European Splits Cloud Italy's Libyan Peace Effort
(Bloomberg) -- First it was Cairo. Then Paris. Now, it’s Sicily, landing ground for migrants traversing the Mediterranean to Europe. As international officials descend on the Italian island for the latest effort to stitch together a divided Libya, hopes for a breakthrough are bleak as ever.
Stabilizing the oil-rich North African nation is a priority for European governments, pressured by waves of migration that have fed the rise of populism, and worried that jihadists fleeing Syria will establish themselves 500 kilometers (310 miles) from their shores. The United Nations has a plan but has struggled to push rival politicians into talks, let alone new elections they fear will only curb powers won by force or foreign intervention.
Italy’s two-day gathering, which begins Monday, is meant to be an opportunity for Libyans to agree on a new political framework, with international endorsement. What can be achieved, however, depends on who shows up.
Getting rival Libyans to sit at one table has proved as much of a challenge for Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte as it was for the Egyptians in February 2017. Cairo engineered a meeting between Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the UN-backed government in Tripoli, and Khalifa Haftar, a military commander who controls most of the east. The two men refused to be in the same room.
French President Emmanuel Macron managed to bring them to Paris twice, trumpeting in May their commitment to hold elections in December. The date was deemed ambitious by Libya observers at the time, and as clashes closed Tripoli airport and Islamic State attacked the electoral commission and National Oil Corporation, it became increasingly unachievable.
After weeks of shuttle diplomacy, it was still unclear as diplomats converged on the picturesque Sicilian capital of Palermo, whether Haftar would attend. Ahead of the gathering, 98 members of the eastern-based House of Representatives, aligned with the general, issued a statement saying foreign meddling had “greatly harmed reconciliation efforts”.
“Rome has not really provided a clear idea of what, if anything, it is proposing to bring peace to Libya,” said Claudia Gazzini, senior Libya analyst at International Crisis Group. “Uncertainty lingers about whether the Palermo summit will produce much beyond a rote endorsement of the UN’s efforts in Libya.”
A Country Divided
Since a NATO-backed war ended Muammar Qaddafi’s 42-year rule in 2011, Libya has been carved up among militias, with rival administrations in the east and Tripoli. Infighting has repeatedly interrupted oil shipments.
Much of its oil wealth is siphoned off to armed groups and their loyalists while Libyans line up for hours outside banks to obtain paltry sums. The dinar has weakened on the black market, fueling inflation that has impoverished wage-earners. Smugglers of people, weapons and dollars, meanwhile, are getting rich.
A UN-brokered deal concluded in 2015 failed to heal differences. The government it parachuted into Tripoli, led by Sarraj, struggled to impose its authority. Last year, new UN envoy Ghassan Salame unveiled a revised roadmap, but progress has been slow.
If Libya’s divisions seem at times insurmountable, they have been amplified by international rivalries -- the country of 6.4-million, a major oil-exporter, is important to different governments for different reasons.
For France, fighting terrorism is paramount. For Italy, migration is key. For Egypt, border security. For Russia, geopolitics. Rival oil companies from Italy’s Eni, to France’s Total to Russia’s Rosneft are circling for business.
When Macron held his confab in May, Italy had yet to form a government after a divisive election. It did not attend. Macron is expected to skip Palermo, with French officials privately dismissing it as an attempt by the former colonial power to signal that Rome, not Paris, is the prime European power-broker in Libya.
"Given the fact Italy and France are not compelled to agree despite their proximity and common EU membership, other local and international actors involved in the conflict will not be encouraged to either," said Libyan analyst Emad Badi.
Under Donald Trump, the U.S. has not focused on Libya though it is increasingly fed up with what looks like European grand-standing while on the ground, it’s stalemate.
A senior White House official said the world had witnessed grand meeting after grand meeting in recent years and it was now to time to see measurable progress in building the capacity of Libyan institutions to govern and lay the groundwork for legitimate, workable elections.
Meanwhile, Russia has sought to establish its geostrategic presence by offering support to Haftar, who systematically crushed Islamist groups that had based themselves in the east.
Egypt has worked with Haftar to secure their 1,115-km desert frontier against Islamist militants it blames for some attacks. It backs the UN plan, but its priority is security.
Even migrant flows have ebbed and shifted in recent years, partly because Italy has worked with groups on the ground to contain it.
“The most important message from Palermo will be tacit,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya specialist who teaches geopolitics at the University of Versailles. “From now on the right approach to Libya is to try to manage the crisis, not try to fix in a spectacular way like Macron tried to do."
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