The Libyan Civil War represents a major challenge to the European Union, but this challenge is about to become much more severe.
Russia is strengthening its military presence around strategic areas in Libya.
Turkey is sending more troops and military equipment.
The Islamic State (IS) group is reforming quietly, expanding capacities, and playing a devastating role in human trafficking in Libya.
The United States has begun to distance itself from the conflict. US officials said this week that US presidential elections are nearing, and the administration has no time or energy to be involved in the conflict.
Meanwhile, the political process has stalled, with local rivals waiting for a “game-changing move” from their regional and international allies in hope for outright victory.
The complicated picture in war-torn Libya leaves the European Union facing the challenge of protecting its southern borders from a strategic and dangerous competitor like Russia or Turkey with limited options.
In recent days, fighters loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA), supported by Turkey, pushed closer to the oil-rich city of Sirte on the Mediterranean Sea coast, ready for battle. Meanwhile, thousands of Russian military contractors with armoured vehicles and Syrian militiamen have also surrounded the city in recent days to bolster forces loyal to the leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA) in the east, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
With the conflict intensifying, Germany, France and Italy plan to push ahead with a bid to use European Union sanctions to stem the continuing supply of arms to Libya.
EU sources told the German news agency (DPA) that the three countries have agreed on a list of companies and individuals providing ships, aircraft and other logistics for the transport of weapons in violation of a United Nations embargo that has been in place since 2011.
“Three companies from Turkey, Jordan and Kazakhstan as well as two individuals from Libya are involved,” the EU sources said.
In mid-June, the three EU countries warned they are prepared to apply sanctions on those violating the UN embargo.
“We are prepared to consider a possible use of sanctions if infringements against the land, sea and air embargo continue,” the countries’ three heads of government wrote in a joint statement, without naming a state or an entity that could be the target of any measure taken.
France has repeatedly accused Turkey of breaching the arms embargo. The EU recently established a dedicated naval mission named Operation Irini to enforce the embargo.
A CLOSER EYE ON IS
A solution to the conflict would be important for Germany, France and Italy because smuggling gangs bringing migrants illegally across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe benefit from the chaotic situation.
Also, IS remains a “persistent threat” in Libya and could grow its network again unless the country’s long-running conflict is ended.
A new study conducted by the Strategic Studies Institute at the United States Army War College has warned that IS is “regrouping, quietly expanding capacity... until [it] might once again be strong enough to be a challenger in Libya”.
“They engage in small-scale attacks and skirmishes necessary to establish themselves in the criminal smuggling network that links Sub-Saharan Africa to the Libyan coast in the north,” the study said.
After a military campaign by GNA forces, IS was expelled from the coastal city of Sirte in May 2016. The militant group, benefiting from chaos in Libya, moved to Fezzan in the southern Libyan desert, “where the group has increasingly embedded themselves in the local human and illicit goods trafficking, particularly along the refugee migration routes through Libya”, according to the study.
“IS in Libya is overwhelmingly composed of non-Libyan foreign fighters, further diminishing their capacity to embed themselves in the local political landscape,” it said. However, the study warned the situation could change if the Libyan Civil War is prolonged and called on the international community to ensure stability in the country.
“[The] longer the instability persists, the longer we go without a central government that does not need to fight everyone else and can keep a closer eye on what IS and other groups like it are doing in the hinterlands, the higher the chance that IS (or someone similar) will stage a large-scale resurgence.”
The prospect of inevitable military confrontation between local and regional rivals in Libya and IS regrouping is a nightmare scenario for the EU.
The situation is also made worse with the continued escalation in the Mediterranean between Turkey and Greece, both NATO member states.
This week, Turkey resumed its search for oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean, shortly after Egypt and Greece set up an exclusive economic zone in the region.
The EU said Turkey’s move is “extremely worrying”.
“The latest naval mobilisations in the Eastern Mediterranean… will lead to a greater antagonism and distrust,” warned EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell.
“Maritime boundaries must be defined through dialogue and negotiations, not through unilateral actions and mobilisation of naval forces,” Borrell added in a statement, expressing his concern over the deployment of Greek and Turkish naval forces in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Borrell emphasised “disputes must be solved in accordance with international law,” adding that Brussels was “committed to helping to solve such disputes and disagreements in this area of a vital security interest”.
“The present course of action will not serve the interests either of the European Union or of Turkey. We have to work together for the security in the Mediterranean,” he said.
The deal between Greece and Egypt aimed to establish maritime boundaries between the two countries.
Diplomats in Greece said the agreement nullified an accord reached last November between Turkey and the GNA.
The agreement between Cairo and Athens appeared to be a direct response to that agreement which considerably enlarged Turkey’s maritime territory and drew accusations from several countries, led by Greece, that Ankara was trying to assert its dominance in the region.
The discovery of vast gas reserves in the region in recent years has sparked a prospecting scramble by Greece, Turkey and Egypt, as well as Cyprus and Israel.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday that, “we are always here and ready to resolve conflicts through dialogue on an equitable basis,” following a cabinet meeting in Ankara.
Erdogan also called on Mediterranean countries to cooperate in finding “an acceptable formula that protects the rights of all”.
Last month, after Athens objected to Ankara’s seismic survey in an area south of the island of Meis, German diplomatic efforts helped defuse tension between Turkey and Greece. But Greece’s agreement with Egypt and Turkey’s announcement that its seismic vessel Oruc Reis will conduct research in the region until 23 August revived the tensions.
THE US STEPPING BACK
With the US elections looming and American officials unable to bridge the gap between different rivals in Libya, President Donald Trump has decided to take a step back.
According to CNN, recent pleas for Trump to get involved in the conflict have fallen on deaf ears. Many regional players tried to convince Trump to get involved diplomatically and put more pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to back down in the country.
US and Turkish officials said that Erdogan, in particular, is “constantly calling the president (Trump)” to get him to pressure Russia on Libya.
According to US officials, Trump told several leaders that he would rather not get involved in another messy Middle Eastern conflict, especially as he faces pressing domestic issues before November’s elections.
On Tuesday, US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said in a statement that the US strongly opposes “foreign military involvement, including the use of mercenaries and private military contractors, by all sides”, without naming any specific power. O’Brien also emphasised that the US is “an active, but neutral actor” in the Libya conflict, noting in his statement that “it is clear there is no ‘winning’ side.”
At the beginning of August, Stephanie Williams, the acting UN special envoy for Libya, was in London and delivered a very worrying assessment on the situation in Libya. “With so many external actors with their own agendas, the risk of miscalculation and a regional confrontation is high,” she said.
Williams is due to leave her position by October. As yet there is no agreement between the EU and the US on who should replace her, and his or her mandate.
A European diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly that the signs are not encouraging, with the US and the EU still in disagreement regarding the new UN envoy to Libya.
“America wants to appoint two UN peace envoys: one working inside Libya with local actors, and the other working outside Libya with regional and international actors. The EU and the UN do not understand why this division is needed, or what is the wisdom of it,” the diplomat told the Weekly.
Williams’ departure without a named successor would only highlight the diplomatic chaos in Libya, with time is running out before the situation gets completely out of hand.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly