Russian sociologist imprisoned in Libya for exposing the truth about the Turkish-backed regime

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Since the fall of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has been plunged into chaos with two quasi-official governments: the Government of National Accord, GNA in Tripoli under Fayez al-Sarraj and the House of Representatives in Tobruk backed by the Libyan National Army, LNA under General Khalifa Haftar. Hafter’s regime is backed by Russia, France, United Arab Emirates, Israel Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Fayez al-Sarraj is backed by Turkey, Italy, Qatar and the United Nations.

Although backed by the UN, Fayez al-Sarraj has little popular support on the ground in Libya — at least not enough to govern the whole country effectively. That is why Russian researcher Maxim Shugalei along with his interpreter Samar Hassan Ali Seifan were arrested in May 2019 in Libya while researching public opinion of the al-Sarraj regime on the ground. Shugalei was working for the Moscow-based Foundation for the Protection of National Values which is headed by Alexander Malkeviz, a close associate of President Putin.

The GNA arrested Shugalei on the grounds that he was destabilising the country. The Russian researcher claims he was arrested because his findings undermined Sarraj’s claim to represent the Libyan people. In an open letter in the Washington Post, addressed to Sarraj, the Foundation’s director Maxim Malkevich demands the release of the prisoners in accordance with obligations the GNA made at 19 January Berlin conference to release all illegally detained prisoners. He also accuses « foreign intelligence agencies » of being behind the arrest of Shugalei and Ali Seifan.

Turkey and Qatar’s involvement as major backers of Fayez al-Sarraj shows that the Libyan “civil war” is more about the interests of imperial and emerging powers than anything to do with the welfare of the war-weary Libyan people. Both countries were instrumental in the 2011 invasion and destruction of the Libyan Arab Socialist Jamahiriya under Colonel Gaddafi.

Support for Turkey and Qatar means support from the Muslim Brotherhood, the political wing of al-Qaeda. Turkey has emerged in recent decades as a great regional power. President Erdogan has not hidden his desire to revive the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire. Ankara wants to extend its influence over former colonies in North Africa.

Turkey’s re-emergence as a great power in the 21st century was theorised by Turkologist Alexander Kitsikis. According to Kitsikis, the Eurasian continent can be broken up into three main regions: a) Western Europe, b) the East and the Intermediate Region which partakes of both the East and the West. Turkey today is carving out a space for itself between the geopolitical spheres of the US, Russia and China.

France’s support for Hafter is based on its own energy interests. But Paris and Moscow have improved relations since Emmanuel Macron’s presidency. Germany and France are both attempting to create a European army which Russia sees as a possible bulwark against the US. Macron’s recent pivot towards Russia shows that Paris values the prospects of EU militarization more than NATO. This is not by any means a positive development for the citizens of Europe, and in particular, France, who are in open revolt against the Macron regime, but it does suit Moscow’s long-term vision of a multi-polar world order.

Since Donal Trump’s presidency, the United States has taken a back seat in its engagement in Libya, seeing itself more as a mediator. While the US backs Greece, Cyprus and Israel’s recently agreed eastern Mediterranean gas pipe deal, Washington realises that Russia has emerged as the main power-broker in the eastern Mediterranean and increasingly in North Africa. If the Tobruk government gains control of the country, Moscow is likely to have a key ally in North Africa no matter what Washington tries.

The Saudi, US and Israeli-backed overthrow of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi in the 2013 revolution which brought General al-Sisi to power in Cairo changed regional geopolitics in favour of a new generation of secularist, pro-Moscow leaders whose relationship with Israel is far better than any previous regimes.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, and Egypt has conducted joint-military “ anti-terrorist” operations with the Israeli Defence Forces in the Sinai region. Although these signal a return to the cynical politics of the CIA-installed Sadat regime, the Muslim Brotherhood can hardly claim to a force antithetical to Zionism, given their role in destroying secular anti-Zionist regimes in the North Africa and the Middle East.

The question of which of the two blocks fighting over Libya is Zionist is overshadowed, however, by the realpolitik of petro-geopolitics. Turkey and Israel are vying for control over oil reserves in Cyprus. Israel signed a deal with Cyprus and Greece on 2 January to pipe gas from the Leviathan gas field, through Cyprus and Greece and into Europe. Italy is expected to sign the deal later on which seems to indicate it may switch sides and back the Tobruk House of Representative and LNA.

Israel’s ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean have brought it into conflict with Turkey. Ankara signed a deal with the Sarraj regime on 27 November 2019 which demarcates the exclusive economic zones separating Libya and Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean. The problem is that the Israeli pipeline could cross into Turkish-claimed territory.

Turkey which still occupies northern Cyprus accuses Israel and its EU and US backers of attempting to exclude Turkey from the eastern Mediterranean’s abundant gas reserves. The claim is certainly justified. Since the attempted colour revolution in 2013 and the failed coup in 2016, US/Turkey relations have soured. Recent US sanctions on Turkey have added urgency to Erdogan’s desire to prop up his satrap in Tripoli, Sarraj.

Turkey deployed over 2000 mercenaries from Syria to back up the Sarraj regime in January. Turkey’s involvement in Libya could also cause conflict with Egypt. Cairo and Ankara are old regional rivals dating back to the days of Muhammad Ali Pasha in the 19th century. Both countries are rapidly increasing investments in Africa and have regional hegemonic ambitions.

Turkey is predominantly the stumbling block in the restoration of effective government in the country. The Sarraj regime is protected by militia in Misrata and Tripoli but would fall without Turkey’s military support. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Colonel Gaddafi’s son, controls much of Southern Libya. General Hafter, who had opposed Colonel Gaddafi, will have to cut a deal with Saif Al-Islam if the LNA is to succeed in taking full control of the country.

As Turkey and Russia are coordinating operations in Syria, delicately balancing their respective interests — mutually benefitting from the newly opened Southstream pipeline — Moscow needs to tread carefully in its handling of the Sarraj regime in Tripoli. The fact that the Turkish-backed regime can continue to defy Moscow by detaining a member of a foundation close to Vladimir Putin shows that Turkey is a force to be reckoned with.

As Libya is a major route for mass migration into Europe, Ankara can use the threat of unleashing another deluge of Subsaharan migrants on Europe if Turkey’s geopolitical interests are not protected in the eastern Mediterranean’s energy routes. For the moment, Ankara’s geostrategic imperatives and imperial ambitions remain the key obstacle to the return of peace in Libya.

About Gearóid Ó Colmáin

Gearóid Ó Colmáin is an Irish journalist and political analyst based in Paris. His work focuses on globalisation, geopolitics and class struggle.

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