In recent weeks, allegations have surfaced that Italy has been paying armed groups in Libya to cease smuggling migrants into the country. Some estimate that the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean into Italy has reduced by half compared to the same time period last year. At the heart of the issue is a governance vacuum that allows armed groups to control the flow of migrants in and out of Libya, presenting a unique challenge for governments in North and West Africa and EU policymakers.
Europe must use its diplomatic leverage to ensure that increased Russian involvement does not come at the cost of further destabilisation on Europe’s southern border.
Libya is increasingly a target for Russia’s growing ambitions to influence the Middle East and North Africa, but, judging by the Kremlin’s actions thus far, Putin is either hedging his bets or has not yet decided on his objectives for this file. European decisions – particularly those by the most active players, France, the UK, and Italy – could yet tip the scales in one direction of the other. Watching closely will be the new UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for Libya, Ghassan Salamé, who officially starts work this week after attending last Tuesday’s Paris summit between the internationally-recognised Libyan Prime Minister Faiez Serraj and his main rival, General Khalifa Haftar.
Torn between war and peace
On the one hand, Russia is naturally drawn towards supporting General Haftar, who opposes the Western-backed Prime Minister Serraj and is considered by many in Moscow as ‘the strongman of eastern Libya’. Haftar’s anti-Islamist stance makes him an attractive counterterrorism partner, and support for the general also strengthens Russia’s relationship with his main sponsor, Egypt. Limited support for Haftar also drags the conflict out, enabling Russia to point to the folly of the West’s intervention in 2011 and make the case that regime change, in Libya as in Ukraine, only breeds chaos.
As a failed state in the European Union’s immediate neighbourhood that serves as a base camp for terrorists and a conduit for irregular migration to Europe, Libya is precisely the kind of place for which the EU’s foreign policy instruments were designed, or so one might think. Since the NATO intervention that helped oust Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the EU has deployed most of its crisis response approaches and instruments in the country, including new procedures set out in the 2013 review of the European External Action Service (EEAS), most notably a Political Framework for a Crisis Approach (PFCA).
Yet, almost nothing in Libya has followed the liberal peacebuilding playbook, which assumes an improving security situation followed by reconstruction and sustained democratic political transformation. Instead, the EU has struggled to make any impact while the ongoing chaos in the country has deepened divisions among member states, with migration control emerging as the lowest common denominator for EU action.
Renewed efforts are now underway to overcome the gridlock in Libya’s peace process. The United Nations’ special representative to Libya, Martin Kobler, and neighboring states are in separate talks with the country’s various factions in an attempt to keep the peace process alive and prevent an escalation of tensions. The latest actor to enter the fray is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who could play a major role in getting key players to remain at the negotiating table.
The UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement, which aimed to unite rival factions, appeared to be on the verge of collapse late last year. Implementation of the agreement, which was signed in Shirkat, Morocco, in December 2015, had come to a virtual standstill. The Government of National Accord (GNA) established under the agreement and led by Fayez al-Serraj still lacks a legitimate mandate to govern.
The United States is reportedly attempting to gather all of Libya’s rival governments to participate in a “reconciliation meeting” in Saudi Arabia in the near future. The initiative responds to the great uncertainty surrounding the United Nations-brokered Libyan Political Agreement, which aimed to unify rival factions in the country’s ongoing civil conflict. The new effort could boost domestic and international support for the agreement, which is critical to avoiding derailment.
The challenge to the 2015 agreement spiked on October 14 this year, when a rump of members of the Tripoli-based parliament during the war, the General National Congress, led by former prime minister Khalifa al-Ghwell and backed by allied militias, seized the premises of the new State Council set up to advise the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
Al-Ghwell declared his intention to take back executive authority from the GNA and called on Abdullah al-Thinni, former prime minister of the internationally recognized Bayda and Tobruk-based government, to form their own government of national unity. While al-Ghwell’s proposal has thus far been rejected by his former rival al-Thinni, it did demonstrate the GNA’s lack of broad-based domestic support.