Tuesday

26th May 2020

Analysis

No Libya truce in Moscow: time for EU step in

  • Russia's president Vladimir Putin and Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed on a truce in Libya (Photo: Kremlin)

On Monday (13 January) Russia came up with a diplomatic surprise on Libya.

Both leaders of the two warring sides in Libya, field marshal Khalifa Haftar and UN-backed prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj, came to Moscow in order to negotiate a truce.

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With this coup de théâtre Russia was putting itself (again) on the map as a peace-broker. This not only increases its global status, but may also put Russia at the front of the queue for future contracts in Libya.

However, the negotiations did not start well. Sarraj and Haftar refused to sit around the same table. It was Turkey and Russia who were negotiating a truce, representing the respective parties.

After midnight it became clear that Haftar was not willing to sign the truce. He left the negotiators empty handed and took his plane back to Libya.

This is a blow for Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but even more for a possible peace in Libya.

Germany had earlier announced that it will host a peace conference on 19 January, where both the fighting parties and international supporters would discuss a more lasting solution.

This announcement was preceded by a ceasefire that was agreed between Erdogan and Putin at the end of last week.

At first, a deal was refused by Haftar, but on Saturday (11 January) he changed his mind and declared that he would respect a truce from midnight on if the other actors would respect it too.

For a moment, it looked like the end of a nine-month old war and a six-year old conflict, a result that no European country has achieved so far.

Only last week Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte had invited Haftar and Sarraj to Rome, but when Sarraj heard Haftar would be there too, he refused to come. In the end Sarraj went to Rome, but Haftar did not.

Conte was heavily criticised by the Italian opposition for this diplomatic failure. It is clear that Italy, the former decision-maker in Libya, has lost its clout.

The reason is that Italy and France have been fighting about Libya since the Nato intervention in 2011 that brought an end to the Gaddafi regime.

When Libya was split into two or even three camps, both Rome and Paris supported different camps - sometimes even militarily - and made separate agreements on migration.

When, in May 2018 French president Emmanuel Macron succeeded in bringing Sarraj and Haftar to Paris and in making an agreement for the organisation of elections, Italy was furious.

This way France and Italy made it impossible for the European Union to act and react in a united way on the conflict closest to its borders - and the main gateway of migration to the European continent.

Turkey and Russia filled gap

After years of European division, lack of common policy and thus common action, Russia and Turkey decided to fill the gap and step in.

Unlike Russia, Turkey was already involved in Libya over several years. It supported the Muslim Brotherhood, residing in Tripoli, against the House of Representatives that moved to the eastern city of Benghazi.

The Muslim Brotherhood could not accept it's electoral loss in 2013 and left the House of Representatives. While the Brotherhood stayed in Tripoli, the House moved to Benghazi.

The United Nations formed an umbrella government, lead by prime minister Sarraj, in order to bring both warring parties together, but without result on the ground.

One of the reasons this effort failed, was the involvement of international actors.

Turkey's support, as well as help from Qatar, for the Muslim Brotherhood is ideological.

Russia's involvement is more recent. According to the UN-backed government of Sarraj, there are at least 500 Russian mercenaries in Libya.

Putin has said that if that was the case, these mercenaries have nothing to do with the Russian government (but he said that too about those Russians fighting in Ukraine in the past).

It is Putin's deep conviction that revolutions are Western-made - or at least Western-backed - and thus all counter-revolutionary forces must be supported.

That is the reason why Putin supports Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt.

His support for Haftar in Libya follows the same line, but might be more tactical.

Russia is following the same strategy as it does in Syria. It supports one side in order to have a seat at the table when talks are held.

With the Astana peace talks on Syria, Russia even bypassed the United Nations, the United States and Europe and succeeded, together with Turkey and Iran, in several ceasefires in the northern part of Syria.

In reality these truces never lasted for a long time, but unlike the West he at least managed to negotiate something.

The Libyan case is similar. Together with Turkey, Russia managed to do what no European state was able to do in the past year: get both parties to negotiate a truce.

Indeed, the European countries only found a consensus by condemning Turkey for sending troops to Libya last week in order to defend Tripoli.

And, true, Charles Michel, the EU Council president, met with president Sisi in Cairo on Monday.

If the Moscow talks had been a success, it would have showed Europe's weakness, but now there is again an opportunity for the EU. At least, if they put aside their deep divisions and learn from what went wrong.

Opinion

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Italy, with its particular relations with Tripoli and Misrata, and UAE, with its significant influence in Egypt and Libya, can truly play a pivotal role in halting the Haftar offensive.

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The Libya case might finally give the EU some strategic clarity. This sounds like a small thing, but EU foreign policy is in such bad shape that it would be a big leap forward.

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