When the Qadhafi regime fell in 2011, centralized power quickly dissipated and Libya fell into chaos. A wide range of armed groups asserted control over large swaths of territory in the oil-rich nation without any effective central authority strong enough to dominate the entire country. Since then, Libya has become a battleground for outside powers with competing interests and conflicting visions. It is thus important to understand that this competition has different layers and levels of intensity based on the internal divisions of the country.
Three Different Layers
The first layer is that of the immediate geographical context of Libya: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and even some Sahel nations, like Chad, Niger, and Sudan. These countries have a strong interest in pushing Libya toward one side or the other, first because the country is a huge energy producer and second because it has no effective government.
The second layer is that of the wider region. Different Arab states are supporting one of the two sides in the conflict, following a strategy of proxy war: for the West and the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNS), there are Turkey and Qatar; while for the East and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), there are the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, which provide strong support to renegade General Khalifa Haftar.
Then there is the game played by international powers: on paper everyone agrees with the plan for a democratic Libya sponsored by the United Nations and put in action by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and its last representative, Ghassan Salamé. But in the real world, things are very different. Until the last few weeks the United States had supported the UN plan, while Russia helped Haftar despite the UN mission. The same situation obtains in Europe, where Italy has supported the GNA while France backed the HoR and its armed hand, represented by Haftar and his army, the Libyan National Army (LNA). This comprises a cluster of different militias, in addition to Salafis and Madkhalis—in spite of his many anti-extremism announcements—who are not particularly well trained and are too inexperienced, as we are observing right now, during the Tripoli siege.
Italy has supported the GNA while France backed the HoR and its armed hand, represented by Haftar and his army, the Libyan National Army (LNA).
This is the situation on the ground which has stymied change in Libya. The continuous and prolonged intervention by external actors has spoiled the natural process of political selection. This basic principle is very Darwinian, but it is illustrative. In this way, the country has not seen, over the years, the emergence of a political class capable of governing the country as authorized by the Libyan people. In every great western revolution, such as the French and Russian revolutions and the American civil war, the most suitable leaders for each country emerged only after years of bloodshed. They emerged because they were the strongest, even the most aggressive sometimes, and certainly the most charismatic, for their particular historical moments. This has not happened in Libya due to heavy external interventions that supported leaders who were more convenient and instrumental for non-Libyan interests.
From a European perspective, the controversial relationship between France and Italy is particularly interesting. The other European nations are much less involved in that political chessboard and they tend to follow the UNSMIL guidelines.
The Difficult Relationship between France and Italy
There has always been competition between France and Italy, since the time of the scramble for Africa. Each country wanted to have its own part in the Maghreb, so they signed agreements at the beginning of the 20th century to share those areas. At that time this was a point of international prestige. Oil was to become a factor only in later times.
Now they have some common vital interests in Libya: migration, terrorism, and of course, energy resources. The way in which they manage their interests, however, is completely different. The roots of this gap can be seen in the France-led NATO intervention in Libya in 2011. Former French President Nicholas Sarkoszy was aggressive in trying to find consensus among his allies—in particular the United Kingdom and the United States—to support the Libyan rebels and ultimately to overthrow Muammar Qadhafi. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi did not agree; but Italy had to follow the UN’s decisions.
France and Italy have always had different ideas about how changes should be made in Libya in the post-Qadhafi era, differences that have become public only in the last couple of years.
Indeed, France and Italy have always had different ideas about how changes should be made in Libya in the post-Qadhafi era, differences that have become public only in the last couple of years, raising concerns among some analysts that the ongoing tension between the two sides could derail more important tasks to ensure the country’s stability. One point of friction that helps in understanding the different approaches concerns the political process in Libya, and specifically that centered around elections.
A Key Point: Elections
Each of the two European nations has followed a coherent, though different, path. France has supported any effort to hold elections as soon as possible in order to form a recognized political group that is capable of accomplishing the necessary reforms in the country. The conference in Paris in May 2018, which followed this strategy, resulted in a precise date for voting: December 10, 2018. Italy immediately rejected that date and organized its own conference in Palermo. That was not a success. In fact, the previous international meetings created nothing of value for Libya, even the previous one in Paris.
Since the beginning, France’s participation in the UNSMIL project has been theoretical; in practice, it has tried to create a strong connection with Haftar. France’s role in pushing Haftar toward the capital—always in the name of an anti-terrorism strategy—is not clear, while Italy, for natural interests connected to migrant flows and energy, decided to invest in Tripolitania. In addition, France was looking to support the interests of its own former colonies, like Algeria and Tunisia; therefore, winning the Libya file would be an extraordinary step.
In early 2018, Macron announced plans to double France’s private sector investment in Tunisia over the next five years and pledged nearly $700 million in development assistance, including $62 million for young entrepreneurs. These investments are substantial and need to be protected. This French activity coincides and overlaps with the American disengagement from the chessboard. From Morocco to Côte d’Ivoire to Egypt and beyond, a wide area of French influence is emerging in Africa and the Middle East. In this vision, a Libya ruled by Haftar—or someone with a similar ideology—appears to be a logical objective to pursue. However, accusations of war crimes against him—as well as his proclivity for illiberal and militarized governance—are likely to be major concerns for Paris.
Looking at this picture, it would seem that nothing could bring the two countries together. But if we go deeper, we can glimpse a couple of urgent issues.
1) Migration. France and Italy have their own policies on the issue. Moreover, Europe as a whole is profoundly divided regarding migration; and it is clear that the European community cannot tackle migration adequately without the African Union.
Human trafficking is widespread and involves many communities in Libya and in the Sahel. In 2016, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that hundreds of thousands of refugees tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea and the financial worth of human smuggling reached more than $346 million.
The principal European players in Libya are threatened by the rise of nationalist movements at home, while the main Arab powers involved in the country have become increasingly authoritarian.
One crucial element to add here, as a point of reflection, is that the principal European players in Libya are threatened by the rise of nationalist movements at home, while the main Arab powers involved in the country have become increasingly authoritarian. In practical terms, this means a more aggressive foreign policy that is caused by internal policies in order to gain consensus on the national stage.
2) Terrorism. The internal conflict and instability, combined with the lack of governance and protection of citizens, have made Libya a safe haven for jihadi terrorists.
The Islamic State (IS), which had been severely weakened and deprived of its main stronghold of Sirte in 2016 (with the help of US airstrikes), is making a comeback in parts of the country, according to local media reports. But there is also al-Qaeda, coming back and forth from the south and the east, and Ansar al Sharia from the west. Of course, a territory without any control from the state becomes the perfect safe haven for terrorists.
Paris has thousands of soldiers positioned across West Africa, some of them about 60 kilometers from Libya’s southern desert border, as part of its Barkhane counterterrorism force. If we recall, France acknowledged its war against jihadists when three French soldiers were killed in action, during a secret operation in Libya. Therefore, France is much more active in the region compared to Italy, which is just following its French neighbor.
As mentioned earlier, one reason why the conflict in Libya has dragged on for eight years is the disjointed, partisan nature of foreign interference. Only a world power with immense influence and leverage could help stabilize the international contest over the outcome of Libya’s civil war. France, however, does not possess such clout or resilience, and it has shown no desire to avoid partisanship. Paris’s increasingly one-sided support of Haftar will only add to the thick muddle of foreign interference in the Libyan conflict. The move is unlikely to help bring Libya any closer to peace.
On the other side, and with its continuous race behind France, Italy is not adding any value to the situation. It is clear that the United States should be more involved and try to be the balancing party—not only between France and Italy, but also among all the regional actors. Washington could push for a new strategy based on coherence, common support, and clarity. Libyans need to be the real protagonists and not just spectators.
The Possible Role of the United States in Libya
President Trump should think seriously about the productive role the United States might play.
Until now the United States has been interested in tactical moves: some action conducted by special forces in the desert, some high-precision drone bombs, and some intelligence in urban territory. And it always has one and only one target: to stem terrorism. What the United States is doing has an extremely limited space-time horizon. It is now abundantly clear that this is not a strategy at all.
As I have argued before, the US role could still be an important one in reversing Libya’s downward spiral. Washington could have an extraordinary diplomatic function on two fronts: to coordinate and balance the different external actors, and to help mediate between the main internal actors, the GNA and the HoR.
The US role could still be an important one in reversing Libya’s downward spiral. Washington could have an extraordinary diplomatic function on two fronts: to coordinate and balance the different external actors, and to help mediate between the main internal actors, the GNA and the HoR.
Until now, and after the disappointing tweets from the White House supporting Haftar and his idea of conquering popular support in Libya, Washington should take a clear position on Libya that acknowledges all past UN resolutions supported by the United States. It should also push for a withdrawal of Haftar’s army from Tripoli and for a common voice—among the key external players—on Libya.
How to Do That?
The United States should capitalize on the preferential relations it has with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and UAE, making sure that no more material support goes to Haftar’s army. Without that help, Haftar would remain outside Tripoli. If Egypt and Saudi Arabia were to step back, the UAE would do the same and the chain of support for Haftar would break. Haftar committed a serious logistical mistake, thinking his army could manage the huge distance between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, passing through Fezzan—hundreds of miles in the desert with very few roads or oases. In such difficult terrain, even refueling can precipitate disastrous results.
As for western diplomacy, more resolute US action would block any dangerous French ambitions linked to the energy sector, in particular. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should work to improve relations between France and Italy regarding Libya. The two countries need an authoritative voice to come to a real compromise; otherwise, nothing will change.
Washington has many other assets that it could wield, some more pragmatic than others, including a simple military gesture—-such as the placement of an American warship outside the port of Tripoli. This act would send a clear message to Haftar and could encourage him to retreat from any further violence against the capital.