Deadlock in Libya: a shifting regional balance?

In recent months, we have seen Russia being solicited by renegade general Haftar in order to receive military support for his Operation “Dignity”. In exchange for support, he allegedly promised a military base in eastern Libya. However, the overall Russian position seems to work also in conjunction with the GNA in order to avoid a déjà vu like in Syria. The EU, acknowledging the Russian disposition, is including the counterpart in its talks over the Libyan crisis. This underlines the increased awareness that the common strategy in Libya must come to terms with the Russian speedy resolution in favour of Haftar, in the wake of the general concern over developments in the International Arena, connected directly or by proxy to the increased Russian interventionism.

In fact, the recent developments in Libya’s Cyrenaica have suggested the progressive resurgence of an historic Russian expansionism, which might jeopardise the strategy of the International Community through the UN-brokered deal and support, and the very existence of Fayez al Sarraj’s tenure of office. Field Marshal Haftar’s refusal to cooperate with the GNA (Government of National Accord) and his Operation “Dignity” make him no less a complex figure to frame in the overall quest for politico-economic stability.

Our discourse will be theoretically analyzed through Huntington’s “Clash of civilizations”, Fukuyama’s “End of History” and the three level game in order to assess the International Community’s response.

The Russian and the European response: the End of History and  Clash of Civilizations

In the present situation, which is the chaotic scenario in the MED, we are witnessing a curious phenomenon represented by a more prominent Russian geopolitical renaissance in the Mediterranean chessboard after many years of less showy interventionism in the region during the Soviet era (1917-1991).  This prompts us to polish off the “End of History” theory by Fukuyama, which roughly posits the triumph of Liberalism as politico-economic alternative compared to a purely neo-Marxist one (Fukuyama, “The end of History”, The National Interest, 1989). This could be indirectly connected with Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” involving the West and, if we want to generalize it, the Orient is seen as all non-Western things. The bridging gap between the two seemingly antithetic theories (Johan Eriksson, “The clash of Civilizations” and its unexpected liberalism”,  Mar 6 2013) is, in our opinion, how both authors end up proposing a sort of similar alternative (Huntington S., “The Clash of Civilizations and the remaking of the world Order”, 1996, Chapter VIII, pp 185-186, 191, 193-196, 198-206), albeit directly and more optimistically the former (Fukuyama), and more indirectly and pessimistically the latter (Huntington).

Our discourse point to the need for a unified Libyan state and the strategy of bringing the Sarraj’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord to cooperate with Operation Dignity’s Haftar, in order to enhance politico-economic stability. However, it seems to us that the almost unilateral Russian effort to back Haftar could potentially endanger the long and uncertain stabilization process. Therefore, theoretically speaking, we see delineating a Clash between the EU and Russia, specifically the first one relies mostly on liberal tools, while the second does not respond to such category when it comes to dealing with regional crises and relies primarily on arm sale, in defiance of the current embargo, and a lack of strong institutional support, such as the one put forward by the EU itself, UN and NATO.

However, a close examination of the International Community’s response minus Russia sees the EU and UN never pushing for strictly liberal alternative (Huntington, 1996, Chapter IV, p 92, p 94, Chapter VIII, p 198 ) in that the Libyan choice of form of Government, basically a hybrid Islamism vs a strictly democratic one, is entirely left to the Libyans themselves. In this sense, the institutions’ support cannot be squarely translated into Fukuyama’s theoretical model. The International Community’s concern is, on the contrary, in terms of capacity to govern, help to the streamline of the migratory influx and preservation of sensitive business ties.

The GNA seems very vulnerable to the various tribes and militias raging in the territory, while Haftar’s military expertise and achievements in Cyrenaica would make him the natural ally in the field, in order to eradicate terrorism and criminality which seriously hamper the post-2011 recovery process.

We cannot share Fukuyama’s outward optimism in terms of win of Liberalism as the only solution and in this case the most viable one, nor Huntington’s  recurrent pessimism (Huntington S., 1996, Chapter IX, pp 266-272, 291-298) towards the same. On the contrary, we start from appraising the historical difficulties revolving around every post-recovery transition and conclude that these are not a motive for pulling out but incentives to push for more institutionally-driven support in order to progressively solve the Libyan crisis. Moreover, the theories above mentioned are to be employed as a starting point and tweaked through Realpolitik evaluations in order to present a more coherent picture.

At the present moment, Russia seems not really amenable to cooperation with the International Community through the support for the UN, EU, and NATO, in order to respectively tackle the Libyan crisis and its regional repercussions.  This is, clearly enough, originated by its desire to assert itself as the ultimate arbiter of the whole process and therefore more or less indirectly representing a significant obstacle for the other external actors involved and, in our evaluation, the political transition. However, the recent rapprochement between the new US Administration and the former might entails more acceptance towards the International Community’s effort at stabilization. In the specific Libyan case, Haftar’s reluctance to cooperate with European neighbors has suggested a sought greater role in the Libyan chessboard, which, however, has been advocated by the same partners he refuses.

The dilemma represented by Russia’s involvement in the Libyan crisis has prompted the EU to approach the former in order to realign the latter’s strategy into a more coherent one in tune with the rest. The task is not an easy one. The recent events in Syria have seen an extremely weakened EU’s position and intermittent US’ commitment contra a crescent Russian interventionism.  

This has brought commentators to envisage a scenario where Europe as a whole seems sidelined in terms of conflict resolution capacity and besieged from East to South by Russia’s activism. The repercussion is also a purely symbolic one: the sunset of the European preeminence in the MED.

As said before, the EU’s common position in conjunction with the UN and NATO seems to us the most realistic one, in that fostering political fragmentation will also mean an intensification of the bargaining power of the militias, which will undoubtedly have repercussion on the populace and intensification of the migratory influx.  This, however, implies the pragmatic acknowledgement that Russia is increasingly become more relevant in the Libyan dynamics. Nevertheless, close consultation and scrutinization among Western partners would signal that the West will not easily give ground to more Russian interventionism at the expense of the security and interests of Europe.

Strategic alternation in Libya and the three level game

The Clash of Civilization might represent the antithetic role played by the International Community and Russia in the Central Mediterranean. As mentioned before, the International Community’s strategy,  thought as the best way when handling the Libyan crisis and political transition and consequently persuading actors in the field, is to employ the UN’s, EU’s, and NATO’s media in order to extricate war-torn Libya from the politico-economic decline and ensure its territorial security and, consequently,  a broader regional security. The strategy put forward by the countries involved in the bargaining points to the need for a unified Libya, where ideally Sarraj would hopefully be able to form a strategic coalition with the military wing led by Haftar.

In fact, it is practically impossible to envision a strategy in favor of Haftar which could possibly be able to establish a unified and strong power against all the militias, terrorists and tribes who aim alternatively to influence the political transition and the natural resource revenues.  The question is not, and indeed has never been, excluding Haftar from the government, in that in so chaotic a scenario, military expertise proves profitable and indeed conditio sine qua non for a durable governance and preservation of the status quo (like in Egypt or to a certain degree Israel itself). However, given the ethnic and territorial peculiarities, coupled with the features inherent to the conflict itself and the resultant migratory influx, all of which points to the need for a stable and effective centralised authority acting as a gatekeeper, the political transition should mean a convergence between the two forces, in order to ensure stability in the long-term. In fact, Haftar’s hold on power might prove just too fickle, because the competing actors might find more useful forming other allegiances/alliances. To boot, controlling such vast territory is something that Haftar alone might find it hard to perform. However, that is precisely the reason why Sarraj himself is endeavoring to join the respective powers and create a common strategy against the militias.  

The Libyan Political Agreement (17 Dec. 2015, Preamble, pp 2-6, Art 56, 57, 58, Art 1(5)), which sets important terms and asks for the territorial unity, is an important road map that should be recognised by Haftar, if we want to see Libya start recovering. Overall, the UN’s effort is aimed at supporting local institutions and reconstruction which will in time produce the desired outcome and signals the complex support bestowed upon the GNA. This represents an appealing element in order to bring more local actors under the International Community’s umbrella by entering the political realm and ensure that their interests are brought to the table. Sarraj’s effort to include more voices in the government, while not an assurance of peaceful/constructive cohabitation, might prove equally clever and the International Community seems eager to try this card.

Same goes for the EU funds towards critical countries and for Libya specifically in order to tackle root causes for displacement, dispossession and consequently streamline the migratory influx. These instruments might effectively help to uproot the main causes for regional instability and facilitate Sarraj’s task. The restrictive measures undertaken are complementary in order to achieve the overall long term goal for regional stability and security.

As rightly implied, the need is for EU to acknowledge that the Southern shore is as worrisome as the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean sea. In fact, this is the scenario where two, apparently different, security providers and aspiring allies are playing in order to gain at business/investment levels and ultimately in terms of broad regional influence. It therefore signals that the challenges that the South of Europe is facing must be furtherly addressed by Europe as EU mainly.

Theoretically speaking, the principal-agent theory (Kerremans B., 2004, “Decision-making within International Organisations”; Huntington S., 1996, Chapter IX, p 294) might be used in order to interpret the International Community’s strategy to pressuring about the need for the different governmental political forces (the principle) to join and start working for the political reconstruction. The International Community (agent) is alternatively representing the vital interests of the GNA and using its power bending strategy in order to ensure a cooperative counterpart on sensitive issues, such as migration and preservation of the important interests at stake.

NATO’s role in the MED is another inlay in the broad support for Libya. Its broad, renewed focus on the neuralgic MED and Libya specifically points to the need not only to support more closely the post-war transition, but to ensure that legality and control are enforced.

This will ensure that the Libyan political transition is properly monitored and enhanced given how in need for funds Libya is.  While the choice of the form of Government is entirely left to the Libyans, it is, however, conditio sine qua non for positive help that Libya cooperates in terms of migratory influx handling which will make it possible for the overall legality and security of the migratory route to be properly safeguarded.

This complex institutional support is unlikely to be endorsed by Russia, due to significant divergences with the EU concerning the unanimous political condemnation for the Ukrainian and Crimean questions, the following imposed sanctions, and the divergent policy towards Syria. This has fuelled Russian resentment and understandably hardened its position on Libya itself.  

However, it is unlikely that Russia will develop an equally broad strategy, given how less amenable to hybrid liberal institutionalism it is and its preference for more informal contacts with a potential recipient of sought help. Nonetheless, its subtle obstructionism might in the long term frustrate the International Community’s effort and compromise the precarious political transition.  Last but not least, another equally problematic scenario is represented by a possible re-alignment between Sarraj and Putin, which will pose serious problems in terms of broad European strategy and possible loss of remunerative ties to Russia, which requires a continuous commitment in order to counter its strategy.   

An hybrid liberal strategy

As broadly analyzed, the two competing roles played by Russia and the International Community signal an entirely different approach towards regional crises and the way they are tackled. In this sense, the first one relies on military pledge/funds primarily and does not provide any broad support in terms of national cohesion in the face of political chaos disintegration and natural resources preservation.

Superimposed with the recent developments in the Mediterranean as a whole and Eastern Europe, Libya has become the veritable new stage where different and clearly competing security providers will measure their respective influence on regional actors. The International Community has opted for a hybrid liberal strategy, in order to jointly sort the tentacular threat represented by a failed State trying to get through its politico-economic transition. This has involved the strategic alternation of the UN, NATO and the EU in order to support Libya’s GNA and extricate the country from decline.

Haftar remains a serious obstacle to post-war recovery, which is exploited by Russia in order to exercise its influence and secure another strategic outpost in the Mediterranean basin. The Western powers at the EU level and bilaterally are trying to involve the recalcitrant general with little to no success at all.

The need for that comes from the acknowledged wisdom that political and military powers must go hand in hand in order to secure the politico-economic transition, given how peculiar/unpredictable are dynamics in Libya as in many other Middle East countries.  This must be a compound to the broad strategy, Russia is not supporting.

Francesco Foti

MA in International Relations and Security, Westminster University

Cover picture: UN photo/Iason Foounten (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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