America Must Act In Libya Against Turkey, Russia

Turkey’s recent intervention in Libya is intensifying a proxy war and regional energy competition that threaten vital U.S. interests, while Washington mostly observes from the sidelines.

As fighting grows in the Mediterranean country, the United States urgently needs to assume an overdue leadership role to end or mitigate this spiraling conflict.

The time has come for the United States to assert a crucial leadership role in addressing the Libyan conflict and forestalling Turkish and Russian influence over this strategically-located, energy-rich country on Europe’s doorstep.

Fundamentally, the Eastern Mediterranean must once again become a critical focus for U.S. grand strategy. An enhanced U.S. naval presence in the region and stronger defense cooperation with Greece would be tangible demonstrations, and could help balance Turkey’s aggressive projection of power.

The United States also must appoint a Special Envoy for the Eastern Mediterranean. He or she should work with the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum of pro-U.S. countries in the region to develop major recent energy discoveries and create a counterweight to Turkey’s own disruptive offshore claims.

An envoy also should lead diplomatic efforts on a negotiated solution to end or mitigate the Libya conflict and establish a non-Islamist regime that serves Libyan national interests. A viable settlement would have to tackle the military drivers of instability, first and foremost the Turkish and Russian interventions that have intensified the violence over the past year. To the extent possible, the United States should convince fellow NATO members to adopt a unified approach in supporting a negotiated solution.

America’s current backbench approach to Libya reflects a broader lack of strategic focus on the region since the end of the Cold War. Significant geopolitical realignments are underway that demand renewed attention.

The region is home to major offshore energy discoveries, and is a main artery for mass migration to Europe and other areas. High-stakes geopolitical rivalry has returned with Moscow’s permanent presence in Syria and growing influence in Libya – including its recent deployment of warplanes to that country.

The profound transformation of Turkey’s strategic posture under President Erdogan is another factor. Once a reliable ally, Ankara’s gunboat diplomacy, support for the Muslim Brotherhood and increasingly close relations with Russia put it increasingly at odds with traditional partners like the United States, Europe, Israel and Egypt.

Trying to break this isolation and bolster the Brotherhood, Turkey signed two momentous agreements last November with the U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli, which is strongly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist elements. In exchange for providing crucial military support against the rival Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Hiftar, Turkey secured a bilateral pact purportedly recognizing its vast territorial claims in the increasingly energy-rich waters offshore.

The Eastern Mediterranean Policy Project at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), which we co-chair, issued a report on the implications of Turkey’s involvement in Libya. The advent of Turkish military advisers, proxy fighters and advanced weaponry has worsened the fighting and encourages Tripoli to forswear peace talks. In a vicious cycle, Hiftar replies in kind, backed by reinforcements from UAE, Egypt, Russia, France and others.

Should Turkey help Tripoli achieve military successes that would bolster its recent maritime boundary deal with the government there. This agreement intentionally contradicts Greek and Cypriot claims, even though they have much stronger standing under international law. It also complicates efforts by these countries and Israel to develop natural gas and deliver it to Europe.

Taken together, Turkey’s gambits are worsening the conflict in Libya just as COVID-19 makes inroads. All this could create space for a revival of Islamic State in the region and raise the risk of new refugee waves to Europe. Ankara’s actions also directly challenge U.S. interests in promoting peaceful regional energy development.

Yet America remains conspicuously absent. Washington is formally committed to the Tripoli government, though President Trump endorsed Hiftar’s major offensive last year. Unlike Europe or the U.N., the United States has not led any initiatives to stem the violence, other than unheeded calls for ”humanitarian ceasefires.” This hands-off approach invited Turkish intervention in the first place, in the process further destabilizing Libya.

The incipient spread of COVID-19 inside Libya must be stanched as well, and an American diplomat in a pivotal position would have more credibility than prior U.S. calls for humanitarian ceasefires. In addition to helping combat the disease, successful pauses in the fighting could also generate momentum for negotiating an end to the conflict.

For too long, America’s absence has been a permissive cause of Libya’s deepening conflict and its expansion into a regional proxy war. The United States must now lead concerted efforts to end the fighting, before Libya devolves further in chaos and takes much of the Eastern Mediterranean with it.

Eric Edelman is former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. Charles Wald, a Distinguished Fellow at JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy, is former deputy commander of U.S. European Command. They co-chair JINSA Gemunder Center’s Eastern Mediterranean Policy Project.

Originally published in Breaking Defense

This op-ed was made possible by the generous support of the Gettler Family Foundation and a portion of the research was conducted on the Benjamin Gettler International Policy Trip.