Can Syria and Libya finally forge an effective alliance?

by Paul Iddon

On a tactical level, the Syrian civil war is increasingly being exported to Libya, where thousands of Syrian men have been recruited during the last year for Libya’s warring sides. Turkey sent former rebels who fought in Syria against the Assad regime to fight under the banner of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). They make up the majority of Syrian-descended fighters in Libya. According to USAFRICOM, Turkey deployed between 3,500 and 3,800 Syrian fighters to Libya during the first three months of 2020. On the other hand, Syrian soldiers recruited by Russia are fighting on the side of General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). According to relatives of these soldiers, many of them had served in the pro-Assad National Defense Forces and were told they were going to guard oil installations in Libya. However, this could also be an excuse, because mercenary service in Libya – no matter which side – is frowned upon in the Syrian public despite the lucrative financial opportunities. USAFRICOM even assumes that the 300-400 Syrian fighters on the LNA side are former Syrian opposition rebels who agreed to fight in Libya in exchange for $1,000 per month and clemency from the Assad regime. (Kareem Fahim and Zakaria Zakaria, “These Syrian Militiamen Were Foes in Their Civil War. Now They Are Battling Each Other in Libya“, Washington Post, June 25, 2020).

On the political level, relations between the Assad regime and the LNA are growing, given the increased convergence of interests both share in the region, particularly their mutual opposition to Turkey. In early March 2020, a delegation from the LNA visited Damascus to open an embassy and declared both powers’ joint interest to “confront Turkish interference and aggression against both countries”. (“Assad joins forces with Libya’s rogue general Haftar to combat ‘Turkish aggression’“, The New Arab, March 2, 2020). The visit came as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was fighting the Turkish military and its militia proxies in Syria’s northwest Idlib governorate in the most severe clashes between Syria and Turkey to date. In Libya, too, the fighting has intensified with Turkey backing the GNA’s “Operation Peace Storm” to help the group push the LNA away from Tripoli. (Paul Iddon, “Peace Storm: Turkey tries to turn the tables in Libya“, Ahval News, April 16, 2020). The UAE, another backer of the LNA, has also been working toward normalizing ties with the Assad regime and supports Turkey’s various opponents in the wider region. It is in this context that relations between Assad and Haftar are increasing. 

(Infographic by TheNewArab, added to this article by offiziere.ch)

Assad, who needs oil to bolster his bankrupt regime, most likely welcomes the LNA as an ally. While the extent of their cooperation against Ankara on both battlefields has yet to be seen, an Assad-Haftar alliance against Turkey might not prove all that extensive or significant if Syria and Libya’s past efforts to establish close ties and cooperate on a range of issues are anything to go by. In the mid-20th century, there were numerous efforts by the various Arab states of the Middle East and North Africa to unite into one powerful cultural-economic-military-political entity. This dream of pan-Arabism was never realized. The closest it came was the short-lived political union between Egypt and Syria, the United Arab Republic (UAR), which only lasted from 1958 until the latter’s secession in 1961. Despite that failure, several prominent Arab states held subsequent negotiations and summits aimed toward establishing a unitary Arab state or at least a federation of Arab states. 

The history of Syria and Libya’s attempts at forging an alliance and even a unitary state may shed some light on the possible fate of the partnership recently under discussion between Assad’s regime and Haftar’s LNA. In a project spearheaded by Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in the early 1970s, Libya, Egypt, and Syria briefly established the Federation of Arab Republics (FAR). However, FAR proved much more symbolic than the UAR since the three-member states’ economies and militaries were never unified. In October 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated surprise attack on Israel in an ultimately failed attempt at recapturing both the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights that Israel seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The aftermath of the 1973 war divided the Arab nations, which resulted in FAR’s complete disestablishment in late 1977. Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat pushed ahead with peace negotiations with Israel that ultimately led to the Camp David Accords and the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty

Syria’s Hafez al-Assad and Gaddafi opposed Egypt’s move. Tensions between Libya and Egypt sparked a four-day border war in 21-24 July 1977, which resulted in the far larger Egyptian forces pummelling the Libyans and briefly advancing a few miles into eastern Libya before a ceasefire brought an end to the hostilities. Opposition to the Camp David Accords led to Assad and Gaddafi’s most serious undertaking to unite their countries. In September 1980, Assad visited Tripoli, where a reported half-a-million Libyans gathered near the airport to greet him, chanting “One nation not two”. “Unity would be a health potion for us and the death knell for our enemies”, Assad told the enthusiastic crowd. (“Syria’s Assad, Libya’s Khadafy talk merger”, United Press International, September 9, 1980). Both leaders declared that they had agreed to unite their countries into a single “economic, political, military and cultural” entity. (“Syria-Libya Merger Hits Snags”, United Press International, December 19, 1980). According to a joint communique, the planned unitary state would have been the primary power in the “confrontation against the parties of Camp David, represented by American imperialism, the Zionist enemy and the agent regime of Sadat” (“Syria, Libya, 800 Miles Apart, Proclaim Merger, Vow Fight to Liberate Palestine”, The Los Angeles Times, September 11, 1980). 

Assad’s Syria certainly is in need of whatever friends it can get, especially rich ones like Libya. The government has been racked by internal dissent and its economy is in tatters.

— Loren Loren Jenkins, “Syria Agrees to a Merger With Libya“, Washington Post, September 3, 1980.

Creating a unitary state would have fused Syria’s superior manpower and military strength with oil-rich Libya, which made billions in oil revenues in those years. “Together, Libya and Syria would be able to muster armed forces of 300,000 with 4,600 tanks and 590 combat aircraft to confront Israel’s 170,000-member standing army backed by 3,050 U.S.-made tanks and 535 warplanes”, noted one report at the time. (“Syria Determined To Make Libya Merger Work”, Associated Press, November 27, 1980). Sadat made fun of the declarations and proclamations about Syrian-Libyan unity, sarcastically saying the planned merger was “very encouraging” before laughing. He also called it a “children’s game”. (“Syria, Libya Merge To Confront Israel In Arab Revolution”, Associated Press, September 11, 1980). Indeed, aside from the fanfare, little tangible headway was made toward merging Syria and Libya. The project, like those others before it, simply fell through. 

In many ways, that merger was doomed to fail for various reasons. For one, Syria and Libya are not geographically linked, rather they are separated by more than 1,000 kilometers either by land or sea. Also, neither dictator would have let the other directly rule over them or their country, which was one reason for the dissolution of the ill-fated UAR. Incidentally, the latter reason was the same reason a planned Iraq-Syria merger around the same time failed. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein feared to become relegated to a deputy leader to the much more experienced Hafez al-Assad in any Syria-Iraq unitary state. This was most likely the main reason why he alleged Assad’s Syrian Baath party was plotting a coup against Baghdad as a pretext to execute his public purge of the Iraqi parliament on July 22, 1979. (Paul Iddon, “A history of Iraq-Syria relations“, The New Arab, November 8, 2018).

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in 1977 (Photo: Museum of Syrian History).

Syria and Libya stood out in the 1980s because they were the only Arab countries that supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq War. In October 1980, Iraq simultaneously severed its relations with both countries along with North Korea. Throughout the decade, Libya and Syria supplied Tehran with antiaircraft missiles, Scud ballistic missiles, artillery shells and short-range Katyusha surface-to-surface rockets. (Elaine Sciolino, “Iran, in 6-Year Search for Arms, Finds World of Willing Suppliers“, The New York Times, November 25, 1986). Given that Iran is a non-Arab nation, this was unpopular in the Arab World. In a clear reference to Libya and Syria, King Hussein of Jordan declared in November 1980 that “Arab arms should not… be used against Arab people. This makes it plain that no Arab party should support any non-Arab party engaged in conflict with any Arab country”. (Mona A. Ziade, “Jordan’s Hussein hits Syria, Libya”, United Press International, November 28, 1980).

In 1984, both Syria and Libya directly threatened Jordan for renewing relations with Egypt. Syria called Amman’s decision “dangerous” and threatened to take “deterrent measures”. Meanwhile, Libya called on Arab states to boycott Jordan in response to what it called Amman’s “treacherous stab in the back of the Arab nation”. (“Syria, Libya Threaten Jordan For Renewing Ties With Egypt”, Associated Press, September 27, 1984). However, by the end of the decade, most other Arab countries patched up their relations with Egypt following their previous boycott of Cairo for making peace with Israel. The only exceptions were Libya, Syria, and Lebanon – the latter little more than a Syrian satrap at the time. 

Tripoli and Damascus even blocked a move in 1988 by the Persian Gulf states to readmit Egypt into the Arab League. (Mary Curtius, “For Mubarak, a pretty good year”, The Boston Globe, January 3, 1988). However, by 1987, Syria and Libya joined the rest of the Arab countries in calling for Iran “to respond to calls for peace and to accept a settlement of the conflict by peaceful means”. (Stephen Broening, “U.S. Watches Sign of Realignment in Mideast Diplomacy”, The Baltimore Sun, April 19, 1987). When Saddam Hussein later invaded and annexed Kuwait in August 1990, Syria and Libya reacted very differently. Syria joined the US-led coalition to force Iraq out of Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War while Libya voiced its support for Iraq. (John Kifner, “Arabs Vote To Send Troops To Help Saudis; Boycott Of Iraqi Oil Is Reported Near 100%“, The New York Times, August 11, 1990).

In the early 2000s, significant political changes occurred in both countries. Hafez al-Assad passed away in 2000, and his son Bashar became the president. Many initially hoped Bashar would reform the country and improve its relations with the West. Then, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Gaddafi agreed to surrender his weapons of mass destruction program to the United States. (Flynt Leverett, “Why Libya Gave Up on the Bomb“, The New York Times, January 23, 2004). Some hoped at the time that, given cordial relations between Gaddafi and Assad, Syria would follow suit. There were even other suggestions that Damascus and Tripoli might follow Amman and Cairo’s footsteps and make peace with Israel. (“Syria May Follow Kadafi’s Example”, The Los Angeles Times, December 21, 2003). It was not to be. Around the same time that Assad became persona non grata in the West following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, Gaddafi’s regime, on the other hand, was essentially normalized, given his cooperation with the West. 

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi alongside Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad during his 2008 visit to Damascus
(Photo: AFP/Getty Images).

Both regimes responded in similarly violent ways to the outbreak of the Arab Spring demonstrations in early 2011. Gaddafi promptly sent his air force to bomb an armed insurrection in Benghazi. At the same time, Assad violently cracked down on initially nonviolent political demonstrations against his dictatorial rule. The U.S., U.K., and France militarily intervened against Gaddafi’s forces with missiles and airstrikes, enabling the rebels to advance westward from Benghazi onto Tripoli. Damascus opposed foreign military intervention in the Libyan conflict and, in a somewhat ironic statement in light of its vicious crackdown, “called on the necessity to preserve the life of civilians” as well as for Tripoli to “resort to wisdom and dialogue to answer the desires of these people”. (“Syria says against foreign intervention in Libya“, Reuters, March 10, 2011). Along with Algeria, Syria was the only Arab League member that opposed a no-fly zone over the North African country early in the conflict. (Peter Cave, Tim Palmer and wires, “Arab states back Libya no-fly zone“, ABC News, March 12, 2011). The rebels found and murdered Gaddafi before the end of the year, and Libya descended into a state of violent instability that continues until this day. 

The Western powers did not intervene directly in the increasingly violent Syrian conflict. Assad resolved not to suffer the same fate as Gaddafi or relinquish his hold on power. Unlike Gaddafi, he also had the backing of Iran and a decisive Russian military intervention on his side. The two countries would endure very violent conflicts throughout the 2010s, Syria’s being much bloodier and destructive than Libya’s. The conflicts also produced distressing footage of desperate refugees fleeing their war-torn countries for sanctuary in Europe, many of them drowning in the Mediterranean. Turkey’s patronage of anti-Assad Syrian militiamen – which it has predominantly used to fight against Kurdish forces in Syria – and its backing of the UN-recognized GNA in Tripoli have now brought Assad and Haftar closer together. However, if history is any precedent, these new relations may not bring into being a serious alliance. 

This entry was posted in English, History, Libya, Paul Iddon, Politics in General, Security Policy, Syria.

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