Europe’s Strategy Strained as Libya Veers Toward Civil War

Libyan troops demonstrate in favor of foreign support for the army of the internationally recognized government in Tobruk. Benghazi, Libya, August 14, 2015. (Abdullah Doma/Doma/AFP/Getty Images)

Without a lasting deal on a national unity government, militias rallying around the rival factions vying for control of Libya could eventually spark a civil war. The Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) and Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) continue to reject a United Nations-brokered, European Union-backed proposal. Any subsequent conflict could have far-reaching regional repercussions, including for EU leaders who have struggled to respond to the crisis on their doorstep.

Today, Libya is more open to the kind of violence witnessed in mid-October during a protest in Benghazi, especially given the increasing number of weapons and munitions available in the country. There is also a danger that Libya’s conflict could spill over into neighboring countries, as also happened in October when an armed group kidnapped dozens of Tunisians. Yet the real danger is that not even the HoR or GNC will command the loyalty of local armed groups, creating a recipe for a highly protracted conflict conducted by shifting alliances.

Libya’s fate has not been helped by news of the former UN special envoy to the country, Bernardino Leon—previously the EU’s representative to the crisis—being appointed to an official position in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). With the UAE openly backing the HoR, the GNC may feel betrayed and use this development for its own ends. Getting the parties back around the negotiating table will not be easy.

Both the UN and the EU see a unity government as the only plausible way to get Libya back on its feet. The country faces huge economic challenges and a number of its core public services are in poor shape. The EU is so determined to reach a deal that it has threatened to impose sanctions on key negotiators from both sides of the conflict, if an agreement is not reached. Brussels has also offered incentives in the form of close to €200 million in development and humanitarian assistance since 2011, and talk of a re-launched economic association agreement with Libya.

Brussels has a particularly strong interest in stabilizing the country. Libya is a nearby oil-rich state that is key to ensuring North Africa’s overall stability, and the EU is facing huge challenges in relation to migration and the threat of terrorism emanating from within its borders. While the majority of migratory flows into Europe this year have come from Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea, thousands of people are still making the treacherous journey from Libya to Italy across the Mediterranean.

The migration crisis is unlikely to end anytime soon, given that people traffickers are lowering their prices, and, with winter setting in, transit conditions could become even more deadly. Furthermore, the GNC—much like former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi before it—has now threatened to send more migrants to Europe’s shores if not given official recognition there.

On top of this is the continued threat from so-called Islamic State (ISIS) militants and their allies in Libya, which is a concern for the EU as well as Libya’s neighbors. According to the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, ISIS is killing almost as many people in Libya than all other extremist groups combined. Given the country’s porous borders, Libya is a convenient base for ISIS to launch its regional operations, which particularly worries Egypt.

The fact that no political agreement can currently be found means that the temptation to use other, non-diplomatic tools cannot be ruled out. One suggestion among parties concerned has been the deployment of a Joint Arab Force into the country, though this remains unlikely for the time being. In its absence, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently called for NATO engagement.

While it is ostensibly recognition that military power is needed to keep ISIS at bay, the Egyptian proposal was perhaps also a criticism of Britain and France’s stabilization strategy following the NATO intervention in Libya of 2011. After Qaddafi’s ouster, and despite efforts to deploy an EU mission for humanitarian assistance in 2011, Europe established a largely ineffective civilian border assistance mission. This suffered from having to operate from Brussels and Tunisia for most of its mandate.

While any NATO engagement in Libya is also unlikely at this stage, the EU has already been developing a military response to the Libyan refugee crisis in recent months. Known as Operation Sophia, it will attempt to break up the people trafficking networks responsible for launching boats to Europe, aiming to prevent further loss of life in the Mediterranean. The naval operation has been in intelligence-gathering mode for the past few months, but is now ready to begin full deployment.

Operation Sophia is nonetheless very limited in its scope. It will do very little to address the root causes of the migration crisis or other Libyan concerns. It will not bring the two rival political factions together, and will not seek to defeat ISIS in the country—though the EU finding out that ISIS is working with trafficker groups would likely influence future strategy.

Indeed, Operation Sophia may have been launched with purely political calculations, to mask the EU’s very serious divisions over its migration policy and past inaction on Libya in general. There are usually huge debates over the use of force as a foreign policy tool within Europe. So, while the continent’s leaders have decided something must be done to break up smuggler networks, the new operation may ultimately lack the commitment to have a definitive long-term impact.

Any subsequent serious, large-scale use of force in Libya would signal that any hopes for a political settlement to the country’s larger crisis have truly been dashed. While Brussels, the UN, and others are likely to exhaust all other options first, the situation in Syria nonetheless shows that security vacuums are likely to be filled with violence and the pursuit of conflicting interests from neighboring and international parties. While strategists focused on Libya know that the use of force will likely only complicate matters in the short-term, if no political settlement is achieved—and a full-blown civil war erupts—the temptation for intervention may grow stronger.

Daniel Fiott is a Doctoral Researcher at the Institute for European Studies, Free University of Brussels.