Tuesday, July 16 2019, Brussels
On Tuesday, July 16, the Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS), with the support of the International Center for Relations and Diplomacy (ICRD) organised an event putting the Libyan conflict in focus while discussing what the EU could do to facilitate an end to the conflict.
The event was Chaired by Ambassador James Moran, the EU’s former senior coordinator in Libya during the 2011 revolution and Associate Research Fellow at CEPS. The event took place in the aftermath of the ICRD fact-finding mission in Tripoli, Libya (June 7-10), which was represented on the panel by its President and founder, Sameh Habeeb.
The panel featured the Senior Political Advisor to the President of the Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord of Libya, Taher El-Sonni.
On behalf of European Institutions, the panel featured Colin Scicluna, the Director of the Maghreb Department at European External Action Service. Also, present on the panel was Benedetta Berti, the Head of NATO’s Policy Planning. Finally, among the speakers, was the French Ambassador to the Political and Security Committee, Nicolas Suran.
Context: Libya borders the southern EU periphery, and member states have both economic and security concerns in the vast African country. Economic stakes gravitate around the oil production sector, which is also the country’s primary source of income.
As regards to security concerns, there are mainly two issues under consideration: first, migration flows from Sub-Saharan Africa, via the vast territory of Libyan and the by sea to the shores of Italy; secondly, the growth of Salafi movements, including the Islamic State and Al-Qaida, who take advantage of the security vacuum in different areas of the country to establish strongholds from which they can expand their outreach.
A more detailed picture of the current context is offered in the ICRD/IPSE report of the fact-finding mission in Libya on June 7-10.
Content of the Discussion
The representative of the GNA Libyan government, Taher El-Sonni
“Any ceasefire requires the assailant to withdraw”
The representative of the GNA government, Taher El-Sonni, offered an initial assessment of the legacy of the European intervention in Libya, which despite its intentions, led to the collapse of the state as well as the regime. He recalled how in 2012 the GNA government was “parachuted” in Libya to face the surge of the Islamic State, Al-Qaida, the proliferation of human trafficking networks, and a weapons embargo that deprived the government of the means to its defence.
He reminded the audience of how the GNA government managed to defeat IS in just under eight months – prior to their defeat in Syria and Iraq – while managing to stem illegal migration and raise oil production from 150,000 to 1,5 million barrels a day. Finally, he underscored that the GNA government remained focused on uniting the country, committing to a peace process through successive conferences with the Benghazi based regime, who abandoned the talks, although the two parties had come close to an agreement on a roadmap that would lead to elections. He underscored that Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Khalifa Belqasim Haftar talked on March 26 and agreed to meet in the south of the country; instead, Haftar launched his offensive against Tripoli on April 4, while UN Secretary-General Antonio Antonio Guterres was in Tripoli.
“If someone attacks this room, we will not call for a cessation of violence; we will ask the assailant to stop.”
As regards to the military offensive itself, El-Sonni noted that the siege of Tripoli had lasted for more than 100 days, and it is clear that Haftaar’s threat to take over the capital within one or three days remains elusive. It is a stalemate, and a negotiated resolution of the conflict remains the only possible end.
El-Sonni outright dismissed the legitimating narrative of the Haftar regime – which explains the attack in terms of “radicalisation” as outright ridiculous, as the prisons of Tripoli are filled with 400 high-profile leaders of IS and Al-Qaida, while it was the GNA that drove the militant forces out of the Libyan capital. Instead, he noted, it is Haftar forces that have been shelling civilians, recruited and deployed child soldiers, and recently bombed a migration camp. The Libyan government representative also made an explicit accusation that the Haftar forces cooperate with Salafi tribal groups.
Regretfully, El-Sonni noted, EU statements condemn events but do not attribute responsibility, in sharp contrast to the statements issued by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Goutières.
As for the state of migrant camps, the GNA government representative noted that the EU looks at the 10,000 migrants who remain in Libyan camps, deploring their conditions, without assuming responsibility for them, attributing responsibility to a government at war. At the same time, little attention is paid to the 800,000 migrants in Libya who live in hand-to-mouth conditions in the streets. “Why don’t you take them?” he asked. El-Sonni also wondered how it is possible that the EU does not have the intelligence required to fight those networks who traffic in human beings in Europe.
Repeatedly, El Sonni called for ceasefire and elections, the return to constitutional order, and the transformation of a dynamic between attackers and assailants to government and opposition. As for the objections raised about the context of the elections and the ongoing war, he noted that this did not stop the international community from supporting and overseeing electoral processes in Afghanistan, Syria and, in the past, Colombia.
When there is an attack, you ask the attacker to stop. We cannot cease fire if we are defending ourselves. You should ask the attacker to stop. About the embargo: in 2011, the embargo has an opportunity cost of $1bn. We cannot manage it, and we are losing. We should have access. As for French weapons, we act on facts. We have asked to have official verification of how the weapons reached. And they were found in Haftaar’s stronghold. So, you are acknowledging of violating the weapons embargo, despite your good intentions. Finally, if you want to fight human trafficking, we should not focus just on transit
Collin Scicluna, External Action Service
“The EU could certainly be doing a lot more”
The Director of Maghreb Department of the External Action Service, Collin Scicluna, begun by admitting that EU institutions are often forced to use careful language, given the evident divergence between EU member states. He also admitted that over 60% of EU funds spent in Libya are devoted to the migration-related activity, although he recalled that 40% had been earmarked for the support of essential social services in Libya, particularly public health.
He admitted that the EU could “certainly be doing a lot more.” As regards to the offensive against Tripoli, he recalled that the EU called on the LNA regime to abandon its positions in Tripoli.
Looking ahead, he echoed the view that there is a military stalemate and, in any event, it would be hard to imagine a “popular buy-in” for a military solution. As regards to elections, he noted that although the EU in principle favours elections, the context provides little guarantee that any result would be respected. Overall, the EU remains supportive of the idea of a national conference that will lead to constitutional order that is sufficiently inclusive to ensure “a popular buy-in.” However, any way forward would require the Security Council to move, which is not the case at this moment in time.
Addressing the question of how the EU deals with actors “external to the conflict” – UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey – Scicluna said that the only response possible was to create a space for negotiations, recognising the limits of European leverage.
Scicluna also outright dismissed the question raised about the charges of complicity that the EU faces in relation to the death at sea of thousands of migrants, raised by the prosecutor of the international criminal court.
French Ambassador, Nicolas Suran
“Our foreign policy is not driven by our enterprises,”
Ambassador Nicolas Suran argued that France, both as an EU member state and as a sovereign actor, seeks to fulfil two objectives: first, to deescalate conflict; secondly, to bring back the parties to the negotiating table, supporting the role of the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General to Libya, Ghassan Salame.
He reasoned that the French position in Libya is very much driven by concerns about the surge of terrorism, noting that France feared a spill-over to the Sahel region. He called on the audience to recognise that the Haftar regime did make some progress in that direction. He praised the Sofia operation for stemming migrants and noted that the EU has done its utmost to build the capacity of Libya’s coastguard, as the government retains control of its own territorial waters.
Addressing the question of conflicting oil interests between Italy and France in Libya, linked to support for the Haftar regime, Ambassador Suran categorically denied that French companies drive French foreign policy. “Our foreign policy is not driven by our enterprises,” he said, reiterating that France believes that Haftar has managed to address security concerns in Libya.
Addressing the question about a cache of French weapons found in one of the LNA camps, revealed by the New York Times, the French Ambassador reiterated the position that the arsenal was brought to Libya to protect French intelligence operating in the South of Libya. At which point, the Libyan GNA government representative, El-Sonni, noted that this admission proves that at the very least the French government violated the armaments embargo, “even if the French government acted with the best of intentions.” In any event, El-Sonni noted, the GNA government never questioned the significance of fighting terrorism in the South, although there are concerns that this is used as a legitimating discourse by LNA forces. “Investment in Haftar’s anti-terrorism capacity has drawn him away from the political process,” El Sonni noted.
NATO Head of Policy Planning, Benedetta Berti
Step 1 Ceasefire, Step 2 Stabilisation, Step 3 Negotiated agreement followed by state-building
Looking ahead to support the political solution, Benedetta Berti outlined a three-step roadmap paving the way towards conflict resolution in Libya.
- Steep 1: all parties, local and international, should come to a consensus that there is no military solution. We need a ceasefire and the resumption of negotiations.
- Step 2: The situation is unstable with consequences in Maghreb and Sahel; the security vacuum is hugely significant; the two parties need to come to an understanding for a transition to stability, ending a “prolonged and protracted crisis” that will regenerate the vicious circle of non-state actors stepping in to fill the security vacuum.
- Step 3: The lesson we should take for other instances (Yemen/Syria) is that the only solution is a negotiated solution.
However, Berti cautioned, stabilisation can only be the beginning, and the EU and other international actors needed to follow through with institution-building. She noted that NATO is available in the process to contribute to the building of effective and resilient security institutions.
ICRD President, Sameh Habeeb
“The Haftar regimes counts on the support of UAE and Saudi Arabia, as do most undemocratic regimes across the Middle East and Africa, from Yemen to Sudan.”
Sameh Habeeb reviewed the experience of the ICRD fact-finding mission in Libya, referring to the consultation with all political stakeholders, including civic organisations, political parties, the Prime Minister, and the UN General Secretary special envoy.
He noted that the impression of the delegation was that they were landing in a war-torn region, realising that the life in Tripoli was not as reflected in European media. Noting what the mission felt was an effective disinformation campaign, he emphasised that stakeholders on the ground were keen to condemn the role of France, while civic groups did not want to validate General Haftar as a legitimate discussant, referring to him as “a warlord.”
Habeeb also noted that the Libyan conflict is in effect a “war by proxy” with regional and European governments putting their weight behind General Haftar’s forces. This is a policy that is consistent with their support of oppressive regimes throughout the region, from Yemen to Sudan.