Emmanuel Macron (R) and Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) on January 19, 2020.(Photo by Emmanuele Contini/Getty Images)

NATO’s at war with itself

Russia looks set to enjoy the fragility of its great adversary, the Atlantic Alliance

Artillery Row

For the forty years of his dictatorship, the word “bizarre” was routinely applied to the pronouncements and actions of Libya’s dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. Maybe there is something in the air on that side of the Mediterranean but bizarre behaviour by political leaders who involve themselves in Libya seems to have become the norm.

In recent months, key members of the NATO alliance have been involved in an increasingly sharp war of words with each other over their role in the Libyan civil war. Their hardly concealed backing for different sides there has split France and Greece on the one hand from Turkey and Italy on the other.

Turkey’s President Erdogan is mercurial and bombastic at the best of times, but the French President has not let his own rhetoric fall below the bar set in Ankara. Macron warned Erdogan, “I consider Turkey is playing a dangerous game in Libya”, adding France “won’t tolerate the role that Turkey is playing.”

These harsh words followed a standoff at sea between French warships enforcing both a UN and EU arms embargo on Libya and Turkish vessels escorting a merchant ship conveying weapons to Tripoli, the seat of the internationally-recognised government. The fact that the Turkish naval vessels locked their weapons-guidance radars on the French navy’s Courbet to deter it from stopping the cargo ship was the closest that two NATO members have come to blows in decades – if we except fairly routine buzzing of each other by Greek and Turkish airplanes in the Aegean.

The Atlantic Alliance was on the brink of going to war with itself, or at least several members were.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. (Photo by DAMIR SENCAR/AFP via Getty Images)

NATO’s founding principle was “an attack on one is an attack on all”. Today the alliance faces the looming prospect of deciding if an attack by one on another member is an attack on all the others!

What if the NATO member which acts aggressively has a nuclear-armed ally? Greece, for instance, might have France’s force de frappe in reserve but Turkey could turn to Russia for backing. Even without a nuclear standoff, the risk of armed conflict is steadily rising as various “allies” seek to call each others’ bluffs while enhancing their military posture in and around Libya.

Rather as the Spanish Civil War was a proxy conflict between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy on Franco’s side versus the Soviet-backed Republicans, so today in Libya the local fighting forces are effectively dominated by their foreign backers who have flooded the country with mercenaries as well as weaponry. Just as the Germans trialled terror bombing over Guernica, Turkish drones backing Tripoli are duelling with Chinese-supplied ones deployed by the UAE on behalf of the Benghazi rebels. Russian anti-aircraft missiles are tested against NATO equipment.

At least in Spain between 1936 and 1939 a great ideological divide was being fought over. Today’s proxy war in Libya has few plausible ideological grounds. No-one takes seriously the claims of either side to represent the people. The rebel generalissimo Haftar says he is fighting Islamic fundamentalist terrorists backing Tripoli but his own local forces are manned by similar jihadis, though both Tripoli and Benghazi have preferred mainly to rely on foreign fighters to take casualties on their behalf.

Maybe it’s an index of their incompetence that France and Italy have failed to grab the prizes abounding in Libya

Hafter’s operations have effectively blocked Libya’s energy exports since 2019. This has destroyed the basis of Tripoli’s budget while his regime gets its cash printed in Moscow. “It’s all about oil” is the conventional charge by anti-intervention protesters in the West.

Apart from Italy with ENI’s traditional interest in Libyan energy, actually the EU states engaged in the crisis don’t seem to have oil-drenched fingers. Maybe it is an index of their aggressive incompetence that France, Italy and the others have failed to grab the energy prizes abounding in Libya. Other interveners, however, have strong interests in whether Libya’s energy exports resume or not.

While to Russia and its Gulf allies keeping Libya’s abundant, easily-extracted oil and gas off-stream is by no means unwelcome with energy prices at rock-bottom due to the Covid-lockdowns, for Turkey, as a major energy importer accessing Libyan supplies, including potential offshore gas (as off Cyprus) makes its military intervention potentially profitable. Certainly, Tripoli signed over chunks of the Mediterranean to Turkey in return for Ankara’s military aid.

Last weekend, it seemed that France, Italy and Germany had finally closed ranks. Their joint declaration demanding that everyone abide by the UN arms embargo and cease fostering intervention by mercenaries was strong in word, but in fact the shift in policy was Rome’s decision to gravitate towards Paris. Italy had two reasons for backing off its support for the Tripoli government. France and Germany were offering a generous bailout to one of the EU’s members worst-hit by the coronavirus but there was an unspoken quid pro quo demanded by President Macron in the Mediterranean. But with Turkey muscling Italian influence aside in Tripoli, Rome had less of a stake in its previous partner in Libya.

France and Greece may now have the rest of the EU behind their stance – or at least not against it – but within NATO the impasse remains with Turkey upping its involvement on land in Libya but in some ways even more provocatively at sea both with naval deployments and drilling-ships.

If Chancellor Merkel has ambitions to act as an “honest broker” in the Bismarck mould, Germany’s weapons exports to key interveners in Libya would have dried up long ago. Between January and May this year, Berlin authorised the export of more than 300m euros worth of arms to Egypt. Now Germany is urging Cairo not to use them in Libya. This is a bit late in the power-play going on for years over Libya.

Meanwhile, as so often, President Trump’s bark has turned out to mask a very soft bite. In phone conversations, the President has urged his counterparts in Turkey and Egypt as well as the UAE to back off from the risk of conflict and to abide by the UN embargo, according to the White House press office. Judging from their actions, Ankara, Cairo and Dubai are still playing proxy war and the United States has not knocked the heads of these allies together nor given them any reason to heed Washington’s words.

In fact, inside the Beltway, there seems to be a tussle between the National Security Council and State Department over what policy towards Libya and the broader Mediterranean issues should be. If the White House and Foggy Bottom are at daggers drawn, there is little hope for clear messaging across the Atlantic.

Not since their paralysis over the breakup of Yugoslavia have the NATO states displayed such a failure to coordinate

The British government’s primary concern is the blowback of terrorism from Libya here. Fair enough at the level of domestic security as that worry has proved to be to many times in recent years, Whitehall seems remarkably passive in the face of the consequences for the UK of a blow out between its EU allies and Turkey over Libya and across the eastern Mediterranean. Leaving aside the risk of serious casualties, the economic blowback and the surge in refugees from North Africa but also released from Turkey as a “human wave” against Greece and its EU partners will not stop at the Channel.

Not since their paralysis over the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s have the NATO states displayed such a failure to coordinate. Then there was no external power capable of threatening a disunited alliance. The Soviet Union had collapsed.

Now, in the absence of the United States and Britain acting together to push their “allies” into a compromise, not only will Libya’s troubles boil over, but Russia looks set to enjoy the benefit of seeing its great adversary, NATO, embroiled in a war with itself.

Mark Almond is Director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford, whose report “NATO at war with Itself over Libya” will be published on July 29. For information consult [email protected].

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