NATO could face its ultimate test in a growing African proxy war

  • Libya's ongoing civil war has drawn in its African neighbors as well as nearby European countries, including NATO members.
  • Those powers are on different sides in the conflict, and the potential for clashes between them presents a distinct challenge for NATO and for US and European security goals.
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With Egypt reportedly on the brink of invading neighboring Libya, and troops from Chad said to be on their way north to join Gen. Khalifa Haftar in his fight to topple the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, what was already a complicated proxy war could soon become Africa's first full-on intracontinental war in decades.

That may not be all that is at risk, however. If Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi delivers on his promise to come to Haftar's aid, it could also result in a serious setback for two key American and European security priorities: securing the volatile Eastern Mediterranean and stabilizing the increasingly fragile NATO alliance.

The escalation of tensions along Libya's eastern and southern borders recently reached a new peak after Egypt conducted a massive military exercise last week in its western coastal region near Libya. The breakaway parliament in Tobruk, in eastern Libya, that supports Haftar's Libyan National Army then invited Egypt to intervene militarily to stave off a Turkish-backed offensive.

Since neither the United States nor Russia is well-positioned to deescalate the situation given their own growing frictions, it seems increasingly likely that the conflict in Libya could eventually result in direct clashes between Turkish and Egyptian military forces — both US allies.

The prospect of a conflict between a NATO member, Turkey, and a longstanding US ally in the Middle East, Egypt, is bad enough. In the seemingly bygone era of genuine NATO unity, a conflagration between a member of the trans-Atlantic alliance and another non-NATO state would have quickly triggered the "all for one, one for all" Article 5 mutual defense clause.

Indeed, 9/11 became the grounds for NATO's nearly 20 year-long intervention in Afghanistan. But under the increasingly erratic and authoritarian rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey may not get much more than platitudes from skeptical allies at NATO's headquarters and the European Union's parliament in Brussels.

As it is, Erdogan's continually aggressive moves against critics at home have soured his relations with Europe. His recent push to detain and oust dozens of mayors across Turkey who are affiliated with the opposition People's Democratic Party, on trumped-up terrorism charges, has already precipitated blowback from a substantial bloc in the European parliament.

Earlier in July, 69 of its members published an open letter calling for the EU to impose targeted sanctions on Turkey in response not just to Erdogan's crackdown on his domestic opposition, but to Turkey's intervention in Syria and a recent near-miss confrontation at sea between French and Turkish naval forces over illicit arms bound for Libya.

Granted, the letters' signatories are mostly allied with left-leaning and minority Green parties, and quite a few also hail from Turkey's traditional rival, Greece. But there are other serious signs that Turkey's Libyan adventure is further straining its relations with both the EU and NATO.

Early this month, as Italy and Turkey agreed to cooperate in pushing once again for an elusive political settlement in Libya, France said it was temporarily pulling out of a NATO-led naval mission known as Operation Sea Guardian, which is meant to safeguard the Mediterranean from terrorism and piracy, following last month's aggressive encounter with Turkish ships. On June 10, Turkish navy vessels escorting a Tanzanian cargo ship carrying arms to Libya reportedly harassed a French naval frigate on patrol for NATO, targeting it with radar.

French President Emmanuel Macron later accused Turkey of "historic and criminal responsibility" in Libya, "for a country which claims to be a NATO member." NATO's subsequent investigation into the incident was inconclusive, and seemed only to compound tensions that had already arisen after France publicly agreed to send warships to Greece's aid in response to a dust-up between Athens and Istanbul over the status of 16 Aegean islands.

All these trials and tribulations underscore the limits of the 70-year-old NATO alliance. Though it has been riven by internal schisms for years due to the seemingly unending chaos in Libya and Afghanistan, NATO has faced considerably worse problems since Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and US President Donald Trump's election in 2016.

While Operation Sea Guardian and NATO's continued engagement in Afghanistan are, on the one hand, strong evidence of the alliance's durability, there are real reasons to worry that Libya might serve as the ultimate test of NATO's resilience.

As a number of conservative American commentators have pointed out, Turkey's increasing bellicosity and Erdogan's pugnacious style may have turned NATO's second largest military power into a real liability for Brussels and Washington.

US-Turkish relations have been rocky ever since Istanbul's decision to purchase a Russian S-400 missile defense battery last year prompted the Pentagon to kick Turkey out of a cooperative agreement for the F-35 joint-strike fighter jet. The Turkish incursion into Kurdish parts of northwest Syria has only heightened tensions within the trans-Atlantic alliance. Yet abandoning Turkey altogether as an ally risks giving Erdogan an excuse to act even more aggressively in Syria and Libya — and gives Russia a much clearer path to achieving its long-coveted goal of destroying NATO.

A weaker NATO means greater instability across the Mediterranean and the North African coast, a scenario that makes it more likely that other countries in the region may feel compelled to enter the fray, either for Turkey and against Egypt, or the other way around.

So far, neighboring Tunisia and Algeria have said they plan to remain neutral on the Libyan conflict. Leaders in both countries may have, in fact, been encouraged to do so after Sisi slapped together a hasty cease-fire in early June following a series of battlefield reversals that forced Haftar to briefly capitulate.

But, as Sisi's talk of escalation grew late last month, it became clear that Algeria may see a tipping point around the corner that would force it to intervene militarily.

Tunisia, for its part, appears committed to playing the role of Switzerland in North Africa, and so far has eschewed not so subtle entreaties from United States Africa Command to expand its footprint and base American troops there.

But Tunisia has its own domestic frictions that could draw it into Libya, between political factions allied with the Islamist Ennahda party that are more sympathetic to the government in Tripoli, and an array of mostly secularist opposition forces more attuned to Haftar's position.

If the US and Europe want to get a handle on the situation in Libya, the internal divisions within NATO between France, Italy, Turkey and Greece make it tough.

Washington and Brussels may do better by starting smaller, first by addressing the political fissures in Tunisia that could lead to it openly taking a side in Libya, and second by providing incentives for Algeria to stay on the sidelines. Egypt may be beyond reach for now in terms of American or European influence, since France and the US are lined up on opposite sides of Libya's proxy war.

But lawmakers in both Paris and Washington who are interested in ensuring that NATO survives and thrives would do well to put more pressure on both Macron and Trump to tie off Sisi's itchy trigger finger, and fast.

Candace Rondeaux is a senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University. Her WPR column appears every Friday.

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