Libya’s Second Civil War and the EU: A Way Forward

, by Reuben Bharucha

Libya's Second Civil War and the EU: A Way Forward
World Leaders at the Berlin Conference on Libya, January 19th, 2020. Source: Ron Przysucha / U.S. Department of State.

Libya has been in turmoil since Muammar al-Gaddafi was toppled during the Arab Spring in 2011. Armed groups, “city-states” and tribal factions have all been competing for control. In 2015, the European Union helped set up the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Since then, Libya has become embroiled in a civil war, with foreign and regional powers escalating the conflict with no resolution in sight.

The European Union has sought to mediate between the warring factions and their international backers. Yet despite piecemeal attempts at de-escalation, the EU’s response has been mired by division and ineffectiveness.

The Second Civil War

The current conflict, known as the Second Civil War, is between forces loyal to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which supports the House of Representatives in the Eastern city of Tobruk. Each also has the backing of foreign powers, with Turkey and Qatar on the side of the GNA and Russia, the UAE and Egypt supporting General Haftar and the House of Representatives. A UN arms embargo has been in place since 2011, but it has been described as “a joke” by a UN Special Representative and arms continue to flow into Libya, fuelling the conflict.

The most recent offensive began a year ago, in April 2019, with Haftar announcing a campaign to capture Tripoli, which has so far displaced ca. 150,000 people. Although the GNA has generally been more open to ceasefire talks, General Haftar, emboldened by his international backers, has pressured the Tripoli government by blocking vital oil exports. Now, with calls for a truce to deal with the Coronavirus epidemic going unheeded, there is little hope for a peaceful resolution any time soon.

The European Union

Attempts by the EU to mediate in the conflict have been ineffectual. The EU helped set up the GNA in 2015, but rejected its request for support in 2019 and has instead resorted to calling for an end to the fighting. It has also done little to enforce the UN embargo. This is largely due to the different views amongst member states. Whilst Germany and Italy are committed to acting as mediators (albeit without pressuring Haftar’s backers), Greece and Cyprus have been alienated from the GNA since Turkey made a maritime agreement with the Libyan government that infringes upon their Exclusive Economic Zone. France’s position has been scrutinised, with many alleging political support for General Haftar, which France denies.

In January, amid attempts by the European Union to regain the initiative, an international conference was held in Berlin featuring the key actors, but no ceasefire agreement emerged. More recently, both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron met separately with Gen. Haftar in early March, with little progress. On March 31st Josep Borrell, the EU’s most senior foreign policy official announced operation “Irini,” a naval mission to enforce the UN embargo. However, this has come under scrutiny for affecting Turkish support for the GNA far more than Emirati or Egyptian support for the LNA, which largely comes overland or by air.

A Way Forward

The key issue for the EU has been a lack of a common strategy. Overtures so far have largely been made by individual member states, such as Germany or France. The Berlin summit was largely a PR affair that saw little progress. Operation “Irini” is a step towards a common policy, but it is largely ineffectual. What is more, it is not a balanced attempt to enforce the embargo, focusing on Turkish aid for the GNA and is thus unlikely to resolve the conflict.

There have been suggestions that the EU make use of its satellite network to monitor arms shipments into Libya. This would help with the enforcement of the UN embargo more evenly than a naval blockade. There have also been calls for the EU to work with the United States, which has largely kept itself out of the conflict, to pressure both Turkey and the United Arab Emirates to de-escalate the conflict.

One thing is clear: the EU should recognise the importance of the conflict in Libya to the union as a whole. On the one hand they risk further alienating Turkey after an already trying few months. Continuing war could also see the re-emergence of Islamic State after it was defeated in Libya in 2016. Significantly, due to its proximity, the fate of Libya will have concrete repercussions in Europe, be it in the form of migrants or oil and gas imports. It is therefore important for EU member states to think not only of their individual interests, but the interests of the EU as a whole.

The priority must be a ceasefire to allow Libya, with growing numbers of Coronavirus cases, to focus on the current pandemic. Beyond that, the EU must act with a single voice to mediate between the two factions and their backers and eventually oversee the resumption of UN-brokered political negotiations between Libyans. Otherwise, with each side becoming more entrenched, the conflict risks developing into another Syria, which is the last thing the world needs.

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