Erdogan would really be playing with fire in that scenario.

The war at a stalemate

Currently, there is a stalemate between the two sides of the civil war. Haftar’s forces are fighting themselves into the ground, having been beaten back from the far west of the country, while the GNA-supporting forces are in no position to advance much further. Behind these two camps, Egypt and Turkey are testing their ability to affect the situation.

Despite all the bluster from all parties, peace talks have been taking place since May, reflecting this stalemate. These talks have been punctuated by skirmishes and displays of strength by the interfering powers, which will continue even if an agreement is reached.

What will follow will be a highly unstable and probably short-lived peace, as none of the contradictions of the civil war or the appalling social situation in Libya will have been resolved. Meanwhile, every clash between different sets of reactionary militias or crude act of chest-thumping by a foreign power heaps yet more misery on the Libyan people.

Russia and the impotence of the United States

Meeting on Russias Armed Forces actions in Syria Image Russian Presidential Press and Information OfficeRussian imperialism has now attained as the main power player in the Libyan situation / Image: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Interestingly, it is Russia brokering the peace deal, and this was top of the agenda when Vladimir Putin met Erdogan in June. This underlines the position that Russian imperialism has now attained as the power player in the Libyan situation. It is Russian mercenaries who made the decisive difference to Haftar’s offensive – only with their support on the ground was he able to start moving into central and western Libya after years of fighting. It was Russian planes that were delivered to the al-Jufra air base prior to the bombardment of Tripoli. And now it is Russia deciding on the peace with Turkey, effectively trying to dictate terms to Erdogan.

Russian interests in Libya are not limited simply to the oil that can be plundered there. Like Erodogan’s Turkey, they are looking to play a more significant part in international relations, more befitting their rise in stature as an imperialist power. They have come out of the Syrian Civil War enormously strengthened due to the pivotal role they ended up playing, while the United States totally lost control of the situation. But Syria was already in Russia’s regional sphere of influence. Although the development of the war certainly changed the balance of forces between different imperialist countries, Russia’s involvement was no surprise. The Russian ruling class is demonstrating even more ambition by intervening in Libya as they have done.

There is a more specific reason why they are so interested in what happens to Libya, and it is to do with oil. But not just Libyan oil – Russian oil and natural gas too. For Russian oil barons, there are major concerns not only about who has control over Libyan oil but also about the hundreds of new potential sites for oil and liquid natural gas extraction in the Mediterranean, many of which are already being drilled. At the moment, the cost of extraction at most sites means that Western-backed oil companies can’t match their Russian competitors. Technology is advancing quickly, though, and the process will soon become more cost-efficient.

Both these newly-tapped reserves and Libyan oil could be factors in allowing the European market to reduce its reliance on Russian companies for fossil fuels. This is a move which is also politically expedient for European imperial powers, given their antagonism towards Russia’s strengthened position as a rival power. Russian mercenaries taking direct control of the Sidra oil port and the oil fields around Sirte (over and above Haftar’s command) is a kind of protectionist measure as well as an act of imperialist plunder.

It is also a clear signal of intent: they are very much present in the conflict over oil and gas in the Mediterranean, and will do what it takes to secure their interests. Likely this will later extend to a deal with Egypt, their ally in Libya, prioritising the rights of Russian companies to extract hydrocarbons from sites in Egyptian waters. They may even be able to work something out with Turkey on that same issue, such is the strength of their position.

The United States, on the other hand, is nowhere to be seen, despite its weapons and finances being used in both sides of the war. The Trump administration’s confused and hands-off approach to Libya is a further sign of the weakening of US imperialism, which is no longer capable of acting as the decisive factor in a situation like this one. As are the completely hopeless attempts of the United Nations to enforce the arms embargo they put in place nearly a decade ago. A UN report published at the end of last year found that several member states had “systematically violated” the embargo for some time. Anyone who’s heard anything about Libya over the last few years would wonder why a report was needed to confirm that. In February this year, a UN report on the bombing that killed 53 people at a migrant detention centre in the west-Libyan town of Tajoura last year confirmed that “a foreign state” was responsible. Which foreign state, though, didn’t seem like a detail worth mentioning!

All year, the UN has been crying out for a ceasefire in Libya, like a small dog yapping at the door while its owners carry on their day oblivious. When fighting has stopped, it’s been because Turkish-backed forces have made some progress repelling Haftar’s offensive. The wretched pleas of the United Nations have played no role whatsoever. Russian imperialism, by contrast, is now capable of playing precisely that role even in a country outside of its immediate sphere of influence.

French interests

France is another key imperialist power both in Libya and the conflict over hydrocarbons in the Mediterranean. From the beginning of the movement against Gaddafi in Libya, France saw an opportunity to carve out its own powerful position in the southern Mediterranean. The initial reticence of the United States over intervening to overthrow the regime in 2011 gave French imperialism a leading role in the intervention.

It has retained its interest in Libya ever since (France officially recognises the GNA while backing Haftar in practice), and used it as a platform to build an alliance with the Egyptian state, with whom it already had close ties. It was the French state that sold Egypt the new multirole fighter jets they have used against GNA forces in recent weeks, back in 2015. And it is France that has increased its naval presence significantly in the South-Eastern Mediterranean over recent months.

In June, a French frigate was actually targeted by the radar of a Turkish warship, leading to a serious diplomatic issue between the countries. President Macron didn’t mince his words: “I think that it’s a historic and criminal responsibility for a country that claims to be a member of NATO. We have the right to expect more from Turkey than from Russia, given that it is a member of NATO.”

Here the President of France is effectively comparing Russia – his country’s de-facto ally in the Libyan Civil War – favourably with Turkey – his country’s official ally in NATO. This episode has led to a further fragmentation of the NATO alliance, which is already riddled with contradictions following Turkey’s actions in Syria and the US’ turn towards protectionism.

Behind Macron’s hypocritical moralising about “criminal responsibility”, we see the naked interests of the French ruling class exposed. Through their involvement in Libya and alliance with Egypt, the French state hopes to be the senior partner in any agreement to explore new prospective sites for extracting hydrocarbons from the Mediterranean Sea. By offering its support to one side in the Libyan Civil War and the conflict in the South-Eastern Mediterranean, it is buying a place at the front of the queue to exploit the resources of other countries – something in which it has centuries of expertise.

Why is Egypt involved in the Libyan Civil War?

Sisi Image U.S. Department of StateThe Egyptian ruling class has long harboured designs on reconstructing Libya once the war is over, and, in doing so, gaining a significant stake in the Libyan oil business / Image: U.S. Department of State

There is certainly an aspect of Egypt’s backing of Haftar, related to the infiltration of terrorists into Egypt from Libya, which the Egyptian Army has completely failed to stem. Haftar is a ruthless Bonapartist warlord who’s been able to draw together disparate elements and crush Islamist militias, among other things, in Eastern Libya. He’s a useful bulwark against terrorist infiltration – and against refugees, who have arrived in Egypt from Libya in their thousands throughout the war. He’s also Egypt’s best bet for political stability, at least in the eastern part of Libya, in the short-term, and so could be the one who paves the way for lucrative deals to be struck with Egyptian construction magnates and financiers. That explains why the Egyptian regime is behind Haftar, but not why it became so involved in the war in the first place.

The Egyptian ruling class has long harboured designs on reconstructing Libya once the war is over, and, in doing so, gaining a significant stake in the Libyan oil business. This is why Sirte, in particular, is a red line for Sisi. Despite its own sizable oil fields, Egypt is a net importer of oil. In recent years, the government has repeatedly cut oil subsidies at the insistence of its Gulf allies and the IMF, which has led to sudden jumps in prices across the Egyptian economy and the impoverishment of millions more Egyptians. The Sisi regime looks at its future involvement in the rebuilding of Libya as an opportunity to import oil more cheaply.

But the recent developments in natural gas extraction in Egypt demonstrate who would really benefit from the Sisi regime’s possible future stake in Libyan oil. It certainly wouldn’t be the 90 million Egyptians living in or close to poverty, never mind the Libyan masses who’ve suffered the complete destruction of their country through a civil war which is the direct result of imperialist meddling.

Until recently, Egypt was also a net importer of gas, until new exploratory drilling in the Mediterranean Sea and the Nile Delta led to new extraction sites being developed. These sites were only developed because Sisi privatised the majority of the oil and gas sector, meaning that multinational companies carried out the drilling so they could sell the gas to state-owned power stations in Egypt, among other buyers, for a huge profit. Incidentally, these power stations are next in line to be sold off by the state. And this profit is what lies behind the maritime deal between Egypt and Greece.

Under Sisi, Libyan oil will be used to line the ever-growing pockets of Egyptian capitalists and their friends in the multinationals. It won’t end the price rises in Egypt, which will continue until the masses can’t take it anymore and return to the streets.

To the Egyptian regime, a stabilised situation in Libya appears to be a panacea capable of solving many of the problems they are incapable of handling at home. They could bring down unemployment by exporting Egyptian workers, rake in massive oil revenues for their own ruling class, send back the thousands of refugees who fled the war that they would rather have off their hands, and cut off one channel of terrorist infiltration at its source. This partly explains the lengths to which they are willing to go to back Haftar against the meddling of the Turkish state.

But all of these aims are utterly utopian on the basis of Egyptian capitalism, even in the best case scenario, let alone in the midst of the deepest crisis in capitalism’s history. It’s more likely that Sisi’s lunatic attempts to strongarm Erdogan will incite the Egyptian masses into a movement against his regime, as they fear for their own safety and stand in solidarity with their Libyan brothers and sisters.

Down with all warmongering capitalist regimes!

In previous decades, Libya was the envy of its larger neighbour for concessions it continued to afford its working class in housing, healthcare and education on the basis of its oil wealth. Egyptian engineers and doctors would go to Libya for better pay and working conditions. After imperialist intervention, only rubble now remains of that Libya, while the Egyptian and Turkish ruling classes can add their names to the list of those foreign powers with so much Libyan blood on their hands.

And now, as the Egyptian and Turkish masses are forced to suffer ever-worsening living conditions, all their governments can think of is how to manoeuvre militarily to secure national-bourgeois interests in another country. No matter that these actions destabilise the Mediterranean region and the Middle East further, leaving the masses living in more fear and degradation as billions are spent on war machines.

The entire Libyan situation perfectly exemplifies Rosa Luxemburg’s old adage that capitalism offers us only two possible futures: socialism or barbarism.

We call on the working class organisations of Egypt and Turkey to raise their voices against the warmongering actions of their regimes. We urge them to campaign amongst the masses and rank-and-file soldiers against their country’s involvement in this barbaric civil war, and for international solidarity with the Libyan people condemned to misery.

Only the struggle for socialism, throughout the Middle East and the world, can save humanity from the further spread of barbarism.