The war in Libya is at risk of escalating into a full-fledged proxy war.
In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to prompt UN action and press for the warring parties to keep their Berlin conference promises.
Since April 2019, forces led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar have been battling units loyal to Libya’s internationally recognised government for control of the capital Tripoli. The fighting on the city’s outskirts has been terribly destructive, claiming over 2,000 lives and driving 200,000 residents from their homes.
As weapons flow into Libya from the two sides’ foreign backers, and Turkish-backed Syrian militiamen land in Tripoli to fight alongside government units, the conflict threatens to deepen – and to expand into a full-fledged proxy war.
Outside efforts to de-escalate this latest phase of Libya’s civil war were slow in coming. On 19 January, however, international stakeholders took an important step forward, convening in Berlin to seek agreement on measures to de-escalate the conflict.
Although the conference failed to produce a ceasefire, it succeeded in bringing together these competing stakeholders, not a few of whom have helped stoke the conflict, and got them to issue a pledge to work to end it.
It also extracted from both Haftar and Faiez Serraj, prime minister of the Tripoli government, a promise to send emissaries to ceasefire talks in Geneva. Now the imperative is to turn all these words into action
Europe can be central to that task, though to date it has struggled to develop an effective policy. Stemming migration too often has featured as the predominant objective while internal divisions – notably between France and Italy, the former aligned more closely with Haftar, the latter with Serraj – in the past have limited the EU’s manoeuvring room.
Turkey’s growing involvement, as well as Russia’s, underscored Europe’s bystander role and helped spur it into action. The EU and its members should now build on the momentum generated by the Berlin conference to intensify their efforts along the following lines:
- Seeking a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities and resumption of UN-led negotiations along three tracks (military, financial and economic);
- Strengthening the UN arms embargo on Libya by pressing the Security Council to request more regular monitoring reports from the UN Panel of Experts, reactivating the EU maritime operation in the Mediterranean and fully equipping it;
- Pressing both Haftar and the Tripoli government to participate in the Geneva ceasefire talks and any subsequent UN-backed negotiations; and encouraging the two sides’ foreign backers, notably Russia and Turkey, who before Berlin had attempted to corral their respective allies into a truce, to strongly support the Geneva process;
- If the two sides reach agreement on a ceasefire and the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) is called upon to monitor that ceasefire, being ready to commit greater resources to that mission;
- Urging Haftar to restart production at oil facilities his forces have shut down and calling on the authorities in Tripoli to take concrete steps to resolve banking disputes with their rivals in the east.
The Berlin conference was a welcome if belated acknowledgement of international responsibility to help end Libya’s conflict. The EU, along with the U.S., UK, France, Russia, China, Italy, Germany, Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Algeria and Congo-Brazzaville, as well as the UN, Arab League and African Union, committed in a 55-point declaration to pursue three objectives:
_ to “redouble their efforts for a sustained suspension of hostilities, de-escalation and a permanent ceasefire”;
_ to “unequivocally and fully respect and implement” the UN arms embargo; and
_ to “facilitate the renewal of UN-backed negotiations with military, political and financial tracks”.
Neither Haftar nor Serraj signed the statement, but both were present at the gathering and reportedly agreed to appoint representatives to a joint military commission scheduled to meet in Geneva in late January to explore a ceasefire. These commitments were another sign of progress.
As a signatory to the Berlin conference declaration, and given that several member states enjoy close ties to one or the other protagonist, the EU can help ensure that all parties honour their commitments.
The first step in this direction could be a UN Security Council resolution that endorses the Berlin declaration and calls for a cessation of hostilities and the launch of UN-led negotiations.
Secondly, they should bolster enforcement of the UN arms embargo by pressing in the Security Council for a change in the UN Panel of Experts’ mandate to ensure more frequent reporting.
At the same time, member states should help enforce the arms embargo by reactivating the naval mission in the Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia).
That mission currently lacks vessels due to rifts between member states, deriving from bitter opposition in some European countries to the resettlement of migrants coming from Libya and saved at sea.
A reactivation of a fully equipped Operation Sophia would re-enable the renewed deployment of EU naval and aerial assets to monitor and intercept Libya-bound weapons shipments; this measure would still be valuable even if transfers by plane and across the Egyptian border would lie beyond its scope.
Thirdly, European leaders should step up diplomatic efforts to ensure that the Geneva talks take place, using their ties to Libyan factions to encourage them to compromise. Both sides have remained attached to maximalist demands, including concerning prerequisites for a ceasefire.
The Serraj government insists that Haftar’s forces withdraw completely from western Libya prior to any such accord, though at a recent meeting in Moscow it seemed slightly flexible on this point.
The field marshal, for his part, has told interlocutors that he seeks preconditions – the surrender of Tripoli, progress in forming a new government and resolution of outstanding financial disputes – that the Serraj government will surely reject.
Finding middle ground will not be easy. To the extent possible, European leaders should press home that sticking to current demands risks cementing a destructive conflict around the capital.
Reinvigorating European diplomacy also means engaging both sides’ foreign backers. Dialling down outside intervention in Libya’s war or weaning local parties from their conviction that foreign support can carry them to victory will not be easy.
According to local sources, some 2,000 pro-Turkish Syrian fighters have arrived in Tripoli, along with dozens of Turkish officers who have installed air defence systems.
Officials in Tripoli believe that Turkish support could help them push Haftar’s forces out of the capital’s vicinity, while Arab tribes across Libya have responded with calls of resistance to what they call Turkey’s “colonial ambitions” and named Haftar as their champion.
Arab states, such as Egypt and the UAE, which together with Russia back Haftar, are also incensed by Turkey’s moves. Yet Russia and Turkey did, even before the Berlin meeting, attempt to force their respective allies to stop fighting and discuss what an eventual settlement might look like, bringing Haftar and Serraj to Moscow in early January.
Serraj signed a truce prepared by Russian diplomats; Haftar did not, but he did scale back military operations immediately afterward. Ideally, Moscow and Ankara would throw their weight behind the Geneva talks and a new ceasefire deal.
Fourthly, if the two sides formally agree to a ceasefire, the EU and its member states could help monitor and enforce it. They should start by ensuring that UNSMIL is appropriately resourced and staffed to follow up military talks in Geneva.
The EU could also review the mandate and resources of its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions that are already deployed, so they are better able to support ceasefire monitoring in coordination with the UN if requested by Libyan parties.
Engagement by those missions in ceasefire monitoring would require EU member states to significantly ramp up their security to ensure their personnel can operate beyond Tripoli and are authorised to engage with all warring parties.
Lastly, the EU and European governments should maintain their efforts to address some of the underpinnings of the crisis and in particular continue to press both sides to tackle financial and oil sector disputes.
Most urgently, they should ratchet up condemnation of the recent closure of Libya’s oil fields and terminals by pro-Haftar tribes; Europe’s criticism thus far has been striking for its mildness. At the same time, they should insist that the Central Bank authorities in Tripoli solve an outstanding banking dispute with their eastern rivals.
The two crises are related: the oil facilities’ shutdown, which occurred immediately prior to the Berlin conference, was to a large extent Haftar’s response to the continued failure of successive financial dialogue sessions (hosted by the U.S. embassy in Libya and by UNSMIL).
These sessions were to accommodate his demand that the Tripoli Central Bank’s senior management be replaced (banking disputes largely stem from the recognition by pro-Haftar authorities in the east of a parallel central bank in Benghazi).
Ending the oil sector closures, which have decreased crude oil production from 1.2 million barrels per day to 300,000 and caused a shortfall of some $60 million per day, is critical.