Resource rich but chronically unstable, Libya is a magnet for foreign intervention. Russia, Turkey, and a host of others have waded into the North African nation’s bruising civil war. But Europe, a continent with strong historical ties to the region – not to mention critical strategic interests – is all-but absent. It was European involvement that brought down Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011; but today, EU leaders seem unwilling to make a decisive play in the country’s future.
Since the fall of Gaddafi almost a decade ago, Libya has known little peace. In 2016, extended periods of unrest boiled over into civil war. From the east, military strongman Khalifa Haftar – leader of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) – exploded forth with his anti-government insurgency. In the months since, he has rolled back the forces of Tripoli’s Government of National Accord (GNA), and now controls large swathes of the country.
But this is not a war of just two combatants. Nations near and far have been drawn into Libya’s conflict, hoping to carve out influence in the strategically situated and oil rich state. On the side of GNA prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj, Turkey has committed vehicles and troops – the latter of which will operate, Ankara says, in a “training and advisory” capacity. Haftar has won the official backing of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt; and the unofficial support of Russia.
Much of the renegade general’s military success stems from his powerful allies, who routinely flout an international arms embargo. From the Emiratis, the LNA is supplied with Chinese Wing Loong 2 attack drones – cutting-edge aerial craft that have helped win the group air superiority. And through a mercenary unit with alleged Kremlin-connections, the Russians operate laser-guided artillery batteries to devastating effect (Moscow denies any involvement).
Europe, however, has kept its distance from Libya’s war – despite a litany of strategic concerns. That’s not to say European leaders haven’t been vocal about the conflict. But their repeated calls for peace are being drowned out by those who’ve taken a more direct approach to intervention.
For Europe’s biggest players, this is a worrisome situation. From migration, to energy, to terrorism, Libya’s fate matters hugely to the continent – but despite their mutual interests, divisions run deep among EU leaders.
With France and Italy, this is particularly true. The latter, Libya’s one-time colonial conqueror, has thrown its weight behind al-Sarraj. Under his UN-recognised government, Rome thinks the North African nation can be united in democracy. Having suffered the worst of Europe’s trans-Mediterranean migration crisis – much of which originated from the Libyan coast – Italians value stability and the rule of law above all else. Haftar’s military leadership offers neither, Rome believes.
The French disagree. In General Haftar – an avowed opponent of political Islam – Paris recognises a stalwart force in the struggle against religious extremism. Not so long ago, Libya was a bubbling cauldron of fundamental Islam, having fallen under the sway of so-called Islamic State. Alongside Syria and Iraq, the country was used by the caliphate as a springboard for European terror attacks – of which France has borne the brunt in recent years.
Recognised by the UN or not, Paris cannot afford a weak, ineffectual administration in Tripoli; one that might allow extremism to foment in Libya once more. Haftar offers a bold alternative – a military strongman who’ll oppose the fundamentalists at every turn. And in time, he could even assist France in its foundering counter-terror operation in the Sahel, a region that sprawls across central Africa.
Libya’s wealth of natural resources also represent a sticking point for France and Italy. Eni, a drilling giant based in Rome, enjoys privileged access to Tripoli’s off-shore oil and gas deposits – though Total, a French firm, is vying for its own regional share. But Libya’s fossil fuel abundance plays an altogether more pivotal role in the conflict. In 2019, Ankara reached an agreement with the GNA to access Tripoli’s coastal oil and gas reserves – a move, analysts say, that supersedes a similar accord brokered by the EU and Israel.
Europe has threatened to slap sanctions on Turkey unless it halts its east Mediterranean oil exploration – but President Erdogan seems unphased. What will worry him, however, is the prospect of General Haftar – who offers Ankara no allegiance – winning outright control of Libya. For its strategic energy goals to be met, Turkey needs a pliant party in charge.
That is why, last week, Erdogan echoed his Russian counterpart’s calls for a ceasefire. The two men may be backing opposing forces in Libya – but both profit from a drawn out conflict that sustains their leverage.
Where exactly Europe and its own vital interests fit into this scenario, we do not know – and neither, probably, does Europe.