Libya and the Geopolitics of Oil

The territory of Libya is no stranger to conflict. Since the Punic Wars between ancient Rome and Carthage, it has been contested, primarily by the great powers of the time. Libya’s current civil war, which has drawn in numerous nations on both sides, is an extension of this history. But unlike most past episodes dominated by great powers, the outside players now vying for influence and control are mainly regional, with the situation devolving into a struggle for dominance between Turkey and Egypt. Other powers such as France, Greece, Italy, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Russia are also involved. In Libya, the world is witnessing a new paradigm of violent geopolitical transition carried out by lesser powers, often in opposition to the goals and objectives of a great power such as the US. As US power and influence wanes, the Libyan model will probably become the norm rather than the exception. In the future, other petroleum-dependent countries — weakened and fractured by low oil prices and stagnant demand — could see this same Libyan pattern of regional geopolitical rivalry playing out violently within their borders.

Carthage lost what is now Libya to Rome, which was followed by Byzantine rule, then Arab conquest, Ottoman rule, Italian colonial occupation, the pivotal North African campaigns of the Second World War, the Cold War, the Libyan revolution, and finally the Arab Spring with Nato’s intervention and the derivative civil war. Libya has seen powers great and small vie for regional dominance through military campaigns waged on its soil. But almost all these conflicts were among major powers involved in either the unilateral expression of geopolitical dominance, or a bipolar struggle for supremacy between competing peer powers. Major powers dominated because geopolitical competition was almost exclusively a great power game. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the world saw the Cold War-era duality of US-Soviet great power competition give way to US unilateralism. Over the course of the next three decades, the US has seen its ability to project vast global diplomatic, economic and military power erode. The world is now witnessing a period unmatched in history, when a world power, operating at close to the peak of its capabilities, finds its ability to influence regional geopolitical events challenged by a collective of lesser powers operating in support of interests that deviate — often sharply — from US objectives.

The overthrow and subsequent killing of Libya’s long-time leader Muammar Ghaddafi, as a direct result of the US-led Nato intervention in 2011, represented the end of the united Libyan nation that had been in existence only since its declaration of independence in 1951. Prior to that time, Libya consisted of three regions — Tripolitania in the west, Fezzan in the south, and Cyrenaica in the east — each of which possess unique historical, ethnic, and cultural roots, which work against the three entities operating as a unified state. The violent end of Ghaddafi unleashed the historical rivalries between the three regions, which are a deeper source of identity than the modern notion of a Libyan state.

This fractured Libyan identity is key to assessing the country’s future. While the UN may seek to establish a new Libyan government that can govern the entire nation, the reality is that the Libyan people have gravitated into two separate regions that roughly replicate the former political entities of Tripolitania-Fezzan and Cyrenaica. The current civil war is cast as a struggle between Prime Minister Fayez Serraj’s UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), operating from Tripoli, against Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), operating from Benghazi. But this fighting is actually the manifestation of centuries-old animus, which ties directly into regional geopolitical and tribal competition.

Geopolitics Abhor a Vacuum

The people of Tripoli have long looked to what is now the modern republic of Turkey for political leadership. As recently as 1912, Turkish military forces fought to defend Tripolitania from Italian colonial expansion, and the close cultural links between the people of Tripolitania and the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over these territories for centuries, are reflected in the current strong ties between the GNA and Turkey. Likewise, the people in the historical territories of Cyrenaica have long-standing ties to Egypt that encompass tribal and cultural elements distinctly separate from those of Tripolitania. Seen in this light, the intervention of Turkey on the side of Tripoli, and Egypt in support of Benghazi, is not a new phenomenon, but rather part of a centuries-long struggle for power and influence that has been empowered by the vacuum created by the diminished political will and military capacity of the US and Nato.

The Turkish parliament voted in early January 2020, by a margin of 325-184, to authorize President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to dispatch Turkish military forces to Libya in support of Tripoli-based Serraj’s GNA. At that time, Haftar’s LNA forces were besieging Tripoli, putting the future of the GNA at risk. Turkey’s intervention was also colored by an agreement with the GNA establishing a controversial maritime border that projects Turkish claims over the eastern Mediterranean and challenges competing claims from Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt. This new Libyan-Turkish maritime border directly affects plans to develop oil and gas deposits in the area. Already, Turkish efforts to conduct exploratory work in waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus have led to an increase in tensions among these Nato allies, raising the possibility of direct military action.

The Oil and Gas Dynamic

Oil and gas is central to the current conflict in Libya, but energy alone seems unlikely to drive either Turkey or Egypt from their current proxy war to a full-fledged military conflict. Other drivers would need to come into play. Turkey has scored points with its new maritime border claim with the GNA. And the LNA’s control over most of Libya’s oil production and exports with the help of Russian mercenaries, both in the east and the southwest of the country, has allowed it to impose a crippling blockade on oil exports over the first six months of this year, reducing output from 1.2 million barrels per day to just under 100,000 b/d, which has deprived the GNA of billions of dollars in revenue. While the blockade recently ended, it is not clear how much production will recover due to continuing LNA control of key fields and export terminals and damage to infrastructure due to years of neglect and underinvestment.

Logic dictates that no nation would risk the heavy cost of war for the uncertain economic gains that might come from a controlling role in Libyan oil production or the unknown benefits of a future offshore gas discovery. But this has not stopped either set of proxies from raising the stakes in the conflict. Turkey’s doubling down of its military commitment toward the GNA, providing modern technology and Nato-quality military planning and empowering the GNA to drive the LNA back from Tripoli and threaten the LNA-controlled city of Sirte, is putting Turkey in a precarious position. Its military is now facing off against Russian mercenaries, and the French and Greek navies, which unsuccessfully challenged possible Turkish arms deliveries, ostensibly in violation of UN embargoes. With a vote by the Egyptian parliament this month authorizing President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to deploy military forces to Libya to prevent Sirte from falling to combined Turkish-GNA forces, Turkey now faces the potential for a major ground war in Libya. This comes at the same time that it is involved in significant military operations in Syria, Iraq and Azerbaijan. Normally, the risk of overextending military resources would serve as a brake against irresponsible adventurism. And yet Turkey has not backed down one iota, suggesting that traditional geopolitical calculations no longer apply.

While not as aggressively assertive as Turkey yet, Egypt’s rhetoric on the defense of Sirte is uncompromising. If push comes to shove, there should be no doubt that Egypt would follow through on its commitment to defend Sirte militarily and support the LNA. For Egypt, a major military conflict with Turkey in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean seems risky. It also faces continuing internal unrest in Sinai as well as the prospect of a clash with Ethiopia over Nile water rights (WEO Mar.25’20). To some extent, Egypt’s risks of a Turkish conflict are mitigated by the presence of some 1,500 heavily armed Russian private military contractors in Libya fighting on the side of the LNA.

The current conflict in Libya is in part a continuation of the post-Cold War competition between the US and Nato on one side, and Russia on the other. However, when one examines the situation closely, the roots of the current regional geopolitical confrontation between Turkey and Egypt are also clear. In the civil unrest preceding the Nato intervention, Egypt helped empower the tribes of Cyrenaica to rise up against Gaddafi. Likewise, Turkey’s hesitance in supporting the initial no-fly zone, followed by the use of its veto power to prevent Nato from bombing Libyan ground forces, also hinted at today’s geopolitical competition, which developed as both the US and Nato have distanced themselves from the chaos of post-Gaddafi Libya. Today, it is this Turkish-Egyptian regional competitive dynamic, dating back to the time of the Ottoman Empire, that is the driving force of the geopolitical struggle transpiring in the Maghreb.

Let there be no doubt — energy and the Nato-Russian dynamic both still factor into the Libyan picture. But the Turkish-Egyptian geopolitical competition is now central to the future of Libya. It will lead to a direct confrontation of their militaries or will be continued via local and regional proxies, with no certain outcome. The Libyan nation as it existed pre-2011 is gone forever. In its stead, the country’s future will be determined by the competing interests of Turkish-backed Tripolitania and an Egyptian-backed Cyrenaica, and not the great power, Cold War-era geopolitical thinking that started the conflict.

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