A flurry of recent geostrategic gains by Turkey and Russia in Libya have underscored Europes failure to tackle a deadly crisis at its doorstep. Sundays conference on Libya in Berlin gives the European Union the chance to seize a diplomatic opportunity. But for that, Europe must overcome its divisions and crippling competitions.
Libyans, over the past few years, have grown accustomed to the hypocrisy gap between statements emerging from international conferences on their war-torn country and the deadly reality on the ground.
But Sundays Berlin Conference on Libya — with the sheer volume and drama of gathering players and proxies, most of them flouting UN embargoes and summit statements – beats all previously held discouraging records.
The conference brings together world powers, regional and national players, as well as major multilateral organisations to the German capital under the Berlin Process that “aims to support the efforts of UN Secretary-General António Guterres and his Special Representative Ghassan Salamé to end the conflict,” according to the official conference website.
But the hurdles preventing participants from inching towards that goal are explicit in the opening line of the Berlin conference mission statement.
Since he took up the UN special representative for Libya post two years ago, Salamé has repeatedly called on foreign powers to stop interfering in the conflict in the North African nation. He repeated his call on the eve of the Berlin conference, but the sheer size of the participant list – which includes the five permanent UN Security Council members as well as regional players – belies the fact that no one is really listening to Salamé.
His boss, UN chief Guterres, suffered a similar fate during a visit to Libya last year. Guterres was in the Libyan capital on April 4, 2019, when Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar launched his military assault to seize control of Tripoli from the internationally recognised GNA (Government of National Accord) headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. The chutzpah of Haftars timing – while the UN chief was in Libya to help organise national reconciliation talks – caught everyone by surprise.
But it did not stop regional and world powers from overtly or surreptitiously continuing to back Haftar, breaching a UN arms embargo.
More than nine months later, the battle for Tripoli continues, with more than 2,280 people killed, including 280 civilians, and nearly 150,000 displacements, according to the UN. International human rights groups have unearthed “potential war crimes” during the war, but they barely make the international nightly news.
Headlines on Libya over the past few weeks have been dominated by an extraordinary jousting for power, resources and influence in a hydrocarbon-rich zone that bridges Africa, the Arab world and Europe.
EU should talk a little less
The diplomatic shuttle peaked with Turkey and Russia emerging this year as power centres in the contest for Libyan geostrategic gains, exposing Europes failure to address a major crisis on its doorstep.
While the EU supports the internationally recognised, Tripoli-based GNA, its member states have not, in deeds if not in words, been on the same page. The lack of unity has been particularly acute between France, a major EU military power, and Italy, Libyas former colonial power that has historic oil interests in the North African nation.
“The problem is that the bloc [EU] doesnt agree. France has a very strong position in its support for Khalifa Haftar, its provided significant diplomatic support [for Haftar] behind-the-scenes. Frances position is largely aligned with that of the United Arab Emirates [UAE],” explained Tim Eaton from the London-based Chatham House in an interview with FRANCE 24. “Italy is searching around, trying to be heard. I think weve heard quite extensive comments from Italian ministers in recent days about potential Italian engagement in Libya. Other European powers such as the UK just havent really been willing to put in the amounts of engagement and leverage that would be required to really shift the dial.”
The European disarray sparked a pre-conference call for unity by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In a column published on the Politico website Saturday, Erdogan said European leaders “ought to talk a little less and focus on taking concrete steps”. Failure to do so, Erdogan warned, would ensure that, “Terrorist organizations such as ISIS [Islamic State group] and Al Qaeda, which suffered a military defeat in Syria and Iraq, will find a fertile ground to get back on their feet.”
Turkey wades into contested waters
Libyas complicated proxy war pitches Sarrajs government supported by Turkey, Qatar and Italy against the eastern Libyan-based Haftar backed by Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and France.
Russian military contractors have been fighting alongside Haftars forces, although Moscow retains links to both sides in the conflict. Turkey meanwhile has responded to a GNA request for military intervention, sending Turkish troops as well as Syrian fighters to help the Tripoli administrations fight against Haftar.
Ankaras formal military entry into the Libyan fray – in exchange for prospecting rights in the hydrocarbon-rich eastern Mediterranean waters – sparked a flurry of diplomacy and discontent. The deal between Sarraj and Erdogan for resources in contested waters incensed Greece, Israel and Cyprus, which have a trilateral undersea gas pipeline deal in the area.
Russia and Turkey expose Europes weakness
Meanwhile Russia emerged as a major player this week when it got Sarraj and Haftar to travel to Moscow to hammer out a ceasefire. While Sarraj signed the ceasefire deal, Haftar refused.
Although Ankara and Moscow have been on opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, the two powers have displayed an ability to work together, which was underscored by Russian President Vladimir Putins recent visit to Istanbul amid alarming signs of a partnership between Moscow and NATOs only Muslim majority member.
The confluence was a stark display of the diminished geopolitical influence of the West in Libya since a 2011 NATO bombing campaign ultimately led to longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafis ouster.
“The Western powers are aware of a sort of sketching out of a condominium between Turkey and Russia to share Libya to a certain extent,” explained FRANCE 24s Nick Spicer reporting from Berlin. “The two countries arent in agreement on the future of it [the fight between Haftar and the GNA], but they agree that they want to have a place at the table when peace talks do occur and thats because of the oil reserves in that country and because they want to extend their influence in the Mediterranean.”
Over the past nine months, Western powers have declined to put their money and military power where their mouths are, by responding to Sarrajs frequent calls for help with reiterations of commitments to “a political solution” despite the military subterfuge on the ground.
The Turkish response, according to Karim Mezran from the Atlantic Councils Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, jolted Western powers. “All of a sudden US leadership has realized that the void it created by withdrawing from the area could be filled by others. The Europeans in general have woken up to their loss of prestige and relevance in an area literally at its borders,” wrote Mezran in an excoriating column published Friday.
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