General Khalifa Haftar’s push to seize Tripoli by force brings Libya to the brink of war again. The EU needs to get its act together and use its undeniable leverage in the country to prevent a full-blown war and set the bases for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Since the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011, Libya has experienced much tumult and rancour. Plagued by deep internal divisions and a bloody power struggle between the internationally backed Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli and General Khalifa Haftar, the leader of eastern Libya’s militias who enjoys the support of the House of Representative (HoR) based in Tobruk, the country now is on the precipice of a new crescendo of violence. Haftar’s decision to move with his Libyan National Army westwards and to proceed with an offensive against the country’s capital Tripoli, where the Government of National Accord is based, set several pieces in motion in the country’s chronically unstable status quo, making a further escalation of the conflict more likely.

In what amounts to a clear effort to use force to pressure international actors to accept his power ascendance as a fait accompli, Haftar’s move has forced the postponement of a UN-organised national conference in Ghadames (on the border with Algeria) scheduled for 14-16 April, that was meant to design a road-map towards national and presidential elections.
Since the announcement of the offensive coincided with the presence of U.N. Secretary General António Guterres in Tripoli, Haftar also showed his complete disregard for the U.N. efforts on the ground towards a diplomatic solution of the Libyan conundrum.

Enjoying the (in)direct backing of countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia and France, General Haftar believed this was the right moment to make his decisive move towards claiming single rule over the country. Evidently, time will tell whether his decision was premature or not, since his move has managed to unify many diverse (armed) groups against him, with the critical city of Misrata also expected to lend its support in defence of the Libyan capital. Haftar, who might have expected that a smaller, swifter, more surgical intervention would have initially caught his rivals off-guard, creating new realities on the ground, now faces the real dilemma of going all-in or going bust.

These cascading dynamics mean that Haftar’s aggressive ascendance risks forcing Libya to descend deeper not just into a vicious spiral of violence, but a sweeping civil war. Thousands of residents have already moved and the newspapers’ daily reporting of the number of casualties has already started. After his trip to Libya at the beginning of April, António Guterres briefed the U.N. Security Council giving a stark warning that “we have a very dangerous situation and it is clear that we absolutely need to stop it.”

Europe’s response to these dramatic developments has been nothing short of ordinary: division. Despite continuous efforts to form a united front (not least by the Union’s High Representative), European Member State fissures in this tremendously critical dossier were in full view last week, with France initially blocking an EU statement calling on Haftar to halt his offensive. A statement was finally agreed a day later but only after some deft language manoeuvring, with the text “no longer mention[ing] Haftar directly by name and shift[ing} away from blaming his offensive exclusively for the escalation”.

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Italy’s and France’s quarrels and Libya’s stability

Considering its many security and energy-related interests in the country, Europe’s immediate priority vis-à-vis Libya should be reaching a ceasefire in the short-term and the long-term stabilisation of the country. However, while there seems to exist agreement on the need of a non-military solution and the primary role of the United Nations, EU member states do not necessarily share the same view on which factions to support in Libya.

Italy and France, in particular, offer the most illustrative example of these divisions, since they have diverging interests in the country. Both Rome and Paris consider Libya as part of their sphere of influence, an approach that descends from their colonial past and from Libya’s geographical vicinity to Europe’s southern shores. Both consider essential the stabilisation of Libya, as they do not want it to turn into a haven for terrorism. Yet, they support different factions. Italy, whose economic and security interests (linked to the supply of gas and stemming migrant flows) lies mostly in Western Libya, supports the GNA and Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. The approach of the French government has been more ambiguous, officially supporting the Government of National Accord, but at the same time backing Haftar, or at least recognising him as a major player in the process of national
reconciliation.

The EU should get its act together and use its undeniable collective leverage in Libya to avert a full-blown war and shape the dynamics for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

These diverging interests coincide with a time of general friction between Paris and Rome, ranging from the quarrel about the gilets jaunes, the disagreement about the CFA franc, and the still unsolved issue of the Turin-Lyon high speed railway, to the forced return to Italy of migrants who crossed the border with France in Ventimiglia and their very different ideas about the overall management of migration. This combination of long-term interest divergence and current political discord will likely make the identification of common ground in the search for a peaceful solution in Libya even more difficult.

Europe’s responsibility

The situation within the country, however, is much more complicated than an oversimplified division into two distinct camps in Tripoli and Tobruk, due to the presence of several militias, parties, municipalities, etc. The involvement of other, external actors, including Egypt, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Russia, who are clearly trying to exploit the situation for their individual goals is exacerbating the situation.

Against this backdrop and regardless of the different national agendas and interests at play,EU Member States should think twice before letting their divisions water down a strong, unified response. As it has been proven time and time again, internal competition decreases effectiveness and leaves little room for economic and diplomatic pressure. The EU should get its act together and use its undeniable collective leverage in Libya to avert a full-blown war and shape the dynamics for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Not doing so is not just self-defeating, it is profoundly dangerous. Although admittedly two very different cases, but the mistakes of Syria are too traumatic to be repeated again. The time window is short, but in this modern battle of Tripoli, Europe’s responsibility weighs as heavily as ever.