Rethinking Alliances in Eastern Mediterranean
The current developments in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya have prompted nations in the region to reshape ties with each other and establish or expand coalitions in order to counteract external threats. Based on statements made by a number of politicians from this part of the world, Turkey and Iran are the countries most often labelled as troublemakers, whose actions, as of recent, spurred on other nations to form counter-alliances.
For instance, in order to strengthen its position in the confrontation against Iran, Israel has recently started establishing closer ties with predominantly moderate Sunni nations with the aim of urging them to become a part of the Abraham Accords. For instance, on December 10, it signed an agreement with Morocco on normalizing bilateral relations.
At the same time, Israel tries to give fresh impetus to ties with countries that, like the Jewish nation-state, view Iran as a threat to regional security, especially because of the possibility that the new US administration may change the policy on the Iran nuclear deal. In such a context, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to pay an official visit to Egypt in the nearest future. President of Egypt Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and Benjamin Netanyahu are planning “to discuss a range of regional issues, including strengthening security and political relations in the face of the Iranian threat and coordinating positions between Jerusalem and Cairo” ahead of the inauguration of US President Joe Biden.
In the meantime, cooperation between nations and politicians in the region has stepped up on account of new reports stating that the crisis in Libya could potentially intensify because of recent actions taken by Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.
On December 7, Al Bawaba reported that commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar arrived in Cairo to discuss with Egyptian officials “the latest developments in Libya”, “the future of the country, Turkey’s actions, and attempts by some parties to hinder the process”. In particular, Haftar expressed concern about Ankara’s support for Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord of Libya (GNA), as such actions could prevent “stability in Libya” and hinder the ongoing Inter-Libyan Dialogue taking place on many levels. According to information he voiced, Al-Wattayah military base, controlled by Turkey in the far west of Libya, was “witnessing the deployment of high-level forces”, as the Turkish military was securing the vicinity of the base in anticipation of the “imminent arrival of six warplanes at the airport”. In late November, Turkish airplanes delivered to Misrata and the al-Watiya airbase 300 militants from the Sultan Murad Division (an armed rebel group in the Syrian Civil War, created around a Syrian Turkmen identity), including extremist jihadists, who then are trained to use heavy weaponry. Several Turkish ships were detected outside Libyan territorial waters, off the coast of the city of Sirte. In Cairo, Commander Khalifa Haftar discussed possible measures that could be taken to prevent the GNA, with Turkey’s support, from crossing the so-called ‘red lines’ (to try and capture Sirte and the central district of Jufra) as well as a potential attack by foreign recruits and armed militias, with Ankara’s backing, on Libya’s Oil Crescent. According to Al Bawaba, following the visit to Cairo, Khalifa Haftar “is due to head to the French capital Paris”.
At the end of November, 10-day military drills, called Saif Al Arab (i.e. Sword of Arabs), took place in Egypt’s Northern Military Zone. Aside from the host, “the participating countries included Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Sudan”. It was a joint ground and air exercise “aimed at unifying operational concepts, raising the level of military competence and joint work and exchanging training expertise”. Major General Samir Farag, a strategic expert, said that “most of the countries partnering with Egypt were focused on desert fighting and that the training in the northern region showed a readiness for combat action if necessary.” He also stated that “the joint training activities would act as a ‘deterrent message’ to those who sought to harm Egyptian and Arab national security.”
Several months earlier, at the beginning of July, the main branches of the Egyptian Armed Forces carried out the Hasm 2020 maneuvers near the border with Libya. According to the July 9 report by the Egypt State Information Service (SIS), the aim of the exercises was to eradicate “elements of mercenaries, their gathering points, command centers” as well as damage all their logistics.
On December 5, the multinational naval and air drill (dubbed Medusa 10), conducted off the coast of Alexandria, finished. Armed forces of Cyprus, Greece and Egypt took part in the exercises, which were first held in 2017. This year, for the first time, France and the United Arab Emirates participated in the drills. The nations exchanged “expertise to reach the highest levels of efficiency and readiness to implement any joint tasks under different circumstances, especially in light of the rapid changes witnessed on the regional and international arena”. SIS also said the training aimed “at polishing the skills of commanders and officers participating in various joint operations”. It took place in three phases that dealt with “search and rescue, cyber war, surface drills and marine formations”. French military coordinated the main stage of the drills, which were meant to send Turkey a hostile message.
France has often been accused of showing support for the LNA, headed by Commander Khalifa Haftar, in the Libyan conflict. Still, its leadership is probably not against establishing closer ties with the GNA if it means the resolution of the ongoing crisis to the benefit of France. For instance, the French government could back Fathi Bashagha, the current Minister of Interior of the GNA, to take on a leading role in Libya. In fact, at the end of November, Fathi Bashagha visited Paris, where he met with the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs as well as security and political leadership in France. The Minister of Interior has been described as “wielding influence over the Mahjoub and Halbous brigades in Misrata”. Reportedly, he came to France “seeking Paris’ support for his ambitious plans to lead the country to next year’s elections”. Fathi Bashagha “failed to secure for himself the post of Prime Minister” of the new GNA, “which did not see the light of day after five days of continuous talks in Tunisia” on Libya.
Anadolu Post reported that the Minister of Interior had denied “inviting controversial French Jewish intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy to visit Libya”. The latter is viewed as a “champion of the 2011 NATO intervention that helped topple the regime of Muammar Gaddafi”, which later (in 2012) led to the formation of the so called interim Government of National Accord “under the terms of the Libyan Political Agreement” from Gaddafi’s detractors. Following Gaddafi’s fall, which France played an active role in, Bashagha became an official representative of the Misrata Military Council and later a NATO coordinator, while simultaneously supporting islamist militant groups.
The Italian newspaper Giornale believes that the French government’s increasingly active role in the current crisis in Libya could be due to France’s aim to be among the first nations to sign contracts with oil manufacturing facilities in the war-torn country. In fact, France’s Total has already “acquired Marathon Oil Libya Limited, which holds a 16,33% stake in the Waha Concessions in Libya”. Still, the fight is not only over crude oil supplies but also future contracts to rebuild the nation devastated by war, in which members of NATO, including European nations such as France, took part, causing damage worth, according to Giornale’s estimates, some 30 to 50 billion euros.