By Patrick Wintour
Diplomats hope for reconciliation between the UN-backed government of national accord and the military commander of Libya’s eastern government.
European diplomats are attempting a last-ditch effort to dissuade Russia from helping the renegade military strongman Khalifa Haftar seize overall military power in Libya.
Haftar, the military commander of Libya’s eastern government, has sought Moscow’s help to battle Isis, but European diplomats fear that that he could join what has been described as Vladimir Putin’s axis of secular authoritarians in the Middle East alongside Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.
The EU is instead hoping Russia – possibly in alliance with the US – will seek to persuade Haftar to settle for an enhanced military role, but under civilian command, and inside the UN-backed government of national accord (GNA) set up in December 2015.
In the wake of its success in Syria, Russia is seeking to expand its influence in the Middle East. Diplomats are watching to see if Russia engages constructively in Libya, or seeks instead solely to back Haftar to undermine the laborious UN efforts to get the multitude of Libyan factions to compromise.
Moscow, which is eager to recover lost oil and infrastructure investments in Libya has feted Haftar, and also tended to his wounded soldiers.
The crisis is urgent since the EU needs a viable government to work with to control the flow of refugee boats across the Mediterranean.
In a bid to test Russian intentions, the Italian government, the lead European nation on Libya, is to hold a second round of talks with Russia to persuade Moscow that a military dictator in sole power, especially Haftar, is not a viable solution to Libya’s lawless trauma.
Foreign minister Angeleno Alfano said there were already positive signals coming from the dialogue with the Kremlin and he will meet his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, for a second time on 16 February in Bonn, Germany.
Russia’s role in Libya will also come up in talks between the Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni and Theresa May in London on Thursday where they will discuss what compromise could be crafted, if any, to give Haftar a role in the Tripoli-based GNA. Many Libyans have lost faith in the accord’s ability to deliver the basics such as functioning banks and electricity.
In repeated reconciliation talks overseen by the UN, the ineffectual GNA has so far failed to reach a political compromise with its Tobruk-based rivals in the east, noticeably Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army.
Haftar said over the weekend he believes his anti-terrorist agenda will now get a positive response from Donald Trump. The possibility of the combined backing of US and Russia is hardly conducive to Haftar compromising.
But EU sources still believe both US and Russia can be persuaded to look for a political compromise that brings the West and East of the country together.
Briefing the UN Security Council, special envoy for Syria Martin Kobler stated on Wednesday he was confident that within weeks a format could be agreed to make changes to the Libyan constitution including the role of Haftar. The challenge is to allow Haftar a senior role in the national defence force, but with the red line that he is subject to civilian control.
Crispin Blunt, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, is one of the British voices urging the US not to be lured by the myth of a strong man.
“Haftar needs to be part of the solution, but the suggestion that he is the solution falls apart in contact with the realities of Libya,” he said. “He is a divisive figure and it is more than an inconvenient truth that can be fudged.”
There is some sign that a version of this message conveyed by European officials is getting through to Washington. In a weekend phone conversation Trump encouraged Gentiloni to continue with his Libyan policy. The outgoing US special envoy for Libya, Jonathan Winer, has also urged Trump not to back Haftar.
Boris Johnson, the UK foreign secretary, last week welcomed discussions with Russia about a future role for Haftar in Libya. “We are still hopeful that Gen Haftar can be persuaded that he can be a big part of the future of Libya but without necessarily having to be a new jefe,” he said.
The EU, largely dependent on Italian diplomacy, has agreed an ambitious plan to stem the flow of refugees by sea, including the use of the Libyan coast guard to turn the ships back. Italy also wants to stop the smuggling routes along Libya’s southern borders with Niger and Chad.
The EU plan is already under attack from charities fearing the EU is planning to send migrants to inhumane detention camps in Libya in breach of international law. The Tobruk-based parliament has refused to recognise the EU deal and even Kobler has urged caution about the condition of the Libyan camps.
The next few weeks will determine whether the EU plan will work, or instead the baton is handed to a different team in Washington and Moscow.
Patrick Wintour is a British journalist and Diplomatic Editor of The Guardian newspaper.