By Irina Tsukerman
Will the Muslim Brotherhood Emerge as the Front Runner?
Russia’s Political Clout Falters As It Suffers Military Setbacks in Libya
Libya just may be the most important Middle Eastern proxy war; the stakes are high and include control of the vast oil reserves, a potential space for terrorism to spread, and the gateway of illegal migrants to Europe. In recent weeks, as the UAE/Egypt/Russia-backed LNA forces have suffered military setbacks, including a loss of the base near Tripoli it was set to take over, the loss of 9 Russian Pantsyr missile defense systems, while new technologies, such as drones and powerful armored vehicles are being tested. Some of the main actors in the Middle East appear to be counting on the Libya conflict to be the deciding factor in the battle for power, even as conflicts in Yemen and Syria remain unfinished. Russia’s setbacks in Libya run in parallel to its broad successes in Syria, where it has been able to enjoy a critical role in maintaining good sides with the many parties and interests in the conflict, while limiting Iran’s influence and advancing its own military and geopolitical agenda.
As a result of recent losses, Russia is rumored to have moved out 1500 Wagner mercenaries back to Russia, while importing MiG jet planes to assist in its efforts. Just as importantly, discussion of COVID-19 pandemic has displacedthe touting of diplomatic and military victories in its media. Part of the reason for the difficulties Russia has faced includes the relatively limited number of fragmented conflicts in Libya, compared to the massive scramble in Syria, where Russia is already backing the “winner”, Assad, who was always in power and had an inherent advantage of being the head of state with a greater level of authority than any of his challengers. In Libya, Turkey is backing the “internationally recognized” GNA, while Russia is in the position of siding with a challenger.
Furthermore, the private Wagner army of mercenaries had already showed its weakness when faced with the US troops; now Russia is fighting a mixture of battle hardened Syrian mercenaries, some Turkish troops, and GNA-backed tribes. The use of MiGs represents an escalation; but while air strikes may slow down the GNA forces, the ground game remains in question. While until recently Russia was playing a central role in all major international diplomatic efforts concerning the Middle East, which often excluded the United States, the confrontation with Turkey raises Russia’s successes elsewhere into question. First, there is the issue of forcing other countries to choose signs, where Russia and Turkey were previously willing to compromise and coordinate; second, Russia is seen to be in a place of weakness which places doubt on its utility on other fronts.
How Hafter Maneuvered a Weak Deck of Cards into a Position of Relative Strength
Another issue is that Hafter’s forces are at an inherent disadvantage; the eastern tribes backing him are not a particularly strong coalition; western Libya, which is more aligned with GNA is less tribal and also has the advantage of more formally trained Syrians and Turkish army, furthermore the families of Western Libya are closely related to their counterparts in Tunisia and receive strong tacit backing from that side. Although UAE may be supplying Hafter with indirect assistance, it is no substitute for a strong ground force. At the same time, Hafter has the advantage ofGNA’s failings, including neglect of some of the tribes, and in being able to attract and subsume some of the Western tribes, including some which had formerly backed Qaddhafi and had more of a professional military background.
Ideologically, GNA has had to rely on the more Muslim Brotherhood-leaning urban elites, which also has not endeared them to the tribes. Even with the military victories against various small towns, GNA may have trouble imposing its authority. Part of the central issue that has benefited LNA was the fact that despite its control over the oil, LNA was not benefiting financially from that control; all the money was going to GNA’s pocket and GNA has refused to enter into any sort of equitable wealth-sharing arrangements with the tribes, thus giving Haftar image advantage. Still, despite Hafter’s overtures, GNA has refused to compromise; any attempt to negotiate a deal for the tribes has been spurned.
Another piece of the puzzle is Turkey’s interest in gaining control of the oil fields. GNA’s agreement to share resources with the LNA-affiliated tribes might impede this goal, by virtue of bridge-building between the factions and making Turkey’s support irrelevant. It is therefore in Turkey’s interests to keep the conflict going, and to figure out the way to take over the oil fields by force, or else to create divisions and problems in the pro-Haftar camp and to recruit his tribes back over to the GNA-sides. Since the tribes have been disillusioned with prior treatment by the GNA, and if anything, have been deserting the GNA camp, Turkey has called upon the friendly Qatari media to pursue the other course of action: undermining Hafter’s authority among his supporters.
To that effect, Qatar has launched a media campaign meant to disrupt the alliance between Haftar and the Parliament Speaker, Aguila Saleh, who, along with some of the Gaddhafi’s former supporters, lends heft to the LNA base. Saleh is backed by some of the key Eastern tribes, and has been instrumental Haftar’s move forward, which has been consistent, despite some latest military setbacks. Saleh and Hafter have already been dealing with some differences, primarily over Hafter’s claim to a “popular mandate” to rule Libya, which Saleh may view as an unjustified and premature power grab. The Qatari media campaign seeks to exploit these divisions, as well as to cultivate dissatisfaction among the tribes, by portraying Hafter as not sophisticated, a military failure, and as losing support.
Aligning with Egypt-based Mada Masr media group, Qatari media propagated a myth that Egypt, UAE, and others have tired of Haftar’s unsuccessful push forward, and are looking to find another candidate for the position. As evidence, they point to quotes by alleged anonymous Egypt government officials. In reality, of course, Haftar controls most of the key territory bordering Egypt and essential to its national security interests. But part of the campaign is aimed at demoralizing Hafter’s tribal supporters and fueling Saleh’s political ambitions. These websites are also trying to exploit Russia’s setbacks to show that Russia is looking to abandon the costly adventure in Syria. Still, from Egypt’s perspective, Libya is likely to remain a slow moving long term conflict, and so long as Hafter retains clear control of the oil fields, it may not make sense for the Egyptian military to risk escalation and direct confrontation with Turkish forces by entering the war directly. Will Russia’s escalation counter these rumors? Only time will tell, but it is clear that Qatar has no intention of backing away.
How Turkey and Qatar Are Using Information Warfare Techniques and MENA Media climate to GNA’s Advantage
Indeed, if anything, Turkey and Qatar are looking to escalate the fight on their end by dragging in more countries – if possible all of North Africa – into the fray on their side. Tunisia, though it has abstained from sending troops, has been a key ally in facilitating intelligence and logistical support. Algeria, too, has been closely aligned with Turkey on the matter. The next step from Turkey’s perspective has been to try to exploit Morocco’s unclear foreign policy and dependence on Libyan oil, coupled with recently escalating tensions with UAE (with KSA apparently passively tagging along for the ride). Some of these tensions are related to disagreement over Morocco’s role within the Arab Coalition in Yemen (from which Morocco consequently withdrew), as well as over Morocco’s neutral position in the Gulf Crisis, where it maintained diplomatic and trade relations with both Qatar and the members of the Anti Terrorism Quartet, and go back three years.
Since then, KSA and UAE have additionally expressed concern over the role of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated majority party PJD in influencing Moroccan policies, as well as the role of Al Jazeera’s impact on the local Moroccan media. For its own part, Morocco has reportedly warned UAE against further investments in its neighbor Mauritania, which had been strongly backed by UAE and KSA against Qatari and Iranian interference, but which has presented a significant challenge to Morocco’s security interests. Mauritania has been one of the significant backers of the separatist group Polisario, alongside Algeria, and as it turns out, Iran, and Hezbullah. UAE, however, continued investing into the country, as part of their strategy to counter these political influences.
In terms of Libya, while Morocco has been undecisive, it has been symbolically with the Tripoli government, whereas UAE have in the past given airtime on the US-based Al Hurra channel, to a Polisario leader, which has severely irked Rabat. Rabat considers Polisario a terrorist organization, and in the past, Saudi Arabia had promised to designate it as such, which would have likely induced UAE and others to follow the lead. Nevertheless, KSA had backed away from that move, perhaps in light of the disagreement over Morocco’s neutrality in the Gulf Crisis.vMore recently, tensions have escalated after a reported dispute concerning over the evacuation of Moroccans with Israeli citizenship. Whatever the details of the disagreement, Morocco ended up pulling the ambassador from UAE, and UAE had reciprocated. Adding fuel to the fire was Abu Dhabi’s failed overture to Rabat for Morocco’s entrance into the theater of war backing Haftar.
Some of the Emirati media consequently again returned to the dispute over Sahara, giving legitimacy to Polisario claims over “Western Sahara” portions which were once part of Spain’s colonial control, but which, as Morocco argues, have always been part of Morocco’s sovereign territory. Morocco has invested heavily into the region as well as into an autonomy plan backed by the United States, which would invite back any Moroccans who wished to return from Polisario and live under all the rights and privileges granted by their citizenship. The involvement in this issue by Emirati media was interpreted as a political provocation and escalation of tensions by Rabat.
Meanwhile, Turkey, which itself had recently experienced a period of trade-related tensions with Morocco, and Qatar, had utilized this opportunity to court and defend Morocco in their own media, backing Rabat’s sovereignty claim, in a transparently self-serving move to cement Morocco’s support for GNA and their own interests in Libya. Indeed, only late in 2019, Qatar has reported additional, political tensions between Rabat’s media and Ankara over Turkish media’s support for Polisario, an issue, apparently used as a weapon by the medias of all the countries involved in response to the political differences between their governments over other issues.
At the same time, Qatar-backed media has been playing a double game to put pressure on Morocco by claiming that the king has been moving closer to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in an effort to anger and sway the Saudi-skeptical Moroccan public elements, which have had various grudges with the Saudis, amplified by media commentary on both sides. Indeed, one of the Qatari publications acknowledged that Morocco’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, would lend additional legitimacy to its efforts to pressure Polisario. That is precisely what Qatar has been working hard to prevent from happening. And it has successfully exploited a climate where media and wars of words have become an effective but ineffectual substitute for formal diplomacy and reliance on relationship-building to resolve disputes and political challenges. With every political difference playing out in the public eye, all sides become more entrenched in their positions and less likely to compromise or even to wish to talk, given the public pressure to grandstand as the media feeds off the show of strength.
The result of all these geopolitical challenges playing out through the populist media frenzy has been an increase in division between Morocco and the Anti Terrorism Quartet which leaves Turkey and Qatar with room for political maneuvering which may not have been there before. Should pro-Western Morocco be persuaded by the Ankara-Doha strategy, it may end up creating an additional dilemma for the United States, which has been slowly growing and upgrading its relationship with Morocco over the past several years. The United States has been reluctant to take sides in this conflict; in fact, the administration has faced a challenging time in designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. However, seeing Morocco fall to Ankara’s sway, despite a technical alliance between Washington, Ankara, and Doha, is hardly in the White HOuse’s interest; nor is seeing Muslim Brotherhood’s presence grow and spread throughout the North Africa is the outcome that would be welcomed by the Trump administration and its supporters.
In fact, Morocco is the country that stands between creeping Islamism and strategically important parts of Africa with clear access to the Middle East and Europe. Just as support for the Muslim Brotherhood is dying out in the Arab world, involvement of Morocco, especially its superior military, on GNA’s side might tilt the balance in the other direction, precisely what Haftar’s backers should wish to avoid. It appears that where the pro-Western allies are divided, the new ISlamist bloc has its eye on the ball and is willing to exploit political vulnerabilities of the other side to get ahead, while putting aside any internal tensions for as long as needed to prevail. On the other hand, should Russia withdraw as a result of continuous setbacks unsupportable by its poor economy and the paramilitary resources already stretched thin, and should Morocco enter the conflict in any capacity on Haftar’s site, that would lend additional legitimacy to Haftar’s cause and could finally underscore the importance of taking a stand on Libya for the United States, for which openly siding with anything involving Russia at this point may be present a significant difficult in the domestic arena during an election year.