By Wolfgang Pusztai
In Libya there is an ongoing civil war since 2011 with different phases of intensity. The prospects for a lasting ceasefire as a precondition for a political solution were never ever bright over the years.
An international military mission to ensure compliance would have been technically next to impossible anyway. All this might change now.
The current situation in Libya
Since after the decisive defeat of Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in Tripolitania on the hands of Turkish supported Operation Volcano of Rage (Burkan Al-Ghadab), which backs the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), there is a stalemate west of Sirte, the gateway to Libya’s oil-rich Sirte Basin, on the central coast of the country.
Turkey has been providing key military support to Operation Volcano, driven by important, in part even vital strategic interests. Economic interests include especially the Turkish – Libyan Maritime Agreement signed on November 27, 2019, concerning Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). This agreement – albeit illegal by the standards of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – serves Turkey as a basis for further argumentation about maritime claims in the gas-rich Easter Mediterranean.
In order to maintain this agreement, it is required to keep the Libyan state as a whole and to prevent a break-away of its eastern province, Turkey’s “opposite coast” in Libya.
But in order to deny Jihadists and Islamist leaning, Muslim Brotherhood supported militias a return to Egypt’s western border, President Al Sisi declared Sirte – Al Jufra Oasis a red line for Egypt and threatened with a full-scale military intervention, if this line is crossed.
The European Union (EU) has been never ever able to play a key role in attempts to stabilize Libya, although the country is in its immediate neighborhood. This is in part because of the lack of shared common European strategic interests with regard to Libya, with the exception of containing migration, but also because of its own mistakes.
By its unconditional support to the – failed – UN-brokered Libya Political (“Skhirat”) Agreement and the sanctioning and subsequent refusal of any discussion with Agheela Saleh, the President of the internationally recognized Libyan parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR) and next to Haftar the most influential person in the east, the EU has tied its own hands.
The EU maritime operations Sophia and Irini neither contributed substantially to the containment of human trafficking nor were they able to end the arms trafficking (where the French and Greek were more or less left alone).
While the Turkish presence, which will at least remain in western Libya, significantly damages the interests of the EU and of several of its member states, the presence of the Union in Libya is next to nil and its credibility remains low.
For Turkey the best outcome of the conflict would be if the GNA/Operation Volcano expands its control over the whole of Libya.
The Misrata and Islamist groups supporting the GNA push to attack Sirte and the East anyway to crush the LNA, take revenge for their previous defeats in Benghazi and Derna and allow for the return of refugees. Of course, both want to get unlimited access to the vast resources in the Oil Crescent and further in the east.
Turkey and the GNA/Operation Volcano are not seriously interested in a ceasefire as long as the LNA has not withdrawn to the east, especially as they are convinced that they could defeat the LNA and take the Oil Crescent anyway – as long as Egypt does not intervene. Assuming this, they will attempt to continue towards the east, if the LNA does not withdraw voluntarily, which is very unlikely.
However, most probably their assumption is wrong. Egypt will intervene and stop the attackers in a bloody battle.
A key element for a lasting ceasefire is an agreement about the distribution of the oil revenues. The perceived unfairness of the current system – all the revenues end up at the GNA controlled Central Bank of Libya (CBL) – is one of the key complaints in the east and south of Libya.
This is exaggerated by the fact, that billions of dollars and up with criminal gangs and militias as well as with corrupt politicians in the greater Tripoli – Misrata region. As a consequence, since January most of Libya’s oil infrastructure had been blocked by local militias in coordination with the LNA.
A first step could be the establishment of an escrow account for the oil revenues at a foreign bank, the subsequent lifting of the blockade of exports and negotiations about a new system for the distribution of the funds.
If this works, an increase of the oil production would be in the interest of all the Libyans, as each of them would benefit, regardless who has physical control over the facilities. However, this approach is rejected on the GNA/CBL-side, using concerns about a restriction of national sovereignty as an excuse.
Admittedly, even if a ceasefire is agreed, and negotiations about the distribution of the oil revenues begin, a return to hostilities is likely, if the belligerent parties are not physically separated. Such a physical separation can only be provided by a robust international peacekeeping force, which must be quickly available.
The right tool: EU Battlegroups
The EU has a suitable tool available to establish a buffer zone between Operation Volcano and the LNA with a very short warning notice: EU Battlegroups (EUBG). EUBGs are brigade-sized rapid reaction forces on stand-by for a six-month period on a rotational basis.
They are based on the principle of multinationality, but the core is usually provided by a framework nation. EUBGs are trained for the whole spectrum of tasks of combat forces in military crisis management and are to be deployed – according to the concept – under a UN mandate. Since July 1, a German-led and an Italian-Spanish Amphibious EUBG are on stand-by.
The terrain west of Sirte is characterized by desert with some salt marshes and two larger wadis in the south-north direction. Traffic infrastructure consists of a main road along the coast, a parallel secondary road about 17 km in the south, a third road arriving from the southwest a further seven km south as well as some minor tracks.
The military tasks for the peace force would include the establishment and enforcement of a buffer zone as well as the surveillance of troop movements in the neighborhood of this zone. The available infrastructure in Sirte, which includes a (damaged) airport and a harbor, would allow for the sustainment of the force.
This tasks would require at the core anti-tank capable infantry, artillery, counter battery radar systems, air defense assets and access to ISR capabilities for the surveillance of the desert area to Abu Quarayn (130 km west of Sirte) – Bin Jawad (150 km east of Sirte) and preferably to the Jufra Oasis (220 km south of Sirte). Of course, the EU force would need also an air and a maritime component (which could evolve from Operation Irini).
How can it work?
Of course, there are certain preconditions – in addition to a UN mandate – for such a military mission. At first, a ceasefire must be agreed and the GNA/Operation Volcano and the HoR/LNA must give their consent to the deployment of EU forces.
Both must agree to withdraw most of their forces from nearby the buffer zone after the arrival of the EUBG. Eventually the establishment of a no-fly Zone around Sirte should be considered, which could be enforced from Sicily or Malta and by naval assets.
The exit strategy for the EU military engagement in Libya should foresee the withdrawal of the ground forces at the latest two years after Libya-wide elections.
Such a mission would not be without political and military risks. The deployment of an interposition force could be a step closer to a de facto division of Libya between Turkey and the LNA supporters, including Russia.
The EU force could become subject to direct attacks by one of the many terrorist groups active mainly in western and southern Libya, including IS, AQIM, Ansar Al-Sharia and AQ affiliates.
Some hardliners on the side of Operation Volcano could believe, the EU is stealing their victory, and target the EU force directly to scare them away or provoke a renewed outbreak of fighting over the heads of the Battlegroup.
Notwithstanding the risks, the deployment of a military force to secure a ceasefire would establish the EU as a serious actor in Libya, a country in its immediate neighborhood and of particular significance for Europe.
This would provide the opportunity to balance or even limit the influence of Turkey and Russia. Especially the influence of Russia, which is frequently vastly exaggerated anyway, could be reduced, if the LNA does not require costly Russian mercenaries any more.
In order to assess the likeliness of an acceptance of the deployment of an EUBG it is necessary to take the interest of the international supporters of both sides into account.
A successful stabilization of the conflict at the Sirte – Al Jufra line would serve the Egyptian interest, as it would prevent an advance of Islamist groups into the Cyrenaica. Maintaining a foothold in the east would be probably also “sufficient” for Russia.
Such a lasting ceasefire could be also acceptable for Turkey, as long as the Cyrenaica would not break away, and if they realize that the Egyptian threat to intervene is credible.
While somehow fostering the Turkish position in Libya is not in the European interest, it would be difficult, next to impossible to get Turkey out of Libya anyway without the use of force – and this is out of question for Europe. Therefore it makes more sense for the EU to become a credible actor in Libya on its own by getting seriously engaged with military means.
In Libya, the LNA in its currently weaker position is probably more ready to accept a ceasefire and an EU force than the GNA, but both sides are dependent on their international backers anyway.
Establishing a buffer zone west of Sirte in not an easy mission and has quite a few risks, but altogether, it can be certainly accomplished by an EUBG, supported by an air and maritime component, if the preconditions are met. Such a deployment would move the EU immediately into a key role for the stabilization of Libya and certainly contribute to mitigate the influence of the Turks and Russians.
Therefore, it would make sense for the EU to have a closer look into this, have some more discussions in the background with both sides and the international stakeholders to come forward with a solid proposal at the right time, when a ceasefire seems to be close. Such a ceasefire could be established based on the UNSCR about a COVID-19 Global Ceasefire or after an Operation Volcano offensive to take Sirte has failed.
The EU Battlegroup concept reached full operational capability on January 1, 2007 – and not a single EUBG was ever deployed. Maybe now the time his here to demonstrate the usefulness of the concept – and to establish the EU as a credible actor in Libya.
Wolfgang Pusztai, an Austrian security and policy analyst, specialist of Libya.
Source: La Vigie ُEnglish