International Organizations at Odds with Global and Regional Players
By Wolfgang Mühlberger
Since Colonel Gaddafi’s demise in late 2011, Libya has embarked on a political transition marked by conflict and uncertainty. The meddling of external players has increased fragmentation and polarization along multiple emerging fault lines.
2.3 – The wider Middle East: clashing geopolitical ambitions
In line with Egypt’s approach, the United Arab Emirates has evolved into Field Marshal Haftar’s back-up, reflecting a marked will for extensive regional power projection.
A de facto alliance focused on regional security has emerged between these three players who share a hostile attitude towards “political Islam”, in particular that embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
The UAE has provided air force assets to the LNA, and was accused by the UN of being in violation of its arms embargo, supplying its local ally with weaponry. On the diplomatic level, Abu Dhabi has been a meeting place for Sarraj and Haftar prior to the official meeting held in the outskirts of Paris in July 2017.
In a similar vein to its Gulf neighbour, Qatar has been involved in Libya’s transition since 2011. However, its support for Libya’s MB as well as the wider spectrum of militant Islamic factions (e.g., in Misrata and Benghazi) put it at ideological odds with the UAE and Egypt, which both pursue strict anti-Brotherhood policies.
Officially, Doha supports the Tripoli-based UN-recognized bodies under the LPA. In practice, Qatar has provided a safe haven for a number of fundamentalist Islamic scholars (in particular Ali al-Sallabi) and cooperated with militants (Mahdi al-Harati or Abdelhakim Belhadj) originating from Libya and empowered since Gaddafi’s overthrow.
For this reason, the Tobruk-based HoR as well as the four countries leading the recent embargo against Qatar have set up “terrorist lists”, in certain cases requesting the extradition of these individuals from Doha.
In mid-2017, the National Oil Company chairman of east Libyan operations, Naji al-Maghrabi, even accused Qatar of “financing terrorists” through managing part of Libya’s crude sales.
Turkey’s engagement was limited during the upheaval (initially demarking itself from NATO and mediating in favour of Gaddafi, who enjoyed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s pragmatic sympathies), but became more pronounced through its substantial financial support to the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC).
Furthermore, the ideological proximity of Turkey’s ruling AKP government to Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood places Ankara in a pro-MB camp together with Qatar and Sudan.
Yet, beyond obvious sympathies for fellow political Islamists, Ankara also has strong underlying economic motivations, as Libya represents the second most important market for Turkish contractors.
2.4 – European involvement: shared vision, different approaches
France has strategic security interests related to stability in the Sahel, which have been adversely affected by the Libya’s turmoil since 2011 and the ensuing spread of transnational jihadi networks across the Sahara.
A functioning state with effective border control and armed forces under a single control and command structure, based on a political agreement, are thus the objectives Paris pursues in the Libyan context.
The July summit in La Celle-Saint-Cloud was part of this strategy as it helped to broker an agreement between Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the GNA, and his main rival Khalifa Haftar, head of the LNA.
Also present in Saint Cloud was the new UN envoy Ghassan Salamé, whose appointment by the UN was actively supported by Paris due to his close ties to France’s foreign policy elite. Salamé is therefore considered an asset for the translation of France’s security interests in North Africa and the Sahel, while his direction of the UN track on Libya also provides France with a degree of influence over the process.
Certainly, France’s leading military role in toppling Gaddafi (Opération Harmattan) also implies a high level of responsibility for the post-Gaddafi stabilization phase. Under President Sarkozy, economic interests and the migration question were central policy elements, whereas SSR and reconstruction announcements were already made during the transitional rule of the NTC.
As the summit in Saint-Cloud (“Paris Declaration”) eventually rendered Haftar a more widely recognized interlocutor, it also caused tensions with Italy. Even though the two EU member states played rather different roles during the insurrection in 2011, they certainly share a fundamental interest in a stable and unified Libyan state.
Italy’s strategic interests in Libya revolve around three major areas: energy, migration and security (even though not a single ISIS attack has occurred in Italy).
In addition, Italy also perceives itself as having a “special role” to play in Libya, both for historical and strategic reasons – although this perception is probably not shared to the same extent by either Libyans or other European states.
In practice, Rome has been very active on the diplomatic level, facilitating a wide range of meetings in order to foster dialogue among the conflict parties, and to support the UN-led political process. Italy invested considerable diplomatic capital, in order to shape the outcome in line with its strategic interests, favouring a non-militarized approach to conflict resolution and crisis management.
However, Italian military personnel were also present on the ground during the armed insurrection, the foreign military intervention and the eventual demise of Gaddafi in 2011. Yet, compared to a still proactive French military engagement, Italy has recently launched a limited military operation in Misrata (Operation Ippocrate), where roughly 300 soldiers are protecting a military hospital.
Also, the headquarters of EUNAVFOR Med Operation Sophia (where it is involved with 419 military personnel) is situated in Rome, in line with Italy’s concerns regarding illegal migration across the Mediterranean from Libya.
In August 2017, the Italian parliament authorized the deployment of Italian navy vessels and trainers to Tripoli in the wake of a formal request for assistance by the GNA to help build up the capacity of Libya’s coast guard.
Part of a broader effort to stem the flow of migrants and help shore up the security capabilities of the UN-backed Tripoli government, the deployment was described in December 2017 as aiming to build up the capacity of the Libyan coast guard to be able to independently mount search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean within three years’ time.
2.5 – International and global players: potential post-Cold War frictions over Libya
In a recent interview with the Russian daily Kommersant, Ahmed Maiteg, vice-chairman of the Libyan Presidential Council (PC), provided an extensive outline on the role Russia could play in Libya.
Russian representatives, such as Lev Dengov, head of Russia’s “contact group for intra-Libyan settlement”, are keen on stressing their broad-based tactics, stretching from rhetorical support for the UN-led process to a more security-linked approach, via cooperation with Khalifa Haftar.
Effectively, leveraging old ties with Moscow, the revived proximity between Haftar and the Kremlin represents a marriage of convenience. As Haftar’s lengthy exile in the US did not translate into support for his plans, turning to Moscow represented a viable option to realize his ambitions.
On the other hand, Russia seeks strategic regional partners to fight “Sunni jihadism”, expand its military presence on NATO’s southern flank and secure potential interests in Libya’s hydrocarbon sector.
From a European and Western (alliance) perspective, Russia’s endeavour in Libya is problematic in two ways: invigorated cooperation in the oil and gas business would increase influence over Europe, whereas a potential military presence, possibly at a permanent base in Tobruk’s port, is detrimental to deterrence in the southern Mediterranean.
The stance of the United States, which lacks substantial direct strategic interests in Libya, has not evolved much since 2011, when it took on the role of a reluctant “leader from behind”, as coined in the early days of the uprising.
Under President Donald J. Trump, a strong focus on anti-ISIS military strikes has continued, reflecting a sustained trend since the lethal attacks against US diplomatic personnel in Benghazi in 2014.
US companies have a potential economic role to play in the hydrocarbon sector, but Washington is also concerned about Russia’s growing influence as highlighted by recent comments by NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. However, under President Trump, even the role of the US within NATO seems relatively dysfunctional, leaving a good deal of uncertainty around forthcoming US policies.
Wolfgang Mühlberger is a senior research fellow in the the European Union research programme at The Finnish Institute of International Affairs-FIIA in Stockholm. He held positions at the Austrian National Defence Academy, with the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He studied Arabic and Islamic Studies as well as Economics and Business Administration in Vienna, and was a Visiting researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv (2011) and at NATO Defense College in Rome (2012). His research focuses on post-revolutionary Libya, the civil war in Syria, the Israeli-Arab conflict and EU external relations in the southern Mediterranean.
Source: Chapter 3 of ‘Search for Stability in Libya .. OSCE’s Role between Internal Obstacles and External Challenges. Edited by Andrea Dessì and Ettore Greco.