The European failure in Libya, explained

7 Giugno 2023 - 18:12

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Europe has overestimated the prospects for a rapid democratic transition in Libya and still lacks a long-term strategy.

The European failure in Libya, explained

When the internal situation in Libya started to unravel in 2011, Europe had the opportunity to intervene and stabilize the deterioration of the social conditions in the country. Instead, the military strike following the subsequent NATO operation against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces only hastened Libya’s descent into instability.

The beginning of the civil wars

In early 2011, the Arab Spring uprisings swept the Middle East and North Africa region.

The first Libyan revolts broke out in Cyrenaica, between Tobruk and Benghazi, but spread to Tripolitania, where they were violently suppressed. The international response took the form of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which called for all possible means to protect Libyan citizens but did not provide for regime change. The bombing on Libya began on March 19, 2011, as a unilateral decision by incumbent French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which later developed under the NATO umbrella. The war ended shortly after on October 20, 2011, with the capture of the rebellious leader Muammar Gaddafi and his brutal execution.

The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), which was supposed to help the country in its arduous transition from autocracy to democracy, was activated almost immediately on 16 September 2011. But this did not guarantee success. The challenges were numerous and touched on the pillars of any functioning state: economy, politics, and security. The last one proved devastating. During the war, Gaddafi’s arms depots had been looted; despite the embargo, the population - which during the regime was not even allowed to approach these extensive arsenals - found itself awash with weapons. Some of these remained in Libya, while many others poured into international arms trafficking circuits.

The situation has not improved over the years. In 2016, there were about 20 million weapons in Libya for only 6 million people. The weapons flowed through various channels, ending up in the hands of terrorists and local militias, mainly across the country’s porous borders. The trafficking and use of these arsenals have given Libyan militias the opportunity to develop their status within the wider social fabric of the country. The weapons that should have been returned at the end of the revolution remained in their hands, increasing the political influence of those fighters who, year after year, found an ideal base in a state without a monopoly of force.

With the death of Gaddafi and the sudden collapse of the regime, Europe found itself faced not only with the urgency of confirming all the contracts signed with Tripoli in previous years but also faced with uncontrolled migration. Gaddafi clearly knew this and, over the decades, used it as leverage. By the beginning of the new millennium, it had become a major player in multilateral discussions on migration.

The Italians, in particular, found themselves making many concessions to Gaddafi for this very reason. The Libyan leader has taken a similar line on migration to his homeland; on paper at least, African refugees were not protected in the country while the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol were never signed.

Then, when the revolution removed Gaddafi, the gateway to Europe lost its guardians. Operation Hermes 2011 – coordinated EU efforts on joint border patrols, related to the 2009 directive on illegal immigrants return - it did not last long, but its results were very minimal. Three years passed without a stable government in Libya, with an increasingly pronounced division between the regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. This led to another civil war in 2014 and the relocation of the House of Representatives to Tobruk.

After months of negotiations between the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli and the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk, in December 2015, UNSMIL got the warring parties to reach the Skhirat political agreement, which proposed a government of National Unity (GNA) chaired by Fayez al-Serraj as prime minister. The GNA immediately proved extremely weak in the face of Tripoli’s criminal cartels. The GNA entered office without actually resolving the complex issues of security and a state unable to maintain a monopoly of force. Instead, Libya faced an oligopoly of violence, with force distributed through various channels.

The situation in Cyrenaica was different but not better. There, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar - an old acquaintance of Gaddafi who, after the defeat of the Libyan army in Chad in the 1980s, decided to switch sides by collaborating with the Central Intelligence Agency - developed his own force, the Libyan National Army (LNA), from a patchwork of militias, to serve as the armed force of the House of Representatives.

Libyan fight between the Wagner group and Türkiye

These divisions, which have become more pronounced over time, have also sharply defined supporters of the two factions. The GNA in Tripoli, supported by UNSMIL, was theoretically supported by the international community. But while Italy has taken a consistent stance on the UN’s choices - like the US - other nations, such as France, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt have secretly backed the HoR and its wing LNA army. In April 2019, Haftar’s LNA, after a long march of thousands of kilometers across the Fezzan desert, besieged the capital Tripoli. After the first civil war in 2011 and its sequel in 2014, Libya witnessed yet another armed conflict. Internal divisions had further deepened and the two political entities were also supported by foreign nations in terms of men and resources.

Between 2,000 and 4,000 Free Syrian Army soldiers came to GNA support in Tripoli. These troops were mainly from the Sultan Murad division, joined by Chadian mercenaries from Fezzan. The poorly trained LNA forces were aided by 1,000 mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group. They were also assisted by a few hundred Syrians who fought on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and some 3,000 Sudanese. Prime Minister Serraj’s requests for help were numerous and led to a long-standing partner’s intervention: Turkey.

On November 27, 2019, a memorandum of understanding was signed in Istanbul by the two respective foreign ministers, Mohamed Siala and Mevlut Cavusoglu. This memorandum sanctioned the exclusive economic zones of the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Turkey. The signing of this agreement – albeit disavowed by the HoR in January 2021 – paved the way for economic and military cooperation between the two countries, which materialized in a second agreement. The statute sanctioned Turkey’s military intervention in Libya in support of the GNA and was ratified by the Turkish parliament on January 2, 2020.

Meanwhile, the international diplomatic process resumed in Berlin in January 2020, but it did not lead to the longed-for truce. The defeat of the LNA ultimately depended on the overwhelming firepower of the Turkish army. This was something the mercenaries of the Wagner Group could not counter. On October 23 of that year, a ceasefire was reached.

The operation requested by Haftar caused hundreds of civilian deaths in Tripolitania, almost 150,000 people fleeing Tripoli and almost one million citizens (out of a total of six million) in need of humanitarian assistance. Added to this were the continuous blockages of oil wells and the extensive damage to water and electricity infrastructures. This led to a serious economic crisis.

Another unelected government

In 2020, in Tunisia, UNSMIL brought together representatives of conflicting parties and Libyan society in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). It was thus decided that there would be a transitional cabinet, which, after taking the place of the GNA, was to carry the country to the elections of December 24, 2021.

LPDF members met in Geneva and voted for Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh as prime minister, who then formed the Government of National Unity (GNU). Libya’s presidential elections, originally scheduled for December, have been postponed indefinitely. The country faced mounting tensions when the HoR, opposing UNSMIL, declared the national unity government invalid. Votes were cast for a new prime minister, Fathi Bashagha, who had played a key role in defending the capital from Haftar’s 2019 siege.

On March 3, Bashagha appointed his national unity government. Dbeibeh did not agree to resign and Libya has taken another step backwards towards a country under two antagonistic governments. Meanwhile, in September 2022, UNSMIL was provided with an additional Special Representative, Senegalese Abdoulaye Bathily, who immediately organized elections in 2023. Yet little seems to have changed.

In light of these facts, the most significant mistake of the international community (and not only of Europe) was to count on the Libyans to quickly reach a democratic path. In the absence of functioning democratic institutions, the likelihood of an effective democratic process, seen by many only through elections, had little chance of success. As a result of this failed electoral process, the country is more divided than ever.

Brussels, now disillusioned, will continue to cooperate locally but without any long-term strategy.

Original article published on Italy 2023-06-07 07:47:04. Original title: Il fallimento europeo in Libia


# War
# Turkey
# Libya
# Syria

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