By Dario Cristiani
February 17, 2021 marks the tenth anniversary of the revolution that toppled the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, whereas the country is as divided as ever. European countries played a crucial role in bringing Gaddafi’s regime to an end.
The Greater Maghreb Security Complex and Options for Cooperation
The Berlin Conference in January 2020 blatantly showed the limits of European influence over Libyan players and their foreign backers. As analysed below, part of this weak influence is due to the impossibility of using hard power to support diplomacy.
However, there is also another significant element of weakness: the flagrant divisions, and different priorities, of European countries in the Libyan conflict. To a certain extent, there was a sort of zero-sum mentality informing the approach of many European countries.
This was already at play as soon as the Arab Spring started. For instance, the UK and France were immediately keen on supporting the revolt against Gaddafi.
At the same time, Italy and other countries adopted a much more cautious approach in the early days of the rebellion. These divisions proved to be rather resilient, particularly between France and Italy.
For years, Paris and Rome diverged on Libya, and Italy’s support of the GNA and France’s backing of Khalifa Haftar, the warlord leading the Libyan National Army in eastern Libya, clearly showed the existence of this division.
However, as the ceasefire in Libya is announced (UN News 2020) and the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum launched in Tunis in November 2020, (UNSMIL 2020) the time is right to promote another approach.
Against this backdrop, and for several reasons, France – more than other European countries – should shift its current position on Libya.
Italy already has, with the appalling result of losing influence over the GNA – leaving more significant room for Turkey to increase its control over the UN-backed government while acquiring no power over Haftar.
This outcome was appalling as Italy spent significant diplomatic and economic resources to help the GNA get up and running, operating from Tripoli, but then this influence vanished due to Italy’s unwise blind eye to the GNA’s plea for help, pushing the GNA to search vital support elsewhere.
This mounting isolation is crucial to understand why the GNA became so dependent on Turkey over the past two years. One motivation behind Italy’s shift, embodied by the Palermo Conference in 2018, was to get closer to France.
However, this attempt at striking a balance that should change its course in Libya, abandoning Haftar once and for all and backing – actually, not only rhetorically – the GNA for several reasons.
Haftar’s defeat in the west is visible proof of the limitations of his neo-Gaddafist ambition to control the entire country, which was already apparent when he launched his military offensive in April 2019.
Then, although human rights violations have characterised both sides of the conflict, some of the developments that characterised the Haftar camp showed that their actions are utterly incompatible with the values that the EU claims it wants to defend.
For instance, the lack of an outspoken European condemnation has been particularly shameful regarding:
(a) the disappearance of Benghazi HoR MP Seham Sergiwa;
(b) the mass graves discovered in Tarhuna once the LNA and the Kanyat were dislodged; and
(c) the reports of blatant violations of human rights and reduced freedoms in the east; the extremely violent actions taken by some LNA fighters, such as Mahmoud al-Werfalli, for whom the ICC issued a warrant of arrest for war crimes.
It is clear that supporting Haftar and its militias cannot be seen in any way through a normative lens. Although the EU has often failed to live up to its own declarative normative goals, as shown by its handling of migrants.
This remains an essential element of its self-perception and narrative: (a) being committed to preserve and promote its liberal values;
(b) respecting international law; relying only on diplomacy in handling international issues.
In addition, even looking at this support from a crude realpolitik perspective, it makes little sense. France had very little influence over Haftar, especially if compared to the influence of the UAE, Egypt, and Russia; Haftar did very little to advance French interests in Libya.
As such, between continuing support of Haftar, because he is perceived as being functional to the French anti-Islamist and anti-Turkish agenda and Paris’ relations with Abu Dhabi, and moving toward an approach more in line with international law, which supports the legitimate Libyan government, the latter would be preferable.
In addition, this would also bring greater unity, and thus efficiency as all the major EU actors will work towards the same goal, to the EU approach.
For France, such a shift could have several advantages. First, by reducing its engagement with Haftar and supporting a more coherent pro-GNA EU policy, the EU could represent an opportunity for all those personalities in the GNA camp who want to avoid being too dependent on Turkey.
Ankara is dominating the relationship with the legitimate Libyan government because it is the only actor that has shown a serious commitment to defend the GNA, not because it is the only country that can do so.
This approach can be even more successful if the EU shows some willingness to engage militarily.
Trying to completely isolate Turkey in the Mediterranean is likely to backfire, and Ankara’s moves in many areas – Eastern Mediterranean, South Caucasus, North Africa – are linked to this strategic fear more than to an alleged neo-Ottoman desire for dominance, a concern existing more in the minds of many Europeans than in the strategic thinking of policymakers in Ankara.
Against this backdrop, the ultimate aim for European countries should be to avoid having Ankara dictate the agenda, while finding ways to integrate it in the regional order.
However, if France wants to really contain Turkey in the Mediterranean, doing so by pushing the EU to reduce the GNA strategic dependency on Ankara can be more successful than betting on Haftar, threatening military actions in the East Med and promoting a harsh anti-Turkish rhetoric.
As shown by the development over the past few years, this approach only helped strengthen Turkey, while undermining a more coherent and structured EU approach on Libya based on true support for the GNA.
The recent diplomatic shifts in Libya, with Russia strengthening its support for Aguila Saleh and Turkey, and Egypt trying to work their differences out, show that there is room for shifts, and Paris should seize the momentum to put Europe first.
Moreover, there is also significant room for more meaningful cooperation between France and other European countries on the broader region.
The Maghreb and the Sahel regions are more and more connected, de-facto representing a Security Complex in its own right: This could be defined as the Greater Maghreb Security complex. Libya should be treated as a part of this complex, and not as an isolated issue.
Broadening the horizon can increase chances for greater cooperation and a virtuous division of labour between the major European countries involved in the Mediterranean.
For instance, France often has rushed to show its willingness to use military force and later has asked for European help. From this point of view, the more significant role that Italy and Germany are planning to play in the Sahel can come in handy for France to share the burden, without undermining the French role in the area.
Italy’s participation in the “Tabuka” task force by providing soldiers is an example of this approach. Crafting a more coherent pro-GNA EU approach in Libya by severing ties with the Haftar camp in return for support in the Sahel could be a win-win approach for Paris and Europe as a whole.
In conclusion, a shifting approach on Libya can bring benefits to the broader Mediterranean agenda of France and at the same time promote a more coherent EU approach in Libya. This would constitute a real win-win solution.
Dario Cristiani is the IAI/GMF Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund (Washington D.C.), and Istituto Affari Internazionali (Rome) working on Italian foreign policy, the Mediterranean and Global Politics.
Source: EUROPE’S OPTIONS TO ADDRESS THE CONFLICT IN LIBYA (NAVIGATING THE REGIONAL CHESSBOARD)