The Major Powers’ Latest Middle Eastern Playing Field

Update: Erdogan just landed for surprise talks in Libya's neighbour Tunisia

From afar, Libya looks like just another wrecked playing field that has been abandoned by the top teams. It’s a country that is split apart, ruled by rival militias and managed – if the chaos that has prevailed there since 2011 can be called management – by two governments, two legislatures, two central banks and dozens of militias. But Libya is sitting on a piece of strategically and financially important real estate, among the most important in the world. And like any empty playing field, it is seeking to attract international players to come and develop its resources.

The map of foreign intervention in Libya is enough to make any observer’s head spin: In the east of the country, there are forces from the United Arab Emirates. Aid coming from Saudi Arabia and Egypt supports General Khalifa Hifter, the separatist who heads the Libyan National Army, which is not the country’s national army. Arrayed against them are Turkey and Qatar, which support the recognized government headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, but his government is not supported by the legislature.

Then there is Russia, which is playing both sides. It has (unofficially) dispatched militia forces known as the Wagner Group, which have carried out operations in Syria and are operating in several African countries – and support and assist Hifter’s forces.

France has joined the group of countries that support the rebel general, while Italy backs Sarraj’s recognized government. As it has done in Syria, the United States is so far refraining from any intervention, clinging to the position of an outside observer ready to offer advice and futile diplomatic assistance to resolve the Libyan crisis.

The catalog of interests motivating each of these countries is not hidden from view. Russia, which seeks to expand its influence in the Middle East, in North Africa and south of the Sahara, has firmly established itself in Syria and now views Libya as a potential strategic base that could ensure it a solid foothold in the Mediterranean in addition to its base at the Syrian port of Tartus. Since no one can predict how the Libyan crisis will end, it is cooperating with both sides.

If the recognized government is victorious, Russia will gain important standing in the country, but even if Hifter is successful in removing the government or if he agrees to become a partner in whatever government is formed, Russia could carry out agreements it signed years ago with the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi – deals worth billions of dollars. That’s because in return for the military and economic assistance that Russia is providing to Hifter, the Libyan National Army leader has pledged to revive the agreements.