The arrival of the new coronavirus in Libya has not interrupted the battle for Tripoli.
Since 2011, when a series of uprisings backed up by a NATO air campaign overthrew dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Libya has progressively fragmented. There is now an all-out civil war between the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) of General Khalifa Haftar and the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj based in Tripoli.
The EU has been a vocal supporter of the UN-led political roadmap. It now appears in tatters.
The conflict has been fueled by external actors providing the competing parties with political, financial, and technical support—and in some cases weapons, in violation of the UN arms embargo. Haftar benefits from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. The GNA benefits from Turkey and Qatar.
The determined actions of Russia and Turkey, in particular, have been a game changer.
Russian mercenaries and funds have spurred the greatest LAAF advance since the beginning of Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli in April 2019. This has been partly counterbalanced by massive Turkish support in advisers, equipment, and Syrian mercenaries. By mid-April 2020, the reinforced GNA had managed to contain LAAF around the Ain Zara frontline in southern Tripoli and conducted a series of successful counterattacks west of Tripoli.
The geopolitical consequences are crucial. Foreign intervention has prolonged the conflict, making it more difficult for Europe to use Libyan hydrocarbon reserves to decrease its dependence on Russian sources, as revealed by Haftar’s decision to shoot down oil production.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have also usurped the EU role diplomatically, gaining the central stage in the negotiations over the future of Africa’s richest country. And both have been able to extract heavy dividends from their local partners: Moscow’s mercenaries are used to secure Russian interests in the oil-abundant Cyrenaica region of eastern Libya, while Turkish support granted Erdoğan an agreement to partition maritime boundaries between Turkey and Libya. The latter has triggered a heated international debate on the distribution of hydrocarbon reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The EU’s Libya policy, characterized by a light-footprint approach and humanitarian aid, has been eclipsed by hard power.
Now, however, there is a new window of opportunity for EU action. The global pandemic and the closing of borders is likely to diminish the ability of external sponsors to substantially reinforce their Libyan proxies, at least for a few months.
At the same time, the speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives (the official, eastern-based Libyan parliament, considered by many as Haftar’s civilian counterpart), has called for a new political roadmap.
The EU needs to seize the chance for new negotiations—this time, however, supporting them with some teeth.
At the Berlin summit on January 19, the EU already tried to have a ceasefire imposed on the fighting parties. It was ignored, not least because some international signatories of the summit’s resolution continued to dispatch weapons to Libya in the following weeks.
Since March 31, the EU has been trying to address the issue of arms embargo breaches through a new maritime operation, Operation Irini, launched to replace Operation Sophia, which ran since 2015.
But Operation Irini is insufficient both technically and legally. Technically, a maritime mission with a modest air component will never deter breaches via air and land routes—which make up most of Haftar’s support. Legally, Operation Irini lacks a naming-and-shaming mechanism accompanied by clear legislation with tight wording about what penalties are established for the violators, how they will be adjudicated, and how they will be enforced.
Nonetheless, combined with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the operation might somehow succeed in reducing arms deliveries. What the EU must address next—and foremost—is the actual fighting.
A monitoring mechanism of the internationally approved ceasefire is needed, with punitive measures for the violators. This can only be done if the EU finally decides to do what should have been done in the immediate aftermath of Qaddafi’s fall: deploy some forces on the ground to prevent further escalations.
A civilian Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) mission is an option—although a stronger, military CSDP operation has also been suggested as a bridging initiative for a wider peacekeeping mission that includes the EU, the UN, and possibly the African Union—and which is inclusive of Muslim countries.
Any of these would face a tough battle in EU circles and would entail a greater risk for the forces committed than with Operation Irini. But Libya experts believe that if any such missions were deployed—and succeeded in protecting the civilian population—they would be more than welcomed by most Libyans.
At the Berlin summit, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested a European deployment in Libya. Italy has volunteered to participate, and recently, on April 22, Germany announced its intention to deploy 300 men in support of Operation Irini.
All of this presents a strategic opportunity for the EU to take the initiative away from Russia and Turkey. If Europe were united, the United States might also follow.
But if the opportunity is left to melt away, as happened after previous meetings in Paris and Palermo, Haftar will recover from his recent setbacks, and a military stalemate will likely ensue until the external spoilers of Libya’s political process can resume their weapons deliveries, exploiting the weaknesses of Operation Irini.
If so, Libya will become a frozen crisis largely controlled by Russia and Turkey, and Europe will once again be overshadowed. All of its own doing.