Syria’s Libyan Connection

How Libya shaped the devastating Idlib offensive

In December of 2019 the Syrian government launched an offensive that would create nearly a million displaced Syrians, thousands of dead, and result in a showdown between external powers. It was clear that the offensive in the Northwestern province of Idlib was a significant escalation, but it also revealed a critical dimension of the conflict. It displayed how two conflicts in the Middle East that have their own unique origins can become interwoven as conflicts evolve. In Syria’s case, the conflict in Libya, one frequently ignored by Western media, played a crucial role in the calculus of the main actors in the conflict. The entanglement of the two conflicts will only continue and in missing this critical aspect, observers lose sight of the chess-like vision actors have taken with people’s lives.

Anas Al-DyabL/AFP via Getty Images

The end of 2019 and early 2020 saw what appeared to be a bizarre sequence of events. Within a few weeks of the offensive, Assad, backed by Russia, steamrolled through rebel defenses until Turkey, in a dramatic escalation, entered the province to block the advance. Eventually, with neither side able to achieve a decisive edge and the mounting Turkish and Syrian casualties, a ceasefire was reached. The people of Idlib fear remaining areas under regime control as the government is known to kill remaining civilians as a form of collective punishment. This, and other state atrocities, is why such a massive exodus left swaths of Idlib and headed towards the Turkish border.

With Turkey unwilling to open the border, civilians stuck in the carnage are relieved the fighting has stopped – at least for now.

It may appear that civilians are protected by Turkish forces as it was their intervention that led to an end to the fighting. However, analyzing the causes of the offensive, and its coinciding with events in Libya, reveals a crude calculus where no one, including Turkey, cares about the civilians in Idlib.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS

While the conflict in Syria has received coverage in the West, Libya was, and still is, largely ignored. Yet, regional players involved in the Syrian war have been fixated on Libya for over a year and understanding how it links to Idlib is key to understanding the offensive. The conflict is primarily between the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by strongman Khalifa Haftar based in the East, and the Government of National Accord (GNA), a coalition of different factions considered to be the “internationally recognized” government in the country based in the West. What makes Libya so central to the offensive on Idlib are the external backers of each warring side and their ever increasing investment in one side of the conflict over the other. The GNA’s primary backer is Turkey, who critically stepped in to save the GNA from Haftar as he closed in on their main stronghold in Tripoli. In November, the GNA agreed to support Turkey’s claims in the Mediterranean Sea helping Turkey legitimize its claims to push deeper into what others see as their waters. Seeing as how no neighboring state has backed Turkey’s claims, the support from the GNA, which is technically internationally recognized while the LNA is not, is necessary for Turkey to legitimize its claims. By December Turkey deployed allied rebels from Syria to Tripoli, delivered weapons shipments, and by January had officially authorized the deployment of Turkish troops in Libya. Given the arms shipments, drones, aircraft, and personnel Turkey has dedicated to the GNA, it is an understatement to say Turkey is the key reason they have not fallen.

Syria in green and Libya in orange / Wikicommons

While Turkey supports the GNA, Russia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) support the LNA. Russia hopes that by backing Haftar with Russian mercenaries it can secure its expansive interests in Libya. That means reviving billions of dollars worth of economic activity that was lost with the former Libyan dictator’s demise and gaining influence over a state with one of the largest proven oil reserves in the world. It also keeps in line with Russia’s ambitions of becoming a key player in the region and displacing US influence. Meanwhile, the UAE backs Haftar both to expand its influence, in line with its policies in Yemen and the Red Sea, and decrease Turkish influence as they are viewed as a threat to the UAE. It also began rapprochement with Assad to assist him in defeating Turkish backed rebels in Syria. Therefore, Turkish intervention in Libya was a critical blow to Russian and UAE influence making them search for ways to hamper Turkish involvement.

UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Libya’s Field Marshall Khalifa / Middle East Monitor

Here is where Assad enters the picture. Being a key Russian ally and bulkware against Turkish influence for both Russia and the UAE, he served as the perfect tool to distract Turkey from Libya. Assad by no means objected as he himself wanted to take back the province by force, has terrible ties with Turkey, and has no issue with mass civilian casualties to achieve a military victory. At the same time Turkey viewed Idlib as a sensitive issue, not because they cared for the civilians being massacred, rather because they feared a new influx of refugees. Turkish president Erdogan already promised to resettle over a million refugees currently in Turkey back in Syria. Syrian refugees have also been the scapegoat for some of Turkey’s economic woes and analysts speculate they are the reason Erdogan’s party lost seats in the previous elections. Therefore, an offensive on Idlib would surely get a response from Turkey and divert attention from its work in Libya. That is why in December, as Turkish support significantly ramped up in Libya, Russia gave the green light for Assad to go ahead with his long awaited offensive. While Russia eventually displayed restraint on how far Assad could go in Idlib, the UAE did not. In fact, the UAE urged Assad to ignore Russia’s calls and to keep pressing onward promising billions in aid if he did so. This might explain why at one point Russia stood by and allowed Turkey to pummel Assad’s forces, allegedly killing thousands of troops, before stepping in to save a humbled Assad.

Haftar (L) pictured with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov (R) / Reuters

Libya’s influence on events in Syria is important for two reasons. The first is that it completely shatters any humanitarian pretext used by any side in the conflict. While few believe any “humanitarian” justifications Russia or Assad have for launching the offensive, they do claim to be fighting against terrorist groups in Idlib. While Al-Qaeda affiliates have a very strong presence in the province, Russia has bombed fighters and civilians alike. With the timing of this latest offensive, the multiple interests Russia has in both states, and the parallel negotiations it sought to hold in Libya and Syria, expose the crude geopolitical game Russia is playing as undeniable. Likewise, Erdogan intends to use the million Syrian Arab refugees he intends to resettle to carve out a buffer between Turkey and Syrian Kurds, as the latter backs Kurdish seperatist organizations within Turkey. The UAE has offered to bribe Assad into massacring more civilians just to distract Turkey and then grotesquely try to cover their assistance under the guise of humanitarian aid. Syria’s disintegration has hollowed out any sense of sovereignty that was left and leaves it beholden to the strongest external players in the Middle East.

The second is that it tells us of more to come. Haftar has refused to negotiate and Turkey has doubled down its support for the GNA. Latest reports at the time of this writing indicate that with Turkish support the GNA has succeeded in retaking key areas. With Hatar adamant on pushing on to Tripoli the ensuing clashes will reverberate across the region once more. As both sides prepare for a larger battle in Libya, Idlib has already seen massive troop buildup and reinforcements suggesting the offensive is not over. While it is premature to suggest that the conflicts parallel each other, as each are complex in their own right, the external players have created a web of interests linking the two battlefields. The impending attacks in both regions will likely outdo the destruction of previous battles and as all sides invest in the military outcome no one will be left to invest in the people of Idlib.