A divided Europe is exacerbating turmoil in Libya

A divided Europe is exacerbating turmoil in Libya
Comment: Europe is divided on Libya, largely owing to France's own self-interested policy of backing Khalifa Haftar, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
5 min read
14 May, 2019
France has significant energy interests in Libya [Getty]
Khalifa Haftar's assault on Libya's capital, Tripoli has significantly disrupted the country's long-fought-for peace process. 

Though he claims to be fighting terrorism and working towards Libyan stability, Haftar's campaign has crushed years of careful diplomacy and subsequent hopes for peace, while beginning to generate a new humanitarian crisis. The conflict is also creating regional security risks, particularly for neighbouring countries such as Tunisia.

Yet Haftar's actions are enabled by the significant level of unjust and often illegal international support he receives, bolstered by a disturbingly silent international community lacking a unified voice for peace.

Mostly recently, the actions of the United States have served to encourage the violence. Donald Trump's phone conversation with Haftar, followed by his praise for the warlord in his efforts to "fight terrorism" and control Libya's oil resources, as well as comments from others in his administration - including National Security Advisor John Bolton - have seemingly given Haftar the green light to continue attacking Tripoli.  

The world's largest economic and military power therefore supports Haftar, giving his so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) further confidence and inspiration to press ahead with his campaign of attack, rather than encouraging a de-escalation of fighting.

This in turn emboldens other countries to continuing backing Haftar, especially America's allies. Russia, who vetoed a ceasefire resolution for Libya alongside the United States, which could have upset Haftar's assault, instead gives its diplomatic support to Haftar.

Around 800,000 refugees could flee Libya to Europe if the conflict continues

The United Arab Emirates and Egypt, who have also provided direct military support to Haftar, are given freedom to support his efforts to control Tripoli, and subsequently all of Libya. This means that both countries are also free to fulfill their own geopolitical goals, which involve supporting other anti-democratic regimes in the region, without facing any pushback.

Instead of allowing its close allies Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to disrupt the peace process, America should instead be pressuring these states into supporting a more just solution to the conflict.

Meanwhile, Europe is also divided on Libya, largely owing to France's own self-interested policy in backing Khalifa Haftar. France, which has supported Haftar for over two years, also vetoed an EU draft resolution calling for his forces to retreat.

France seemingly prefers the strongman option, enabling it to secure its alleged energy and geopolitical interests in oil-rich Libya. Over a dozen French diplomatic passport holders were reportedly caught giving logistical support to Haftar's forces from Tunisia, before being detained by Tunisian authorities.

Europe however does have a role to play in opposing the violence and supporting a peaceful solution. Not only does it have significant energy and security interests in helping Libya become secure and free of conflict, it would arguably want to prevent a greater humanitarian crisis occurring, which would risk spilling over into Europe.

Prime Minister of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, Fayez Al-Serraj has already warned that around 800,000 refugees could flee Libya to Europe if the conflict continues.

Some European states therefore have tried to call for stability and an end to the fighting.

Italy, which backs the GNA, has called on other European states to condemn the violence. The EU's envoy to Libya has already
called on all parties, including Haftar's forces, to desist from the violence. Meanwhile, Britain drafted the UN Security Council ceasefire soon after the conflict worsened, and Germany has called for further meetings over the crisis.

European states should unify and act with humanitarian interests at heart, to prevent an even greater crisis emerging in a country already afflicted by years of conflict and instability. They should also aim to ease the differences between France and Italy, who back rival Libyan governments, which worsens the conflict and prevents any form of unified action for peace.

Yet currently, with Europe divided and largely not taking direct action on the issue, France has freedom to pursue its own ambitions in Libya.

With Europe divided and largely not taking direct action on the issue, France has freedom to pursue its own ambitions in Libya

As the conflict worsens, it is likely Europe will make further calls for peace, which could lead to a further rift in EU-US foreign policy. In addition to Haftar, the Trump administration already differs with Europe on some regional issues; for example it supports Iran sanctions while Europe supports lifting them.

Nonetheless, it is crucial that Europe begins pursuing diplomacy again. While the US and France may claim to support stability too, the LNA will not necessarily bring this. Along with the obvious human cost of his advances, analysts have observed that Haftar's campaign is likely to attract opposition from other militias and factions in the country, even if his forces were to gain more control.

Read more: UN chief worried by arms flows to Libya

Yet so far, despite Haftar predicting a victory "within days", the battle has reached a stalemate outside of the city. His forces have been repelled - already suffering large losses; showing that the mostly likely outcome will be worsened tensions and a prolonged political crisis; hopes of a peaceful democratic transition, even though arguably crushed by now, will further be a distant hope the longer the fighting continues.

Since Libya is a victim of the various agendas of outside powers, scaling this interference back is vital for moving towards peace, rather than further conflict.

European states must be unified in their approach to dealing with the Libyan crisis, and push for real diplomacy over their own individual interests. It is crucial that France ease its support for Haftar, and pave the way for a more positive solution for Libya.

Only then can there be greater hope for easing the conflict, as well as swaying western allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates into ending their divisive policies in the country.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.