Conflict has had devastating impacts on the populations of Libya and Syria, but it has also provided opportunities for new actors within their burgeoning war economies. In Libya, the removal of the Gaddafi regime, the proliferation of armed groups and the erosion of the state’s coercive capacity have produced an environment conducive for a new set of conflict entrepreneurs and armed actors to build new – or expand upon existing – forms of revenue. In Syria, the collapse of state authority and ongoing civil conflict has similarly led to the creation of new armed groups and a wide range of new economic elites, some aligned with the regime and others with a wide array of opposition groups. Others have generated significant revenues through their ability to deal across frontlines. The rise to prominence of these actors has, in many cases, entrenched negative incentives for the perpetuation of conflict and the disruption of conflict mediation efforts.
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.