By Mohamed Eljarh & Mohamed Dorda
This paper explores the divergence and convergence between Europe and Russia in Libya.
Russia and Europe in Libya
As briefly highlighted in previous sections, the European and Russian approaches in Libya are distinctly different. When discussing the European role in Libya, one should make a distinction between the role of the EU and that of its member states.
The EU lacks a common and coherent Libya policy, which is further complicated by a short-sighted and largely contradictory foreign policy agenda adopted by France and Italy.
Moreover, the EU as a supranational organization has limited and largely ineffective foreign policy tools that it can employ on the Libya file.
Europe’s fundamental divergence from Russia is the way in which it perceives and interacts with the Libyan conflict. Europe has confined itself to the Skhirat Agreement, while Russia has since long abandoned that framework by engaging with Libyan stakeholders across the political spectrum.
What the Skhirat Agreement did was impose a government that enjoys international recognition but lacks domestic legitimacy as it was never officially endorsed by the House of Representatives as per the requirements of the Libyan Political Agreement.
This added another volatile dimension to an already complex and multi-faceted crisis. Indeed, the GNA has been a rump government since January 2017, with only five out of nine members of its Presidency Council being active — essentially foregoing the legal quorum and accord requirement for decision making within the GNA.
However, due to a lack of alternatives, Europe and the west more broadly continue to recognize the GNA in accordance with UNSC Resolution 2259 despite the fact that this policy approach ignores that the Tripoli-based government is only one player in an extremely crowded conflict.
The reality above should demand that Europe develops a coherent policy for engagement in Libya that goes beyond the Skhirat Agreement and the dysfunctional political framework it put in place.
This framework has so far been ignored by Russia when convenient, and utilized by Turkey for its overt intervention in Libya with huge ramifications for European security and economic interests in Libya and the wider Mediterranean region.
For Europe to have a chance of counterbalancing Turkey and Russia in Libya, it must first get its house in order by developing a much needed and long overdue common Libya policy.
That policy should be supported with well developed, realistic and effective tools to protect Europe’s interests that include but are not limited to:
(a) ensuring stability in the EU’s immediate neighbourhood;
(b) addressing the root causes of irregular immigration and security threats related to terrorism towards Europe; and
(c) the safeguarding of its energy security through the diversification of Europe’s energy supplies.
Only then can Europe stand a chance of meaningful engagement with Russia and Turkey in Libya. S
uch foreign policy tools could include the use of Europe’s economic power to sanction and influence the behaviour of other players involved in Libya, as well as continue efforts to develop the common European security Operation IRINI to effectively implement the UN arms embargo.
There is also the potential to monitor a ceasefire in Libya and play the role of a guarantor for future Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) and Security Sector Reform (SSR) processes in Libya.
The geostrategic rivalry between Russia and the EU as the two major powers in Europe primarily stems from the historical collision of their interests: Russia struggles to protect its sphere of influence whereas Europe continues its process of expansion eastwards with the possibility of countries like Ukraine and Armenia joining the EU – an unacceptable risk for Russia.
This rivalry is reinforced by conflicting political values and ideological doctrine that guide and inform the foreign policies of both. However, cooperation with Russia on Libya should not mean that Europe needs to unconditionally rally around Russian strategies in Europe.
There may be cooperation to combat instability and insecurity in Libya and the wider Mediterranean region without endorsing Russia’s European agenda.
Russia’s key to success in the Middle East has been its consistency and assertiveness in its position, the best example of which can be seen in Syria where Moscow has supported its long-time ally Bashar al-Assad with broadly the same talking points since 2011.
With a legitimate president (at least in the legalistic sense), Russia’s game in Syria has been relatively easy in that it officially supported a state actor, thus strengthening its global position as a defender of state sovereignty.
In Libya, however, where the state is not represented by a clear and unique actor, Russia’s positioning is fluctuating and therefore more fragile.
Unlike Syria, there is no clear-cut legitimate government whose sovereignty needs to be defended, hence leading Russia to adopt a plausible deniability approach in Libya.
This is why our review of Russian involvement in the post-2011 Libya does not provide an assessment of a definite and localised strategy on the part of Moscow but rather an insight to a series of tactical moves that ensure Russia is not left behind in Libya’s balance of power.
However, since September 2019, Moscow has demonstrated a more pronounced position in Libya, which is indicative of its long-term ambitions south of the Mediterranean.
For example, Moscow has introduced more advanced weaponry into the Libyan conflict including S-300 air defense systems, Sukhoi SU-24, and MIG 29 fighter jets to al-Jufrah and Sirte.
Such development is indicative of Russia’s potential ambitions and desire to set up long-term military presence in Libya.
On the political level, Moscow has been engaging with the President of the House of Representatives Agilah Saleh as their preferred political interlocutor giving him political advice and supporting his political initiative that was announced in April 2020.
In this regard, the Russians seem to understand the value of Agilah Saleh’s international recognition as the head of the HoR in the east. The HoR is the only democratically elected body that exists in Libya today and part of the government set up by the Skhirat Agreement.
Russia sees in Libya a place where it can advance its brand as a balance to Western powers and an apt crisis manager who could diplomatically mediate between various sides of a conflict (except terror groups).
In a way, in Russia’s view, Libya is more important for its international repercussions than its local dynamics. The Libyan conflict allows Russia to advance its vision of a polycentric world order where Moscow prefers to deal with non-Western powers – such as Egypt, Turkey and the UAE – to resolve the negative effects of Western disregard of international law through unlawful military interventions.
As Russia increases its involvement in the Libya conflict in support of Libya’s Eastern authorities, and with the United States tacitly approving Turkey’s military intervention in Libya, the Europeans should refrain from adopting either of these two positions.
Instead, the EU should aim to develop its own position to meet Europe’s own needs and protect its interests in Libya and the Mediterranean region.
Diplomatically and Politically:
The EU must do more to utilise the Berlin process and the International Follow-up Committee on Libya (IFCL) platform that was created out of that process to salvage their waning political and diplomatic relevance in the Libya file.
This would require sustainable and coordinated European diplomatic engagement with key Libyan and foreign stakeholders in the Libyan conflict. This would also entail that European states abandon the confines set by the Skhirat Agreement and pursue more inclusive dialogue that includes Libya’s key political, social, economic and security stakeholders.
The EU’s IRINI naval operation could serve as a legitimate security framework and platform for Europe to play an increasing role as a positive security actor as far as the Libyan conflict is concerned.
Furthermore, the EU could help implement the proposed demilitarized zones around Sirte and al-Jufrah. Depending on the success of such a role, the EU can play the role of an outside guarantor for genuine DDR and SSR processes in Libya.
Geostrategic Rivalry vs. Tactical Alignment in Libya:
While the Europeans should be ready for the prospects of having to deal with Russia’s long-term political and military influence in Libya, they should find ways to manage their geostrategic rivalry with Russia against the potential for a temporary and tactical alignment on Libya.
Short-term cooperation could involve topics such as ceasefire and arms embargo implementation, while the long-term engagement could focus on cooperation on reconstruction and development of Libya’s energy sector, migration and counter-terrorism.
Mohamed Eljarh is co-founder of Libya Outlook for Research and Consulting, and holds the position of Regional Manager for CRCM North Africa in Libya. Previously, Eljarh was a fellow with the Atlantic Council with focus on Libya and the Libya contributor for Foreign Policy Magazine. He worked as a political and security affairs consultant for the British Envoy to Libya, Jonathan Powell and worked briefly as a political consultant for the Libyan Mission to the European Union. Eljarh has published extensively on post-Qaddafi Libya and has a vast media experience commenting on Libyan Affairs in local, regional and international media outlets. His work is published and cited by leading international Think Tanks and Media outlets.
Mohamed Dorda is a senior partner and consulting director at Libya Desk, a specialist geopolitical risk consultancy that produces evidence-based analysis on the political, regulatory, social, tribal and security environments in Libya. Mohamed holds a Bachelor’s Degree from the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) and has worked extensively on Libya. Prior to Libya Desk, Dorda researched instances of arbitrary detention, torture, extra-judicial killings, and due process violations committed by various armed groups across Libya.
Source: EUROPE’S OPTIONS TO ADDRESS THE CONFLICT IN LIBYA (NAVIGATING THE REGIONAL CHESSBOARD)