Israel and the Libyan Civil War
Jun 16, 2020 | Oved Lobel
In a shocking interview this month with Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon, Abdul Salam al-Badri, the deputy Prime Minister of Khalifa Haftar’s unrecognised regime in eastern Libya and its “Libyan National Army” (LNA), called for Israeli aid in its fight against the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), heavily backed by Turkey and Qatar. “We never were and never will be enemies, and we hope you will support us. It is only circumstance which has separated us up until this point,” al-Badri said. “We share a common interest. Erdogan is a terrorist, and both of us are on the same side. It would be idiotic of us to ignore that.” This is not, in fact, the first time Haftar’s regime has approached Israel. In December 2019, Abd al-Hadi al-Hajj, Haftar’s Foreign Minister, told the Israeli Maariv newspaper that the LNA would establish normal relations with Israel pending the resolution of the Palestinian issue.
While direct intervention is unlikely, Israel does have several strategic interests at stake in the proxy war between the LNA – primarily backed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Russia – and the Turkey-backed, UN-recognised interim government of the GNA, from oil interests and terrorism to the stability of allies and partners, particularly Egypt.
Overview of the Libyan Civil War
Libya is among the largest countries in Africa, although with a population estimated below 7 million, it has a very low population density. Never truly unified, it was held together by the brutal rule of the erratic dictator Muammar Qaddafi from the 1970s until 2011. When the Arab Spring protests spread to Libya that year, Qaddafi threatened to “cleanse Libya house by house” and violently cracked down on protests, sending the country spiralling into civil war. With assistance from Qatar, France and the UAE, as well as a UN Security Council-imposed no-fly zone, the rebel coalition ultimately prevailed, leading to Qaddafi’s gruesome death.
Without Qaddafi, Libya quickly returned to its natural state of fractious tribes, militias, regional fiefdoms and “city-states” – with especially pronounced divisions between the eastern and western portions of the country’s Mediterranean coast.
Still, Libya’s first free national elections were held in July 2012 for the General National Congress (GNC), despite ongoing inter-factional fighting. From the outset, the GNC was completely paralysed and ultimately splintered into rival regimes after 2014 as the country again descended into full-blown civil war. The elected House of Representatives (HoR) – which had moved to the eastern city of Tobruk – and General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) launched “Operation Dignity” in 2014 to retake cities, including the capital Tripoli, seized in a coup by a coalition of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated political Islamists called Libya Dawn, which established a so-called “National Salvation Government” (NSG) backed by Qatar and Turkey. Having failed to win power electorally, the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates turned to arms to gain control.
Amidst the chaos, the Islamic State managed to seize control of the city of Sirte, refocusing the world’s efforts on political reconciliation for the sake of counterterrorism and resulting in the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in December 2015. This created the Government of National Accord and a Presidential Council headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, with the NSG and HoR incorporated into various roles as an interim government until new elections could be held. Unfortunately, the LPA was dead on arrival, especially due to provisions that give the GNA control over the LNA. The GNA had to fight NSG–aligned militias just for nominal control of Tripoli and was then rejected by the HoR and Haftar.
Despite this reality, as a result of the LPA, the GNA is recognised as the legitimate government of Libya by most of the international community.
The GNA tried to coax Haftar under its control by naming him chief of the army if he recognised its authority, but to no avail; Haftar and his external backers – primarily Egypt, Russia, and the UAE – were dead-set on complete control of the entire country. In April 2019, Haftar announced he would conquer Tripoli from the GNA to head off UN-sponsored reconciliation talks, an offensive that prompted Turkey to massively increase support for the GNA.
In May, thousands of Syrian mercenaries, scores of Turkish advisors and armed Turkish drones undid more than a year of LNA victories in a week, sending LNA forces reeling back from the outskirts of Tripoli and also retaking various other western Libyan towns. The current rout of the LNA may continue as an emboldened GNA and Turkey press their advantage. Erdogan himself announced that the Turkish offensive would not end until Sirte was recaptured and the Al Jufra airbase – where Russia recently flew over a dozen fighter jets for a planned escalation – was retaken. Despite renewed political talks as a result of Turkey’s victory, the future of Libya is only ever likely to be decided on the battlefield, which is why both sides are reinforcing their positions and preparing for the next escalation.
Israeli interests: Gas
In January, Israel, Cyprus, and Greece signed a deal to construct the EastMed pipeline, which would carry Israeli gas to the European Union. The corollary of this deal was the recognition of sovereign control by Cyprus of its territorial waters and gas deposits, something Turkey and the unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – the part of Cyprus that Turkey continues to occupy – obviously rejected. Turkey and the GNA had earlier signed a rather absurd deal delimiting maritime boundaries that essentially gave Turkey free rein in the Mediterranean.
At the time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was clear about his intentions, announcing “With this new agreement between Turkey and Libya, we can hold joint exploration operations in these exclusive economic zones that we determined. There is no problem. Other international actors cannot carry out exploration operations in these areas Turkey drew [up] with this accord without getting permission. Greek Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and Israel cannot establish a gas transmission line without first getting permission from Turkey.”
Israel’s then-Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told Reuters “We are ready to discuss some kind of cooperation, energy cooperation, also with the Turks. We are not against the Turks but we are very much in favor of the EastMed gas pipeline project.”
In response, a five-nation alliance consisting of Egypt, the UAE, Greece, Cyprus and France condemned Turkey’s drilling in Cypriot waters and general conduct in the Mediterranean and Libya. The US has also condemned Turkey’s Mediterranean moves and has moved to strengthen Israel, Greece and Cyprus to counter them, while both President Donald Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo having berated Turkey and the GNA for their victory against Haftar and called for an immediate ceasefire. Both NATO and the European Union have naval missions – Sea Guardian and IRINI – ostensibly intended to enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya but which effectively interdict Turkish support for the GNA (Haftar’s weapons mostly come overland via Egypt or by air from the UAE and Russia).
Israel has a strategic interest in ensuring the success of the anti-Turkey coalition to facilitate the EastMed pipeline, among other reasons, in the face of Ankara’s use of its relationship with the GNA to lend weight to its energy policy in the Mediterranean.
Israeli interests: Terrorism and Security
It is very likely that the Brotherhood-friendly GNA will quickly move to establish contact with Hamas, as neighbouring Tunisia did after the democratic rise of Brotherhood-linked political parties in that country. In contrast, the LNA, which is backed by Israel’s Arab allies, has made clear it would like Libya to be an Israeli ally. For Jerusalem, this would clearly be preferable to a Hamas-aligned, anti-Israel government.
An additional serious concern is the space this war gives for the revival of the Islamic State in Libya, particularly with a Turkish-backed regime gaining power. Whether Turkey turns a blind eye or actively facilitates jihadist groups in Syria, the fact remains that all of them, including Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, operate with complete impunity in territory nominally controlled by Turkey and its proxies. It is in these areas that US forces have eliminated the Islamic State’s leadership and senior commanders.
There is no reason to believe this situation will not repeat itself in Turkey-controlled Libya, where the group seems to be reviving and focusing its attacks on Haftar’s forces. This may become especially pronounced after the French wiped out the leadership of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali, possibly creating even more room for manoeuvre for Islamic State in the region.
In May, Israel’s UN envoy Danny Danon wrote a letter to the Security Council about the appearance of Iranian anti-tank systems in Libya. Iran’s involvement in Libya, while murky and circumstantial, would also attract Israeli concern. In 2017, the spokesman for the LNA claimed that Turkey, Qatar, Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan and Iran were allied against the LNA. This week, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif flew to Turkey to discuss issues of bilateral concern, stating that Iran and Turkey agree on Libya.
A growing Iranian profile in Libya would be of paramount concern to Jerusalem.
Israeli interests: Stability of allies and partners
Both political Islamists and Jihadists directly impact the stability of Chad, with which Israel renewed diplomatic relations last year with a focus on building a security relationship. At the time, Chad’s dictator Idriss Deby said, “I note with satisfaction our shared view on the need to combine forces to tackle terrorism, which spares no country.”
Sudan, with which Israel is also trying to establish official relations, reportedly under UAE auspices, is also impacted by the instability in Libya. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, which have been locked in a Cold War with Turkey and Qatar in Africa, reportedly backed the overthrow of Sudan’s dictator Omar al-Bashir because they viewed him as too friendly with Islamists.
Both Chad and Sudan are part of the UAE-Saudi-Egypt axis, and both reportedly have rebel groups fighting in Libya as mercenaries. Haftar claimed to have bombed Chadian rebels in early 2019. It is not in Israel’s interests to have either of these countries threatened by a Turkish victory in Libya.
Most importantly, Egypt’s stability is paramount to Israel, and it could be seriously threatened and constrained by an Islamist-friendly takeover of Libya and a direct Turkish military presence next door. Israel is reportedly aiding Egypt extensively with airstrikes and intelligence against the Islamic State in Sinai to reduce the threat to the regime. Jerusalem would seek to prevent the Egyptian regime being threatened along its other borders, the most potentially dangerous of which is its long western border with Libya.
Unsubstantiated reports of Israeli involvement in Libya
Direct Israeli support for the LNA has been rumoured by unreliable sources since 2015, including reports that Haftar requested Israeli airstrikes against the Islamic State, claims of direct meetings with Israeli intelligence – allegedly mediated by the UAE – and allegations Israel indirectly provided anti-aircraft systems and other military aid to the LNA.
Nonetheless, it is important to remember that the Middle East is generally rife with usually false rumours of Israeli involvement in all Middle East conflicts beyond its immediate borders.
That being said, it would not be unprecedented for Israel to work quietly alongside Arab partners when interests coincided. There is certainly evidence of significant Israeli intelligence cooperation with the Arab Gulf states in various theatres in pursuit of shared interests, especially countering Iranian proxies, and Israeli pilots have trained alongside the UAE air force for several years in Greece during the annual Iniohos military exercises.
However, no verified reports of any Israeli involvement in Libya alongside the Egyptians and UAE have emerged to date. But you can be sure that Jerusalem will be watching events there with interest.