As Powers Jostle for Influence in Libya, Europe Finally Pays Attention
BRUSSELS — 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 neighbors, Europe has suddenly woken to the implications of a new Great Game, this time in North Africa, that is rapidly destabilizing 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.
It 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 neighborhood,” she added.
The Libyan mess began with the 2011 overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi after intervention by European forces, with American 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 2015-16, “the E.U. 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.
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, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, France and now Russia support Khalifa Hifter, 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 United Nations-sponsored political deal, the government is led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
The divisions between France and Italy have already split the European Union and weakened its positioning on Libya.
The new European Union foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, has also brought new thinking and “a renewed energy and willingness to look at Libya as a crisis and a war in and of itself,” said Ms. Gazzini of the International Crisis Group.
In the last month, Mr. Borrell has repeatedly emphasized the dangers of Turkish military involvement in Libya and has criticized Europe’s preference for citing international law as a response to every conflict.
“We Europeans, since we don’t want to participate in a military solution, we barricade ourselves in the belief there is no military solution,’’ he told the European Parliament this week. “Nobody will be very happy if, on the Libyan coast, there is a ring of military bases from the Russian and Turkish navies in front of the Italian coast.”
He added in a Twitter message: “But this is something that could very much happen. We need to engage strongly, keep Libya united and find a peaceful solution to this conflict.”
That will not be so easily done.
Just last week, Russia and Turkey brought both Mr. Hifter and Mr. 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 Mr. Hifter, 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 on Sunday in Berlin, and that his signature, sincere or not, will be a kind of gesture from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Dario Cristiani, a Libya expert with the Italian Institute for International Affairs and the German Marshall Fund, says he is deeply skeptical, raising the specter of another failed meeting.
“I don’t think Hifter is ready,” he said. “He still has the aim of entering Tripoli and having a full victory,’’ which is the less-than-quiet hope of his backers.
The Trump administration, which had supported the Sarraj government and the United Nations process, reversed course last April, after a meeting with Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, according to the International Crisis Group.
But Washington is not very involved, and has just announced that it will sharply reduce the United States military presence in West Africa, intended to fight terrorism alongside the French, so the American 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 United Nations.
But as with the European Union, there would appear to be little force behind those goals, and the messaging has stopped short of expressing support for the government of Mr. 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 the 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 Mr. Hifter and Mr. Sarraj.
But with the trend of the fighting moving Mr. Hifter’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.”
For other Mediterranean neighbors, Greece and Cyprus, who stand to gain if gas exploration yields commercially viable finds, Libya is crucial.
But the potential economic boon is intensifying conflicts over national waters, especially as Turkey becomes more assertive.
The Turkish accord with the Sarraj government sets out an “exclusive economic zone,” which includes chunks of territorial waters that Greece considers its own.
The European Union has already sanctioned Turkey for drilling in Cyprus’s waters, and Athens has warned that it will respond if Turkey starts issuing drilling licenses in what it sees as Greek territory.
Despite the cacophony, the meeting in Berlin, if modestly successful, could begin turning the tide for European involvement in Libya, and ultimately for Libya itself, Mr. Megerisi said.
“It’s not that Europe is incapable, it seems that it’s unwilling,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be that way. They do have tools at their disposal. They do have some cards to play.”
Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting from Athens, and Jason Horowitz and Emma Bubola from Rome.
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