By Ferhat Polat
Until now the EU has not been able to take a forceful position on Libya or provide meaningful strategies for de-escalation.
Recently, a senior US diplomat accused European Union (EU) of not doing enough to end violations of a UN arms embargo by countries such as Russia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt.
David Schenker, the assistant secretary for Near East Affairs at the US Department of State, said that Europeans were proud about their naval mission in the Mediterranean Sea known as Operation IRINI, carried out to support and enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya, but their naval interdictions had been limited to Turkey.
“The only interdictions that they [EU] are doing is of Turkish military material that they’re sending to Libya. Nobody is interdicting Russian aircraft, nobody is interdicting Emirati aircraft, nobody is interdicting the Egyptians,” Schenker said.
The Turkish military assistance for the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya is widely regarded as a game changer in the conflict. Ankara’s deployment of air defense systems, armed drones and military advisers to support the GNA has drastically shifted the dynamics of the Libyan conflict.
Despite support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, France and Russia, warlord Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) militias were driven out of the outskirts of the capital Tripoli and continue to suffer territorial losses.
The fighting has now moved from Tripoli to Sirte and south-central Libya. The GNA forces are fighting the LNA in Sirte, the gateway to the east of the country and oil fields. The UN-backed government seems determined to take control of the oil and gas fields in the area around Sirte, the so-called “oil crescent”, which is home to 60% of Libya’s hydrocarbon resources.
The present circumstances are also a result of the EU’s failure to establish a meaningful policy to find a fair and sustainable political solution. France’s behavior, for instance, is a glaring example of this. Although Paris officially recognizes the GNA as Libya’s legitimate government, it also sides with Haftar by providing him with key political support and military aid.
Recently, Paris suspended its role in Operation Sea Guardian, accusing Turkey of violating an arms embargo against Libya. It comes weeks after France claimed that Turkish ships targeted a French warship in the Mediterranean, although a subsequent NATO investigation did not support France’s allegations that two Turkish frigates harassed the French warship Courbet.
According to a POLITICO report, only eight out of 30 NATO-member states were eager to openly back France in its criticism about the Courbet incident. Most prominent was the lack of open support from the US and the UK, with especially Boris Johnson making it clear that he did not give much credibility to Paris’s view.
The US clearly does not seem at ease with France falling on the same side with Russia in Libya while Washington views Ankara’s involvement in Libya as a way to curb the increasing Russian involvement there.
Apparently, France has politically cooperated with the UAE in supporting Haftar for years now. For a long time, the French approach towards the Libyan conflict was to give this war a chance to see whether Haftar could win it. Although it became clear that capturing the capital by force was not feasible, the French government still continued to back Haftar diplomatically and militarily. Instead of examining its policy that has generated disastrous results in Libya, the French government persists in its current path, still seeking to isolate Turkey internationally while at the same time remaining silent about the Emirati and Russian interventions in Libya.
As a result, until now the EU has not been able to take a forceful position on Libya or provide meaningful strategies for de-escalation given France’s contradictory position to the majority of the other member states. This surely influences the EU’s policy preferences, considering that it uses consensus-based policy-making procedures, and as such, has reduced the options at Europe’s disposal to remaining strong or aggravating the already deteriorating conditions in Libya.
Despite France’s accusation, Turkey has so far assumed a justifiable position in Libya since Ankara is the only actor whose presence in the country is legal under the international law. There is a formal security partnership between Turkey and the UN-backed government. Besides, Turkey’s support to the GNA is seen as a very positive step by many Libyan people.
According to a Financial Times report, a senior European diplomat stated that Turkey prevented the fall of Tripoli. Without Turkey’s intervention, it would have been a humanitarian disaster.
The absence of the EU and the US leaderships in Libya has allowed a dangerous international confrontation to deepen.
Looking ahead, the EU must push for a multilateral approach on the conflict in Libya, making the efforts of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) more credible, and reassure all EU partners about the sincerity of supporting the UN-led peace process, which might bring genuine and long-lasting stability to the country.
Otherwise, the crisis in Libya could deepen and lead to a major humanitarian catastrophe with spillover effects beyond Libya and its environs, the consequences of which would not affect Libya alone, but also its neighbors in Africa and Europe.
Ferhat Polat – The writer is a researcher at the TRT World Research Centre.