While the leader of the UN-backed government, Fayez al Sarraj, has failed to rally support from the EU states, Europe’s divided stance on Khalifa Haftar's military operation hinders any attempt to stop the ongoing war in Libya.
Last week, the head of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al Sarraj, had talks in Brussels with Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, and the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, to discuss the conflict in Libya.
Although the Presidential Council head was trying to rally the EU to his side, both Mogherini and Tusk told him that all parties had to implement an immediate ceasefire and re-commit to negotiations, in accordance with the plan put forward by the UN envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame.
To the frustration of the Libyanprime minister, the EU foreign ministers did not make a statement calling on the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar, to withdraw to positions occupied before the eastern commander launched a military campaign on the Libyan capital on April 4. Such an omission has been taken by Haftar’s supporters as a diplomatic victory for the LNA.
The EU ministers’ statement “failed to call on Haftar to return his forces to their point of origin and equated Haftar with Sarraj, which Sarraj had requested the international community not do”, Sami Zaptia, owner of the English-language newspaper Libya Herald, told VOA News.
The ministers also did not grant the unequivocal condemnation of Haftar’s assault on Tripoli that Sarraj has been looking for.
The EU gave the very same response to the Libyan PM two weeks ago when he was touring European capitals seeking to restore backing in the face of an offensive that crashed the UN-mediated peace talks.
French President Emmanuel Macron voiced the strongest line, encouraging an unconditional ceasefire which equated to accepting the military advances made by Haftar since starting his attack on Tripoli.
“The internationally-recognised government wanted to reassert legitimacy, and it also wanted to push for a conditional ceasefire based on return of Haftar’s forces to prior positions. That clearly didn’t work out,” commented Emad Badi, a researcher and political analyst who specialises in Libya.
The outcome of the visits to Rome, Berlin, Paris and London made Sarraj appear weakened while the EU has remained inactive and deeply divided on the Libyan file.
“Sarraj’s trip to Europe is ill-thought: GNA’s political capital is at its lowest since inception while EU is fraught with divisions regarding how to handle the war around Tripoli”, the Libya analyst wrote in a tweet on May 7.
In contrast, Otman Gajiji, an elections and local governance specialist based in Tripoli, opined that the European diplomatic trip by the Libyan Premier was “useful” since the EU was united in calling for a ceasefire and endorsing a political solution to the Libyan crisis.
He however acknowledged that the GNA’s performance in reaction to the launch of the LNA operation in Tripoli was ineffective.
“The GNA wasn’t prepared to the assault, its response was very slow. I wish they had stepped in long time ago”, stated Gajiji, who is also the former chairman of the Libyan High National Election Commission (HNEC) and of the Central Commission of Municipal Council Elections (CCMCE).
The leader of the Tripoli government, nonetheless, secured recognition during his round of visits and is considered to date the Libyan ‘interlocutor’ backed by the United Nations and European Union.
Sarraj's tour followed a phone call between US President Donald Trump and Haftar last month, in which he praised the renegade general for fighting “terrorism” in an apparent reversal of US support for the Tripoli government.
Earlier in April, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had demanded “the immediate halt” of Haftar’s military offensive, and the “return to the status quo ante positions”.
The GNA has rejected any ceasefire unless Haftar pulls his troops from the outskirts of Tripoli.
Alice Alunni, a PhD researcher at Durham University with a focus on Libya, believes that Sarraj went to Europe to suss out political support from the EU powers in light of Trump’s call to Haftar.
Support that has been gradually “dwindling”, in her view, as the GNA has proved much weaker, repeatedly failing to impose its authority over militias in Tripoli since it came into being in 2016. This became particularly noticeable in September 2018, amid fighting between rival armed groups in and around Tripoli when the GNA looked incapable of controlling the capital.
“It’s clear by now that Sarraj has no actual control over militias nor he’s able to interact with them”, the Libya researcher observed. “He won’t be in a strong position to get the militias to accept an unconditional ceasefire which they perceive as a move that would consolidate Haftar’s status.”
“I envisage the GNA is slowly making its exit from the scene”, she anticipated.
The tour in Europe, initiated by the GNA’s prime minister came at a time of military stalemate as the LNA made initial gains, although pro-government forces - backed by powerful militias - launched a counteroffensive on April 20, and have since held back Haftar’s troops from the city centre, with fighting continuing on the outskirts of Tripoli, especially in the southern suburbs.
Earlier in January Haftar, who already controls large areas of the country’s east, conducted a successful operation in the south where he made territorial gains by cutting deals with local militia groups and striking tribal alliances. His big miscalculation was to count on a quick fall of Tripoli militias to let his self-styled army smoothly march on the capital.
Instead, the Libyan strongman was confronted with much resistance from well-armed militias keen on not losing their territory and protecting the country’s key economic institutions, the Central Bank and the National Oil Corporation (NOC), based in Tripoli.
“Haftar’s strategy for this battle was based on relying on making deals with people in the west of Libya. This didn’t happen, it was clear from the early days”, Gajiji noted.
Haftar is not in control of an ‘army’ in a traditional sense. The LNA is a shaky alliance made up of former officers from the Libyan army, militiamen, fighters from allied tribes and Salafists.
Although his forces managed to enter four main cities bordering the capital (Sabratha, Surman, Garyan, and Tarhunah) and penetrated the southern suburbs of Tripoli, they have failed to breach the defence line around the city.
GNA-aligned forces, for their part, have not significantly advanced either, although they are repelling Hafter’s troops in the fighting.
Backed by a loose array of battle-hardened militias from the capital and nearby town of Misrata, the GNA has found many international backers that help it continue its military campaign.
On the other hand, the lack of a unified stand from Europe on Haftar’s Tripoli campaign poses one further obstacle to a peaceful settlement of the conflict. In particular, France and Italy - the big foreign players in Libya - are in many respects on the opposite sides of the Libyan power struggle.
On one side, the Italians - alongside the British and others - have been more sympathetic towards the Sarraj government, on the other, the French are officially backing the GNA but they also support Haftar in his fight in western Libya, while refraining from explicitly condemning him.
The general and his LNA enjoy the backing of the UAE, Egypt, Russia and Saudi Arabia, with France reportedly supplying arms, ammunition, aircraft and drones. They all view Haftar as a bulwark against the rise of terrorism and Islamism and the one who can bring back stability in Libya. The French also consider the eastern commander helpful in curbing the flow of migrants to Europe and protecting their oil assets.
In her article published for Aspen on May 6, Alunni argued that the “inconsistent, un-coordinated and competing European policies and interests” in Libya are to blame for the current events in the oil-rich country.
“They [European states] find themselves scrambling to protect their geopolitical interests in Libya, as in many other countries in the region. The effect has been to undermine any political process in Libya in a way that is detrimental to the achievement of a peaceful resolution to the conflict,” she wrote.
The EU governments, instead of expressing one voice in the face of the ongoing hostilities in Tripoli, are leaving Libya to fall further into the hands of the Gulf theocracies.
While European powers are unable to unite to define a common approach on how to address the Libyan crisis, they are subservient to Arab Gulf powers which use Libya as a battleground for their own conflicts. Qatar backs the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned militias in Libya, known as the ‘Islamists’, whilst Haftar’s army is heavily backed by Saudi Arabia, as well as the UAE, and has many Salafist leaders in its ranks.
Amid repeated calls for a ceasefire, there have been increasing local reports of rival regional powers stepping up their arms supplies to the conflicting parties.
Mohamed Eljarh, an analyst at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, tweeted last week that several Gulf countries are "stepping up their efforts in Libya to support their respective partners/proxies."
The flow of arms into Libya contravenes a UN embargo imposed in February 2011 on Libya. The embargo has been regularly violated by different groups, according to United Nations.
After Sarraj, it is Haftar’s turn to tour around Europe as he plans to meet Macron following surprise talks with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Thursday.
As of May 19, 510 people have died, 2,467 people have been wounded and around 60,000 people have been displaced by the battle for Tripoli, according to the World Health Organisation.