Creating new perspectives since 2009

Can the EU ever have boots on the ground in Libya?

January 7, 2021 at 10:00 am

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres pose for a photo within the Berlin Conference on Libyan peace in Berlin, Germany on January 19, 2020 [Murat Kula /Anadolu Agency]

The United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres, in a letter to member states dated 31 December, asked regional blocs to nominate observers to monitor Libya’s shaky ceasefire and arms embargo. The two Libyan warring sides signed a ceasefire in Geneva on 23 October, but the agreement is under pressure and might collapse as the political deadlock continues. A 2011 UN-imposed arms embargo is being regularly breached by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), supporting the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar. Turkey, on the other hand, is violating the embargo by supplying arms and fighters to the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.

Guterres wants regional blocs like the African Union, the Arab League and the European Union (EU) to nominate civilians and retired military officers to monitor the ceasefire and ensure it is holding, before it collapses altogether. Such a mission would also include mechanisms to reinforce the arms embargo. Foreign supplies of arms and fighters are fuelling further fighting in Libya.

Libya has been enduring repeated vicious cycles of large and small wars, ever since NATO’s intervention that toppled the former government of the late Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011, plunging the country into perpetual fighting.

It is unclear what kind of response Guterres will get and who will provide the personnel for such a mission – if approved by the UN Security Council being another matter. Interestingly, the UN chief’s letter noted that both the GNA and LNA reject the idea of having foreign uniformed troops on the ground in Libya. If this is not enough of a hurdle, then the regional lack of action is likely to be a harder one to overcome.

READ: Is Libya heading in the wrong direction, with potential for another war? 

The African Union, for example, has been sidelined in the Libyan crisis from the very beginning. In April 2011, just one month into the civil war, former South African President Jacob Zuma visited Tripoli on an African Union mission, with an initiative to end the conflict. Libya’s late leader Gaddafi accepted it, but Western countries refused to support it. Ever since, African leaders have remained in the margins while blaming the West for the Libyan crisis.

The Arab League, on the other hand, in 2011 agreed to the West’s demands of launching airstrikes against the Gaddafi government to help the rebels. Unable to do much in helping to stabilise the country, the Arab League stood by watching while Libya, a member state, was being destroyed and ended up on the verge of partition.

Guterres appears to be biting on the last regional bloc, the EU, which is seen as a major stakeholder in Libya. But can it deliver?

The EU, collectively, deploying forces in Libya to maintain the ceasefire is a farfetched idea lacking practicality and consensus across the EU, despite the threats that unstable Libya represents.

Libya: Never-ending chaos - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Libya: Never-ending chaos – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

France, for example, who was first to rush to military action in 2011, is accused of supporting the LNA, particularly. The LNA’s 2019 military offensive to take Tripoli failed despite French support. Italy, on the contrary, a one-hour flight from Tripoli, and the main destination for illegal migrants coming from Libya, has sided with the GNA. Both Rome and Paris have been competing in Libya, rather than cooperating, viewing their own national interests, not the EU’s.

In early October, the EU’s diplomatic service organ, known as the European External Service Action (EESA), did discuss different scenarios for monitoring in Libya, should there be a permanent ceasefire to monitor. Among the ideas debated, is sending troops to act as a buffer between the LNA and GNA, but the idea was later dropped given its high physical and political risks.

Even if EESA manages to get the EU wide agreement to any kind of military mission in Libya, it is unlikely for such a scenario to become actionable and every option carries its own risks.

The EU refuses to admit to itself two strategic mistakes it made in handling Libya from the outset. Firstly, the EU rushed to support France’s military action against the Gaddafi government in March 2011, thus becoming party to the conflict. Secondly, the EU helped create the GNA as a transitional unity government and imposed it on Libya, hoping it would lead the country into elections. The GNA turned out to be not only weak, but riddled with corruption and dominated by armed groups.

Furthermore, when the LNA started its offensive against the GNA on 4 April, 2019, the EU did absolutely nothing to rein in Haftar. Instead, Paris and Rome rolled out the red carpet for him on different occasions, further alienating the GNA.

READ: Is Cairo trying to counter Ankara by warming up to Tripoli? 

Turkey, desperate to bolster its regional influence, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean, ceased the initiative by signing a security memorandum with the GNA providing it with Syrian mercenaries and a steady supply of weapons and expertise. The November 2019 deals, coupled with Russia’s increased assistance to the LNA, switched the initiative from Brussels to Ankara and Moscow, who have the upper hand in Libya. Without their agreement, any EU monitoring mission will fail. Ankara, in particular, will reject any EU boots on Libyan soil, even as individual monitors.

Finally, any EESA plan carries its own risks. Any EU boots on the ground in Libya will become a rallying cry for terror groups to fight the “infidel”. Libyans, generally, are sensitive to foreign intervention, even for peacekeeping. Also, any EU military presence will further empower the idea of dividing Libya.

What would be wiser, is for the EU to use other tools to facilitate inter-Libyan dialogue by supporting the UN mediations in the country. The EU should also be more active in monitoring the arms embargo through revitalising operation IRINI. The EU military operation, launched last March to monitor the arms embargo, should be renewed as it is due to expire next March. It should also be widened to include Libya’s air space and land borders, as the LNA is getting its supplies mostly by air and over land. The EU should push for more penalties from the UN Security Council to punish violators.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.