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Turkey doubles down on the fight in Libya, but its sights are elsewhere

Libya’s aspiring strongman Khalifa Haftar has besieged Tripoli for months in a bid to enter the capital, unseat the U.N.-recognized government and cement his hold over the country. But the septuagenarian general, who heads a grouping of factions styling themselves as the Libyan National Army, has made little headway, despite his many backers.

Now, there is new urgency in his campaign as tensions rise in a nearby flashpoint: the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

The saber-rattling began last month, when Turkey signed a memorandum of understanding with the Libyan government in Tripoli establishing economic maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean. The agreement, which went into effect last week, involves the same underwater region where Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt also are competing for gas and oil riches.

The deal has brought fresh umbrage upon Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from the European Union, Egypt and others, and it also threatens an escalation in Libya’s long-festering civil war, with Turkey set to deploy its troops to insure the survival of the so-called Government of National Accord (and the maritime agreement with it) even as Haftar’s patrons — including Russia, the United Arab Emirates and France — redouble their efforts to destroy it.

The threat to add Turkish boots on the ground in Libya — a chaotic free-for-all of militias fighting alongside mercenaries from Russia, Sudan and Chad as well as military personnel from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and France — has stirred up a flurry of diplomatic maneuverings: On Wednesday, Erdogan phoned Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the possibility of a “speedy cease-fire and resumption of intra-Libyan peace talks,” according to Russian state news; Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Sisi spoke before a forum in the south of Egypt, saying he planned along with partner states to end the crisis in Libya “within months”; Greece and Turkey tussled over the legality of the maritime agreement in the United Nations; and the U.S., already alarmed by reports of Russian troops in the country, discussed Libya in a meeting between Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“There is no military solution to this. There is no capacity for any of the forces that are competing there to resolve this in a way that they can create victory on the battlefield that leads to a political resolution that has stability,” said Pompeo after the meeting. “We want to work with the Russians to get to the negotiating table, have a series of conversations that ultimately lead to a disposition that creates what the U.N. has been trying to do for an awfully long time.”

There was little talk of political resolution from Haftar.

“The zero hour is nigh, the hour of the … crushing incursion awaited by every honorable, free Libyan,” said Haftar in a televised address Thursday meant to exhort his troops to wage a “final assault” on Tripoli.

Since then, his Libyan National Army forces have escalated their offensive on Tripoli’s southern outskirts.

At stake is more than just the massive wealth of Libya, a country flush with the world’s tenth largest oil reserves and vast mineral resources, not to mention its status as a major transit hub with almost 1,200 miles of Mediterranean coastline. There are also some 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 122 trillion cubic feet of gas estimated to be in the east Mediterranean , according to a 2010 study by the U.S. Geographical Survey; it’s a prospective bonanza that has already kicked up acrimonious disputes among nations in the region.

U.S. companies are already investing in those areas.

This month, Noble Energy, a Houston-based hydrocarbon exploration company, said it would deliver commercial gas sales to the Israeli domestic market and regional markets from the Leviathan field off Israel’s shores. ExxonMobil has announced one of the world’s largest natural gas discoveries near the Greek portion of Cyprus and said it would work with the Greek Cypriot government to develop it. (Cyprus is a divided country, with Turkey recognizing a Turkish Cypriot state in the northern part of the island.)

Turkey’s agreement with Libya further complicates a growing diplomatic row over the issue of exclusive economic zones, or EEZs. The U.N.’s Convention on the Law of the Sea grants countries 212 miles from their coast where they can claim exclusive fishing, mining and drilling rights. But there isn’t enough distance between the countries on the East Mediterranean, which means they have squabbled over where to place the boundaries separating their EEZs.

The deal also promises to funnel more weapons into Libya, which, more than eight years after a NATO operation dislodged Col. Moammar Kadafi, persists as a maelstrom of violence that birthed its own Islamic State affiliate and has left the country divided between rival governments supported by an array of international actors.

Last Monday, a panel of experts tasked by the U.N. released a report detailing a large portion of that support — weapons transfers to Libya despite an international arms embargo on the country.

The 376-page report, complete with shipping receipts and related correspondence, cites consistent and “sometimes blatant” violations of the embargo by the Emirates, Egypt, France, Jordan and Russia, which deliver military support to Haftar; and Turkey, which has become the Tripoli government’s main supporter. (There were also half-hearted attempts at hiding the violations; one transaction involved an Irish navy patrol vessel bought by the UAE as a “pleasure yacht” before appearing in Haftar’s navy.)

In recent weeks, the generosity of Haftar’s backers has changed the calculus of the battlefield near Tripoli’s southern suburbs, where his forces have been mired in stalemate since April.

Though Haftar has yet to break the deadlock, said Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya specialist at the Clingendael Institute, the fighters aligned with the Tripoli government are outgunned and may soon be forced to abandon their defense of the capital.

“You realize it’s an international alliance with unlimited resources, that it’s here forever, and you’re standing with your AK-47,” Harchaoui said in an interview Wednesday.

Pompeo criticized the violations in his remarks Wednesday, saying that “no nation ought to be providing incremental material inside of Libya.”

“It only creates more risk, more violence and moves us away further from the political resolution that Libya so desperately needs.”

But it’s unclear what, if any, leverage the U.S. has. Aside from a tacit blessing of Haftar’s assault on Tripoli when he started the operation in April, President Trump and his administration have largely taken a hands-off approach. That has changed with the entry of Russian troops, said Frederic Wehrey, a Libya scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, but it may not be enough.

“There’s a cooling of enthusiasm regarding Haftar in the White House, but how far is the U.S. really going to push to stop this war?” Wehrey said in a phone interview Wednesday, adding that Haftar had met with high-level U.S. officials warning him of involvement with the Russians.