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Crisis unsettling Europe on its southern doorstep

17 July 2020

The situation in Libya is causing alarm and division in the West, says Gerald Butt


Soldiers from the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord fire at soldiers from the Libyan National Army, led by Khalifa Haftar, in Tripoli, in March

Soldiers from the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord fire at soldiers from the Libyan National Army, led by Khalifa Haftar, in Tripoli, in...

THERE was a time when reading the winds of geopolitical change required little skill. Writing exactly a century ago, Joseph Conrad recalled his days at sea. The appearance of a ship on the horizon aroused no fear in that era; “for it was perfectly safe to bet any reasonable odds” that it was British. Britannia ruled the waves — and many of the shores on which they broke.

Even in the middle of the 20th century, it was hard to see that Britain’s fortunes were changing. The Church Times, debating the arguments for or against the use of British force abroad, conceded that this was sometimes necessary, for Britain “to maintain her interests all over the world”. This was in 1956, the year of the Suez crisis. The use of arms on this occasion turned out to be a complete disaster. Humbled and humiliated, the Egypt invasion force withdrew. Britain was never the same again. Since then, military forays into the Middle East have been as a coalition partner.

War by committee, it turns out, has severe limitations. If all can agree on the objective, then defeating the enemy by use of sheer force is effective. Look at Iraq. Look at Libya. But building peace by committee has proved impossible. Look again at those two countries.


FAR from a time when Britain, rivalled in some places by France, was the dominant foreign power in the region, today, a scattering of diverse countries — some of them newcomers to the game — have geopolitical ambitions there. This is clearest of all to see in Libya.

Turkey has sent drones and other military equipment, along with Islamist mercenaries from Syria, to support the internationally recognised government in the capital, Tripoli, in the west of the country. Turkey’s intervention lifted the siege of Tripoli which had been imposed by forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, a rebel commander whose base is in Benghazi in the east. Haftar enjoys the support of Russia (which is supplying jets and mercenaries), together with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Turkey has historic ties to Libya. “Don’t underestimate our sentimental attachment to it,” a former Turkish diplomat said. “Remember, it was part of the Ottoman Empire until 1912.” Turkey denies seeking to recolonise Libya: rather, it hopes, by backing the legitimate government in Tripoli, to acquire special-nation status and benefit from lucrative reconstruction contracts and oil sold at preferential rates.

Russia also has no desire to make Libya Moscow’s colony; but it would welcome a chance to expand its footprint beyond Syria to take in a Libyan military base or two. Russia and Turkey may end up reaching some kind of accommodation of mutual benefit which seals Libya’s future, for better or worse.

So, where does that leave Europe? Libya, after all, lies on Europe’s southern doorstep. Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey, in an article for the Carnegie Europe think tank, sounds the alarm: “Libya is a European emergency. . . A permanent use of air and naval bases by both Russia and Turkey would be a major game-changer for western Europe’s security and have implications for NATO and the United States as well.”

The Libyan crisis has already unsettled both Europe and NATO. President Macron has said that Turkey is “playing a dangerous game” in Libya, and France will not allow it. In contrast, the Italian Defence Minister, Lorenzo Guerini, after talks earlier this month with his Turkish opposite number in Ankara, said that his meeting had been positive and friendly. So, there are open divisions in Europe.

At the same time, warships from two NATO states, France and Turkey, came close to exchanging fire as the French sought to inspect a Libya-bound cargo vessel. France, in protest, pulled out of a NATO Mediterranean patrol, and was enraged that other member states took no diplomatic action to support it. This was another indication that the NATO alliance was experiencing “brain death”, President Macron said.


IT IS an alarming state of affairs from a European-Western perspective. A professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Michael Tanchum, tweeted that, while the 2011 NATO intervention had taken Libya to the point of dysfunction, now “Libya is making NATO divided to the point of dysfunction”.

Some senior EU officials and politicians are suggesting that the only option for Europe today is to complement “soft power” with “hard power”.

But, again, that would be hard power by committee, with a slim chance of success when facing the complexity of Libya today. The more prosaic option of patient and persistent diplomacy and negotiations offers the only realistic way, keeping in mind the implications of failure. “For a stabilised Mediterranean,” Mr Guerini said, “we need to work together and all shoulder responsibility.”

Quite so; for there are too many unidentified warships on the horizon these days to contemplate doing anything else.


Gerald Butt, a former Middle East Correspondent of the BBC and the Church Times, is Middle East Adviser to Oxford Analytica, a geopolitical analyst and advisory firm.

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