By Mary Fitzgerald
This publication is part of Friends of Europe’s Peace, Security and Defence Programme.
Much has changed in the nearly ten years since Libya’s revolution.
Revolutionaries were initially supported from the air by European powers under NATO’s Operation ‘Unified Protector’. At the time, this was lauded as a model for intervention, contrasting with ‘boots on the ground’ elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East.
Attention quickly turned to Libya’s vast wealth, which was seen as a ‘magic wand’ to solve looming challenges. As the saying went, the goal was to have “Ferragamo heels on the ground instead of boots”.
Today, Libya is on the cusp of a new political deal to end its second civil war. After the announcement of a UN-brokered ceasefire agreement, Europeans offered to deploy boots on the ground to monitor it.
This is clearly a continuation of the ‘magic wand’ delusion. European boots are not an adequate deterrent to conflict, nor will they incentivise constructive political engagement.
The EU has a range of options in Libya that could induce constructive political engagement to end the conflict but has failed to use the most obvious: sanctions.
It’s ambivalence towards actors who chose war over peaceful negotiations in April 2019 such as Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), made a return to conflict a penalty-free choice, and peace seem optional.
Libyans have observed how international powers such as the United Arab Emirates, who supported Haftar’s military campaigns since 2014, were ignored until Turkey intervened in late 2019 to support the Government of National Accord (GNA). This prompted the EU to act.
The luxury of regional powers to sustain conflict from the outside and threaten the stability of Europe’s southern neighbourhood, without facing sanctions or condemnation, has caused irrevocable damage to the EU’s reputation, relevance and respect for its rules.
Its failure to apply sanctions may not only be interpreted as a sign of weakness, but also as a political double standard. Despite the difficulty of achieving consensus amongst EU member states, sanctions are the most effective tool.
They are costly to those who are targeted and deter foreign powers and Libyans alike from spoiling peace processes in the long term. The failure to use them when they are most relevant and needed could damage confidence in the EU and convince external regional powers that ‘might is right’.
Dismissing this reality in favour of costly and ineffective peacekeepers not only fails to address Libya’s problems, but may lead those with an appetite for war to draw the wrong conclusion: spoil, but make the right friends before you do.
With discussions about placing EU military boots in Libya flaring up again, it is worth re-examining its previous intervention in the country and the questions that must be answered before further action is taken:
1. Does the European Union have a consensus on policy towards the Libyan crisis?
2. Do any EU countries directly or indirectly fuel the Libyan conflict?
3. Do EU member states have contradicting policies towards Libya?
4. How will the EU be expected to carry out such a difficult and complicated task without a consistent policy regarding a resolution to the Libyan conflict?
5. How can the EU be expected to have non-biased peacekeeping boots on the ground whilst one member state has been directly involved in military support to militants attacking the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA)?
6. Will this decision be approved in the UN Security Council, where one of its members has been directly supporting the militants attacking the GNA?
7. How can we guarantee that the same bias shown in Operation IRINI will not be repeated in this process?
It is clear from the EU’s previous presence that it does not have a common vision or policy regarding Libya.
In a conflict fuelled by external actors, France has been directly involved in supplying technical assistance – and in some cases weapons – to General Haftar, an unlawful party within this conflict.
This bears a clear contradiction to the proposed unbiased peacekeeping process. The evidence of this inconsistency and bias was clear from the beginning.
Already, during IRINI, there had been delays due to disagreements between Greece and Italy over leadership of the operation. The same quarrel is happening now.
Furthermore, bias during IRINI was clear when embargoed shipments of weaponry were allowed to reach Haftar, who enjoys support from certain EU countries.
Until the EU works to have a consistent policy towards Libya, past experience raises doubts about the effectiveness of ‘EU boots on Libyan soil’.
However, Libyan citizens do need support in three key areas which are important in building their country.
Firstly, there is great need for humanitarian support, including for the thousands of immigrants in the country.
Secondly, political and national reconciliation must be facilitated, as well as support for good governance and local government.
Thirdly, technical support is crucial for economic development, particularly towards youth and small and medium-sized enterprises.
Even in the worst of times, the majority of Libyans would not welcome, support, nor seek any foreign troops in their country, regardless of whether facts on the ground warrant such a move.
If Libyans were ever to tolerate the idea, it would only be within a limited and clear mandate. However, it is very doubtful that any country would engage in such an endeavour, particularly European Union members.
Having experienced intervention in 2011, most Libyans believe a great part of their misery is the direct result of foreign intervention, political meddling and/or covert foreign activities.
Assuming boots on the ground becomes a prerequisite for stability and peace then the question becomes: can the EU fulfil this mandate?
In 2011, I regularly consulted with the EU ambassador in Tunisia. I asked him if the EU had any strategy or plan for the day after the regime is destroyed. He simply responded: “We have nothing.”
The EU made two strategic errors in Libya:
(a) first, by rushing behind Nicolas Sarkozy to destroy the country under the pretext of ‘humanitarian intervention’, and
(b) second by signing, supporting, and blessing the Libyan Political Accord of 2015 that created the Government of National Accord (GNA).
The first error produced a lawless Libya whilst the second led to an attempt to ‘legalise’ that lawlessness in order to contain it. The repercussions of both strategic errors still echo across Libya and beyond.
The EU’s approach towards the nation was largely about ‘containment’, until Erdoğan entered the scene. Turkey backed the GNA, in a desperate attempt to maintain the status quo. That brought the Russians in full gear.
Now Ankara and Moscow have all but side-lined Brussels in every sense of the word.
Libyans feel betrayed by the EU and the USA who encouraged and ‘helped’ them topple the former regime, only to end up licking their wounds as a second decade of suffering begins.
The UN itself is increasingly left watching, particularly, after the Security Council’s unified position on Libya started to crack from 2017 onward. Nine years on, the EU is more spectator than player.
It is hard to see the EU gaining the initiative again given the current status-quo.
A politically divided nation, Libya lacks the state institutions required to function in the Weberian sense of the word. Despite the work of the EU Border Assistance Mission in Libya, Operation Sofia and Operation IRINI, Europe has failed to prevent the flow of migration, stop the circulation of arms into Libya, or avoid the potential threat of ISIS and al-Qaeda into EU territories.
Unfortunately, international mediation efforts have only brought about more division. Libya has now become a theatre for competing geopolitical interests, including those of the European Union. Thus, there are doubts about the feasibility of European military action and its benefits to Libya.
Even if mandated by the United Nations Security Council, any European military intervention is highly likely to backfire and be rejected, or minimally welcomed, by the local population.
Libyans are fiercely patriotic and will not easily accept foreigners meddling in their affairs or occupying their soil.
Unhappy with removing a ‘domestic’ dictator through foreign ‘infidel’ colonisers’ violent actions, major Libyan tribes refrained from supporting the rebels in 2011. Such sentiment became more pronounced as NATO targeted non-combatant military forces and infrastructure, costing – according to Human Rights Watch – at least 72 civilian lives in so- called ‘collateral damage’.
Echoing a cultural antagonism to foreign rule, nationalists are not expected to be happy with any foreign military presence. The foreign fighters currently in Libya fear making their presence known as there are daily incidents of them being targeted by Libyans.
Hardline Islamists allied with the so-called ‘True February Revolutionaries’ would just exploit the EU’s military action to portray the Government of National Accord as a ‘puppet of foreign powers’. Jihadists would find an opportunity to stir up more violence. Libyans, otherwise identified as Gaddafi or September Revolution loyalists, would also consider any EU mission as proof that the February Revolution was a ‘Western conspiracy’.
Moreover, Europe’s presence could pave the way for another cycle of civil war. Haftar-led Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) forces might seize the occasion to consolidate and resume their military campaign.
Given how nasty the situation has become since 2011, most Libyans now question the real intentions of the West. For the EU to prove its commitment to Libya, its members must stop pitting Libyan factions against one another, push for an effective arms embargo, and stop the flow of foreign fighters.
An alternative approach is to facilitate inclusive national reconciliation that transcends power- sharing and initiates badly-needed state-
Mary Fitzgerald, Journalist and analyst specialising in the Euro-Mediterranean region with a particular focus on Libya, and Trustee at Friends of Europe. Mary was leading this work, suggesting authors and guiding the process.
The following Libyans contributed to this discussion paper:
Emadeddin Badi, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East.
Hala Bugaighis, Co-Founder of Jusoor and Friends of Europe MENA Young Leader alumna.
Anas El Gomati, Founder of the Sadeq Institute, Libya’s first post-Gaddafi think-tank.
Majda Fallah, Member of Libya’s High State Council and participant in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum.
Mustafa Fetouri, Libyan academic and journalist.
Youssef Mohammad Sawani, Professor of Politics & International Relations at the University of Tripoli.
The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.