Berlin: For more than eight years, the Libyan conflict has festered, and the European Union has mostly looked away. Libya mattered, if at all, as a playground for terrorism and a source of the migrants disrupting European politics.
But with the recent involvement of Russia and Turkey on opposite sides of a nasty civil war, adding to the meddling of other neighbours, Europe has suddenly woken to the implications of a new Great Game, this time in North Africa, that is rapidly destabilising its backyard. Belatedly, the Continent is paying attention.
On Sunday, after months of effort, Germany and the United Nations will gather most of the main actors to try to at least bring a sustained halt to the fighting and get outside powers to give Libyans the space to attempt to find some kind of political reconciliation. The UN’s special said before the Berlin Conference on Sunday that International players must stop interfering in the Libyan conflict.
“All foreign interference can provide some aspirin effect in the short term, but Libya needs all foreign interference to stop. That’s one of the objectives of this conference,” Gassan Salame said in an interview ahead of the Berlin summit.
Reconciliation will not be easy, as potential oil and gas bonanzas intensify the jockeying. Increasingly, the fate of Libya’s precarious internationally backed government hangs in the balance.
“There has been a major reawakening of geopolitical interest in Libya,” said Ian Lesser, director of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund and an expert on Turkey and the Mediterranean.
“That begins with issues of migration, energy, security and counterterrorism,” he added. “But it is just as much about the geopolitics of relations with Russia and Turkey. If they had not been so assertive, Libya would not have attracted such attention now.”
But Europe looks weak and peripheral. Kristina Kausch, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said, “Now the Europeans are worried, but it’s too late, and we’re out of the picture.
“Russia and regional powers are playing Europe in our own neighbourhood,” she added.
The Libyan mess began with the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi after intervention by European forces, with the US’s help. Justified on humanitarian grounds, the war produced chaos when those same Western forces largely abandoned energy-rich Libya to warring militias.
Many weapons of the old regime spread all over the sub-Saharan region, feeding other militants and terrorist groups and producing thousands of refugees and migrants seeking safety in Europe.
Libya remains a major transit and jumping-off point for sub-Saharan Africans hoping to make the crossing to Europe. Since the migration crisis of 2015-2016, “the EU viewed Libya mainly through the prism of the migration problem,” said Claudia Gazzini, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Individual European countries, at the same time, pursued their own, divergent interests in Libya, often at cross-purposes.
Playground for outsiders
But the entry of Russian proxies into the conflict last year and, more recently, Turkey’s pledge to send its own forces into the mix meant Europe could no longer ignore the matter.
It has also made the fissures in the Europeans’ approach to Libya more and more untenable as the civil war turns into a wider playground for outsiders.
On one side, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, France and now Russia support Khalifa Haftar, whose forces have laid siege to Tripoli, the capital, threatening the internationally backed government there.
On the other, Qatar, Italy and now Turkey support the Government of National Accord. Created by a 2015 UN-sponsored political deal, the government is led by Prime Minister Fayez Al Sarraj.
The divisions between France and Italy have already split the EU and weakened its positioning on Libya.
Just last week, Russia and Turkey brought both Haftar and Sarraj to Moscow to get them to sign a permanent cease-fire agreement, another sign of Russian diplomatic activity to fill vacuums created by Europe and the United States.
But Haftar, who believes he can still take Tripoli, refused to obey his Russian backers and left Moscow without signing.
Some believe that he will agree to do so Sunday in Berlin, and that his signature, sincere or not, will be a kind of gesture from President Vladimir Putin of Russia to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.
The Trump administration, which had supported the Al Sarraj government and the UN process, reversed course in April after a meeting with Egypt’s president, Abdul Fattah Al Sissi, according to the International Crisis Group.
But Washington is not very involved and has just announced that it will sharply reduce the US military presence in West Africa intended to fight terrorism alongside the French, so the US influence will be further eroded.
A senior State Department official said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who altered his schedule to attend the high-level meeting, would urge three things: the continuation of a cease-fire, the withdrawal of all external forces and a return to a Libyan-led political process facilitated by the UN.
But as with the EU, there would appear to be little force behind those goals, and the messaging has stopped short of expressing support for the government of Al Sarraj.
Historical alliances in Libya and interest in gas finds in the eastern Mediterranean are at the heart of the problem and have raised the stakes for outside parties.
Migration aside, Italy, the former colonial power, and its energy giant, Eni, are key players in Libya. So stability matters for Rome, and the government has also tried to mediate between Haftar and Al Sarraj.
But with the trend of the fighting moving Haftar’s way and Eni shifting to more commercial interests in the eastern Mediterranean, the Italian position has become more ambiguous.
“Russian influence started first and foremost on gas and oil infrastructure,” said Tarek Megerisi of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“If a situation unfolds whereby Russia and Turkey make peace, and Russia makes heavy investments in oil and gas infrastructure in Libya, that means that’s one more pipeline into Europe that’s in the hands of Russians,” he added. “That’s quite dangerous.”