Qatar comes out of Turkey’s shadow as it returns to North Africa

Within less than two days, Qatar has sent a second message indicating that it is still greatly interested in North Africa, and that it is returning to Libya in force after years of lying low and relying on Turkey as part of its policy of bending with the storm to accommodate the increasing international and regional pressure for it to stop its interventionism everywhere in support of Islamist groups, and amid accusations of supporting and financing terrorism.

Libyan and Turkish media reported that Qatari Defence Minister Khaled Al-Attiyah arrived in Tripoli on Monday, coinciding with a visit by Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.

Attiyah's visit came three days after Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani contacted Tunisian President Kais Saied and offered to finance development projects in the Tunisian interior regions, in a move that was considered an attempt to protect Qatar’s influence in Tunisia, especially in light of rising speculation inside Tunisia about the likelihood of seeing the Tunisian presidency of the republic expand its powers and prerogatives at the expense of parliament during the coming period. That shift would usher in a decline in the role and influence of Doha’s first ally in Tunisia, namely the Islamist Ennahdha Movement, led by Rached Ghannouchi.

Local observers also saw in Qatar Airways’ agreeing to sponsor the Tunis-based football team Club Africain starting next sporting season a political manoeuvre by Doha aimed at improving its image, which had taken some serious beatings during the past years following harsh criticism and accusations of being behind political instability in Tunisia.

In Libya, Al-Attiyah’s visit, which is the first by a high-ranking Qatari official to Libya in years, openly signals Doha’s joining the fray of military efforts in Libya alongside Turkey.

This move reflects the failure of the diplomatic efforts led by the United States, especially in light of persistent information indicating that the internationally-recognised parliament in Benghazi rejected a US plan to create a demilitarised zone around Sirte and the oil terminals, which would force the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar to withdraw beyond Ajdabiya, and this without providing guarantees that Syrian mercenaries and Misrata militias would not enter the zone.

The Tripoli government, with the support of its Turkish ally, succeeded in repelling the LNA's attack on Tripoli in April 2019, and in June it regained control of the entire north-west of the country. After 14 months of fierce fighting, the army withdrew towards Sirte, the port city 450 km east of Tripoli.

Observers say that Al-Attiyah's visit to Tripoli inaugurates the second phase of the Qatari chaos in Libya, after nearly three years of hiding in order to delude the international community into believing that it had stopped supporting extremist groups in the country. One result of Doha’s forced hibernation was that it was excluded from taking part in the Berlin conference, to which most of the countries concerned with the situation in Libya were invited.

Observers have attributed the decline of Qatar’s role in Libya to several international factors, including the election of US President Donald Trump, who had made campaign pledges to put an end to extremist groups in Libya, in addition to regional pressures Doha was subjected to following a boycott imposed on it by neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.

The boycotting countries called on Doha to cut all links with the Muslim Brotherhood, and with other extremist groups, including Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and ISIS. The LNA and Libyan parliament have often accused Qatar of supporting extremist groups in Libya.

Most Libyans believe that Qatar’s intervention in Libya’s internal affairs since 2011 fuelled the armed conflict and dragged Libya into a civil war with Doha’s support of the coup perpetrated by the Islamist militia Dawn of Libya to reverse the results of the legislative elections that took place in 2014, causing an ongoing  political rift in the country.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar talks with Deputy Defence Minister of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) Salahedin al-Namroush and Qatar’s Defense Minister Dr. Khalid bin Mohamed Al Attiyah in Tripoli, Libya, August 17  (AFP)

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar talks with Deputy Defence Minister of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) Salahedin al-Namroush and Qatar’s Defense Minister Dr. Khalid bin Mohamed Al Attiyah in Tripoli, Libya, August 17  (AFP)

 

Libyan sources suggested that Attiyah and Akkar came to Libya to discuss battle plans for the campaign on Sirte and the oil terminals, a step blessed by the United States under the pretext of Washington’s growing concern over Moscow’s influence in Libya.

A member of the Libyan House of Representatives, Muhammad Amer al-Abani, considered that Attiyah's visit magnifies the size of the Turkish presence and its military machine stationed in western Libya, in the hope of making the final preparations for the assault on Sirte and Jufra and encouraging Ankara to continue its hegemony.

In turn, a member of the Supreme Council of the Libyan Tribes, Sheikh Adel Al-Faidi, said, “It is not by accident that Al-Attiyah’s visit coincides with the Turkish-Qatari control over the port of Al-Khums and transforming it into a naval base for Ankara’s and Doha’s multiple operations in Libya. The port is now run by about 100 Turks, and there are two (Turkish) ships docked there, which indicates that preparations are being made for new military moves to provide mercenaries and terrorists with more support in preparation for the battle of Sirte and Jufra.”

Faidi added, in a statement to The Arab Weekly, that the presence of Al-Attiyah at this time represents a clear challenge to the international will, and a kind of insistence on continuing Qatari intervention alongside Turkey's deep encroachment, in clear defiance of international positions condemning foreign interference. The visit of the Qatari official asserts that Doha is in Libya to stay and that it no longer needs to remain in Ankara’s shadow or secretly revolving in its orbit. Doha is now determined to openly support extremists and terrorists.

While Russia clearly supports the Libyan National Army (LNA), the US position seems confused, as the White House seems to have taken a neutral position with respect to the Libyan file and left it in the care of the State Department. The latter, however, supports the Tripoli government (the Government of National Accord), which is dominated by Islamists and relies on Syrian mercenaries, including terrorist elements from the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS.

Observers warn of the consequences of pursuing escalation policies in the case of Sirte and the oil terminals. They could easily spark a proxy war on Libyan soil. Egypt had openly warned the GNA and its militias against crossing the Sirte-Jufra line, which it described as a red line, and observers definitely exclude the scenario where France and Russia would limit themselves to playing the role of spectators in the battle.

During his visit to Tripoli this past Monday, the German foreign minister warned against the “deceptive calm” currently prevailing in a country mired in chaos. Heiko Maas emphasized that “the two parties and their international allies continue to bring in weapons into the country and cling to their preconditions for a ceasefire.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.
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