Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


The ongoing war in Libya is a microcosm of the tragedy that has gripped many Middle East countries. If it is not resolved soon, the fighting in Libya could sow instability in Tunisia and Egypt, and trigger more waves of refugees fleeing to Europe.

It’s fourteen months since Haftar, Cyrenaica's military commander , launched his offensive against Tripoli where the UN-recognised government of Prime Minister al-Sarraj is based. Haftar's forces have still under partial control the centre of Sirte, the strategically important city close to Libya’s so-called oil crescent where several key export terminals are located.

Meanwhile Turkey has deployed troops to support al-Sarraj's government which is backed by Italy and most Western countries.

Haftar gets help from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and France, and private security forces from Russia have also fought alongside him. On 19 January 2020 the Berlin Conference on Libya began but its outcome was unsuccessful.

The Berlin Conference

On 12 February 2020 the United Nations Security Council endorsed, through Resolution 2510, the outcome of the Berlin Conference on Libya.

Participants of the Berlin Conference agreed to respect an arms embargo imposed on Libya by the Security Council and to work in military, economic, and political spheres toward peace in Libya.

The resolution recalls the commitments made at the Berlin Conference to abide by the arms embargo, demands full compliance by all member states with the arms embargo, and requests all member states not to intervene in the Libyan conflict or take measures that exacerbate the conflict.

Unfortunately, Grand Conferences on Libya (Berlin being the fourth of such convenings) are more like boondoggles than serious international attempts as conflict resolutions.

The best way to help Libya is to harness the local energy and governance, formalize it and take it to the next level of effectiveness. This approach requires a fair distribution of oil revenues and aid flows to major municipalities in Libya with oversight by an international board so as to inspire confidence and trust.

Such a strategy could better work with the deployment of an interposition force by the European Union under the auspices of the United Nations. Besides, the EU is well equipped as far as “nation building, police, civil administration and strengthening security, rule of law and human rights” are concerned.

The launch of Operation “Irini”

Following the Berlin Conference, at the beginning of April the EU was tasked to start a new Mission, Operation “Irini” (Greek for “peace”), an anti-arms mission dealing primarily with naval violations and land transfers.

It is the latest attempt at stemming the flow of weapons to Libya. But many analysts say that “Irini” is ineffective. While Egypt can provide troops and weapons by land, Turkey has no option but to ship weapons by sea, the terrain policed by the EU. 

Turkey’s intervention in the conflict has prompted a rift with its NATO ally France, which has supported Haftar’s forces. Recently, the French ministry of defense accused the Turkish navy of behaving in an “extremely aggressive” manner, harassing a French warship in the eastern Mediterranean as it tried to inspect a cargo vessel suspected of carrying weapons to Libya in violation of a U.N. embargo. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that NATO is investigating the incident.

As for Russia, its access in Syria and also in Libya, provides a very wide platform to check the southern flank of NATO. An increased Russian presence in Libya could also see Moscow gain greater control over refugee flows to Europe, which could be used to further destabilize the European Union.

On 15 June the Russian and Turkish foreign and defense ministers were scheduled to cut out their Libyan middlemen and meet but the meeting was called off: anyway the Turkish foreign minister said Ankara was committed to forging a lasting cease-fire deal. But, given the stakes and the multitude of actors involved, what comes next will look more like conflict management than resolution.

Current situation

The Libyan crisis is a civil war among various groups that are divided by tribal and regional loyalties, as well as by ideological beliefs. All are vying to control the country’s oil revenues. Yet, at the moment, there are principally two sides to the conflict: the Islamist-dominated, internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), which still controls the capital, Tripoli; and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and the Libyan National Army (LNA), which are under the command of the anti-Islamist field marshal Haftar.

While most of the country is still under the authoritarian nationalist Haftar’s control, as a result of Turkish interference the GNA forces managed to achieve significant military successes and go on the counterattack. The army of al-Sarraj was thus able to lift the siege of Tripoli, which lasted 14 months and push the LNA from the Libyan capital. In April, the GNA troops established control over the coast in western Libya from Misrata to the border with Tunisia.

Soon, the army of Haftar was forced to leave the capital airport, and Tarhuna, as well as al-Watiya airbase. Against the backdrop of the success of the government of al-Sarraj, some Libyan Tuareg militias in southern Libya have expressed their support for Tripoli’s actions.

Now the fighting between the LNA and the army of al-Sarraj is taking place on the approaches to the coastal Mediterranean city of Sirte, an important strategic point that is under partial control of the LNA. The city is located on the way to oil fields in the east of the country, which are held by the army of Haftar, and if Sirte is taken from the GNA and their Turkish allies, the road is open for them.

Behind each of these warring camps are outside powers pursuing their own interests. While Turkey and Qatar have backed the GNA, Egypt, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates have been lending support to Haftar. International media coverage of the war has attributed this outside interference to competition – mainly between Turkey and Egypt – for oil and gas resources.

The Egyptians have a gas project that could potentially link up with facilities in Israel, Cyprus, and Greece to supply Europe. But that objective directly conflicts with Turkey’s goal of creating an exclusive maritime zone with Libya, and of securing sole control over Libya’s energy resources.

Is it just a matter of oil and gas?

The contest over energy is not the whole story. To understand the Libya conflict fully, one must also consider the complex links between geopolitics and ideology. A victory for the Islamists in Tripoli would allow Turkey and Qatar not only to extend their influence into a major oil-producing state on the Mediterranean; it also would offer them strategic depth, strengthening their influence over other countries such as Tunisia and Egypt (a longtime rival).

Turkey has committed weapons, drones and soldiers to the battle for Tripoli. On the other side of the divide, Egypt and the UAE do not want to see a petrostate capable of producing 2.5 million barrels per day fall into the hands of Islamists: a victory for the GNA would turn Libya into an Islamist stronghold and a beachhead for undermining Egypt.

Russia’s motive for siding with Haftar is more intriguing, but can be summed up in one word: revanchism. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent mercenaries to join the fight, Haftar himself is not the Kremlin’s top candidate to rule Libya. Putin wants to install Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the son of the late Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, who ruled the country from 1969 to 2011.

By making Qaddafi Libya’s next ruler, the Kremlin hopes to prove a point to the Americans and Europeans who helped to topple his father. Following his success in keeping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power despite overwhelming odds, Putin wants to show that it is he who will dictate Libya’s future and call the shots in the region. If the clock really is set back to Moscow time, it will be interesting to see what happens to Haftar.

The Libyan Jigsaw

On January 28, President Trump unveiled his plan to restart the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process, thus affecting also Libya. Since the Camp David Accords in 1978, without Egypt there cannot be a state-led war against Israel. This reduced any possible United States' intention to sanction Haftar and support al-Sarraj.

Washington, in fact, did not react on the oil blockade in Libya by Haftar: in the past the United States would surely have retaliated.

Anyway, the military offensive launched by Haftar did not achieve a quick victory. On the contrary, it is the Turkish commitment which is seriously concerning European Countries. But the chance of a political settlement is in the hand of Russia and Turkey on one side and on the diplomatic developments in the Eastern Mediterranean on the other side.

Key players' positions in the Libyan conflict

United Nations

Ghassan Salame, the UN special envoy to Libya, foresees the withdrawal of all foreign fighters, regardless of nationality, being the best political solution for all involved in the conflict.

"Most of the national interests of all these countries, especially big commercial contracts and oil contracts, even geopolitical demands, can be accommodated by a peaceful and prosperous Libya much better than a divided and war-torn country," he declared.


President Erdogan warns that Libya's "legitimate" government cannot fail and reiterates that Turkey's troops will remain in Libya until the al-Sarraj government's position is secure. 

He calls on the EU to "show the world that it is a relevant actor in the international arena," saying "Terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda, which suffered a military defeat in Syria and Iraq, will find a fertile ground to get back on their feet." "To leave Libya at the mercy of a warlord would be a mistake of historic proportions," Erdogan added, referring to Haftar.

The situation at the front was changed thanks to large-scale intervention in the conflict by Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan does not hide that the victories over the troops of Haftar have been achieved thanks to the Turkish soldiers and that the Turkish troops present in Libya are going along with the GNA to achieve common goals.

Turkey plans to open two military bases in Libya and to deploy air defense systems and drones at the recently captured al-Watiya airbase. Also, Turkish troops will be stationed at a military base near Misrata. Turkey has in Libya not only economic interests but also military-political ones. 


Al Sisi tries to avoid that Turkey exploits the land and sea areas facing Tripolitania’s coast (by ensuring the “protection of Tripolitania”) which is indirectly aimed against Italy and, in some respects, against the EU itself.

This is the reason why this Turkish move is also good for Vladimir Putin. Turkey’s move in Tripolitania is also targeted against Saudi Arabia and it has been harshly commented by Egypt, which does not want to have the Muslim Brotherhood in the way, not even in the distance. The latter is the political-military organization against which Al Sisi organized his coup.

But how is Egypt responding to intensified hostilities in Libya? The offensive of the pro-Turkish GNA forces and Turkey excited the Egyptian military and political circles, who perceived the defeat of the LNA and the advance of the Tripoli army deep into the country as a threat to Egyptians national security. Egyptian Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel Aal said that Egypt will not allow pro-Turkish terrorists to control Libya. Besides, he also accused Turkey of wanting to colonize parts of the Arab world.


As in other conflict zones, Moscow cares little about reaching a peace deal so long as it can outmanoeuvre the West strategically while securing port and energy access, with private contractors playing an increasingly important role. The Kremlin is now openly treating Libya as another focal point of its Middle East activities. After years of U.S. neglect, the country has turned into a proxy war playground, and President Vladimir Putin is vying to become the chief power broker.

Last January, he tried (but failed) to get Haftar to sign a ceasefire agreement in Moscow with Prime Minister al-Sarraj. Notwithstanding the failure of the Berlin Conference, Moscow’s involvement in Libya will continue either way.

It is worth recognizing that the military solution to the Libyan issue has not justified itself. This means that if the warring parties cannot find a political solution to the conflict, Libya will remain a country divided into two parts for a very long time. Under these conditions, Russia can take the initiative. It can offer al-Sarraj and Haftar to negotiate with the mediation of Russia and Turkey on the conditions for establishing a ceasefire.

Then, when the shooting stops, initiate a discussion on the possibility of a political settlement of the Libyan conflict. Moscow and Ankara have extensive experience in finding a compromise on the most painful issues, and it is possible that the Libyan conflict is no exception.

As a matter of fact, on 15 June the Russian and Turkish foreign and defense ministers were scheduled to cut out their Libyan middlemen and meet but the meeting was called off: anyway the Turkish foreign minister said Ankara was committed to forging a lasting cease-fire deal. But, given the stakes and the multitude of actors involved, what comes next will look more like conflict management than resolution.

As for Russia, its access in Syria and also in Libya provides a very wide platform to check the southern flank of NATO. An increased Russian presence in Libya could also see Moscow gain greater control over refugee flows to Europe, which could be used to further destabilize the European Union.


Italy has a lot at stake in Libya, but is falling through the cracks of the tangled web of powers that aim to rule the region. Italy suffered a diplomatic debacle last January when its Prime Minister failed to host two separate bilateral meeting with Haftar and al-Serraj. Libya is important for oil and gas supply.

In 2018 ENI started again oil explorations in Libya, while it was clear that none of the Libyan factions had a real interest in achieving peace. What are now the prospects? The decrease of ENI’s Libyan extraction quota, which is currently worth about 15% of Italy’s national requirements.

Another important issue Italy is dealing with Libya is immigration. In 2017 Italy signed with Libya a MoU aimed at stemming illegal immigration and reducing the arrival of migrants on its soil.


France's motives for overthrowing Qaddafi in 2011 were to increase France's share of Libya's oil production, strengthen French influence in Africa, and improve President Sarkozy's standing at home. France did ignore, to the future detriment of Libya, how Islamic extremists had a large influence on the uprising against Qaddafi.

France then pushed to boost the international recognition of Haftar as a primary actor, being the general in control of the Libyan areas where France's interests lie: oil wells in the Sirte Basin. France is supporting Haftar in the hope that a Paris-Benghazi nexus will freeze out Rome's substantial interests in Libyan oil and gas.

Consequences of the Berlin Conference

The Berlin Peace Conference on Libya is almost irrelevant. The Conclusions of the Conference provide such a wide remit to please all participating parties allowing for broad and different interpretations and providing no real new solutions or mechanisms to break the impasse that has dogged the Libyan crisis so far.

All the major demands were, in fact, accepted in the final document, thus making it difficult for some operations on the ground in Libya. That will make the Libyan conflict last “ad infinitum” while definitely and permanently harming some countries (such as Italy) but certainly favouring others, such as Turkey, the Russian Federation and France.

Finally, in the Berlin Conference it was reiterated that “there could be no possible military solution” for Libya. Of course, because the military solution is already in place and it has been so for many years. It is made up of potentially equivalent forces, with equivalent protectors, who will therefore make it difficult to really find an agreement. 

How about the European Union?

The EU can’t intervene in all the conflicts around the world but Europeans have the ability to influence a conflict where their absence directly harms the Continent’s interests. Libya is a case in point. With no boots on the ground, the likely outcomes of the conflict in Libya for the EU range from bad to worse.

One bad outcome would be a cease-fire designed by Russia and Turkey not to solve the situation but to create a frozen crisis on the EU’s and NATO’s southern border. This has been, after all, what Moscow has done in Eastern Europe for decades: Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine are the most prominent examples. It is perfectly reasonable to assume the same could happen in Libya too.

A military deployment in Libya is surely politically challenging. But the cost of doing nothing will be incomparably higher for Europe for decades to come.


The Berlin Conference ended with no major progress and clear signs that the violence will not end any time soon. Its concluding statement is full of great words which are not binding and are not envisaging consequences should someone fails to comply.

The problem with Libya today boils down to one person: Haftar and, by extension, his supporters. Haftar has no intention of adopting a peaceful stance at all in his conflict. Libya finds itself in a race against time. Following the dramatic escalation of the conflict, the chaotic civil war is on the brink of metastasising into a multinational conflict with dire humanitarian consequences.

This is why the EU must play its role on the global stage with its members pulling as one. While the path ahead remains fraught with difficulty, Europe now has a unique opportunity to turn the tide by stepping in, kicking-off stabilisation efforts, and preventing Libya from becoming the next deadly global arena.

The road to "lasting peace" will be long and hard. The only source of hope is the belief that the parties of the Berlin conference learned the lessons of Syria.

Foreign actors have correctly identified Libya as a vulnerable host preyed on by weak rivals and a lack of international leadership. With these actors increasingly pulling the strings, Europe must play a pivotal role in the Libyan game through imaginative mediation and political appeasement.

The EU, thanks to its millennium-old historical, cultural and civilizational legacy, is surely in the position to act as a mediator to younger and less experienced countries and help them to avoid schizophrenic, dangerous initiatives. 

The EU needs to prevent the fragmentation of the world and exert classical influence on the global scene: only together can EU members protect and promote their interests and values represented by democracy, rule of law, justice, freedom and respect for human rights.