By Thomas Hill
The regional proxy war being fought in Libya between Arab states is further complicated by the unhelpful intervention of several European states, including France and Italy.
France and Italy have colonial ties to North Africa; Libya was an Italian colony for the first half of the 20th century. Libya’s close proximity to Europe and vast energy resources have made it an important economic partner for both France and Italy.
In the months leading up to the start of NATO’s Operation Unified Protector campaign, France was outspoken in favor of military action in Libya.
The United Kingdom and France – with the support of the United States – pushed for the United Nations resolution which authorized Member States to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, protect civilians, enforce an arms embargo, and apply sanctions against Libyan officials.
But following the conclusion of NATO’s military campaign in October 2011, European countries played a less active role in Libya than previously mentioned Arab states.
European engagement was largely limited to diplomacy and aid programs, notably the Friends of Libya effort.21 In 2014, however, European posture towards Libya began to change.
In 2014, violence in Libya spiked and European countries were forced to recall their ambassadors. Fighting in Libya occupied the attention of Libya’s meager border security apparatus allowing historical migration routes to Europe to expand, prompting a migration crisis by 2015.
More than one million migrants crossed into Europe in 2015; thousands died in transit across the Mediterranean. For decades, European governments had paid Gaddafi to moderate irregular migration flows into Europe.
In 2008, the European Union paid $500 million to the government of Libya to stop the flow of migrants – many from sub-Saharan Africa – into Europe, eventually providing Col. Gaddafi with an aid package of $5 billion over 20 years “to right the wrongs of colonialism, on the condition that [Col. Gaddafi] kept a tight grip on the border.”
The surge in irregular migration into Europe prompted France and Italy in particular to take a more “hands on” approach. Publicly, France and Italy helped push competing Libyan factions to negotiate the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in Skirhat, Morocco in 2015.
Less publicly, France did not oppose Field Marshal Haftar’s Operation Dignity military campaign, presumably because Field Marshal Haftar was seen by Paris as a strongman who could help close Libya’s migration routes into Europe.
French support for Field Marshal Haftar continued into 2015 and 2016, providing “decisive military support to Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), which allowed the renegade general to gain control of most of Benghazi and ultimately transform from a marginalized outcast into a key stakeholder.”
France has not denied its support for Field Marshal Haftar but instead has suggested that its support is not in favor of one Libyan faction over another. However, since 2015, France has provided the LNA with military advisers, clandestine operatives, and special force units – elements not provided to the GNA.
French interests in Libya increased following the ISIS terrorist truck attack in Nice, France in July 2016. After three French Special Forces soldiers were killed in Libya later that month, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drain admitted that France was militarily supporting Field Marshal Haftar.
While official French press statements continued to promote the United Nations-led process, President Macron held high-profile but ultimately fruitless peace talks in 2017 and 2018 with Prime Minister Serraj and Field Marshal Haftar that served to undermine the UN’s credibility.
As recently as September 2018, France publicly supported the GNA “as the sole legitimate government of Libya, with Prime Minister Fayez Serraj as the leader of the Presidency Council.”
Nevertheless, France blocked EU efforts to condemn Field Marshal Haftar’s military assault on the GNA in Tripoli and instead called for a ceasefire but not the withdrawal of LNA forces.
In response, the GNA has declared that it will no longer engage in bilateral discussions with France.
Italy’s intervention in Libya has been less destructive than that of France but arguably still unhelpful. The competition between France and Italy has frequently spilled into open accusations and recriminations.
These tensions have only increased following the election of Italy’s populist government which has taken a very tough stance towards immigration and the EU.
In November 2018, the Italians hosted a conference in Palermo which brought together many of the same actors who attended the Paris Summit just six months earlier.
Some observers dismissed the Palermo Conference as little more than a publicity stunt intended to prevent France from being seen as the driving force for peace in Libya. Whatever the Italian intention, the Palermo Conference had the effect of once again undermining the United Nations.
The Italian government has significant interests in the Libyan energy sector through Eni. Domestically, the flow of irregular migrants into Italy is perceived as a major national security threat, increasing anti-immigrant sentiment.
Unlike the French, the Italians have consistently backed forces based in Libya’s west (and Tripoli), largely because Tripoli is the primary point of departure for migrants headed to Italy and it is the seat of the major economic interests.
As the French have increasingly backed Field Marshal Haftar, Italy has sought to shore up support for the GNA. Earlier this month, Italy’s Prime Minister Conte hosted Fayez Serraj in Rome.
Russia has been engaged in Libya for several years, albeit not to the same degree as European or Arab states. Since at least 2016, Russia has been printing Libyan banknotes for the unrecognized Central Bank of Libya, affiliated with Field Marshal Haftar’s supporters.
Unsurprisingly, this has created financial difficulties for average Libyans. The Wagner Group, Russian mercenaries supported by Russian military intelligence, have been operating inside Libya for several years, including sending a reported 300 soldiers into Benghazi to support the LNA.
Russia has reportedly also established at least two forward operating bases inside Libya.
In 2017, Field Marshal Haftar made a public appearance on a Russian aircraft carrier parked off the Libyan coastline and visited Moscow in November 2018 to meet with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
In early May, it was reported that high ranking aides to Field Marshal Haftar were in Moscow, presumably to lock in support for his assault on Tripoli.
According to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, Russia’s policy in Libya is “to not bet on any one party” and hedge its bets by simultaneously backing multiple conflicting parties.
Russian interests in Libya are part of a larger regional strategy to monitor NATO’s southern coastline activities, isolate Europe from Africa, and control the southern Mediterranean region.
Russia already has military bases in Syria, Egypt and now in Libya; talks with Algeria have been reported. Russia has economic interests in Libya as well.
It’s been reported that Russia is seeking reconstruction contracts with the intent on building a new naval base in Libya.
Thomas Hill, senior program officer for North Africa, testified on May 15 at the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism hearing on “The Conflict in Libya.”
UNITED STATES INSTITUTE of PEACE