By: James Politi
Libya’s fragile UN-sponsored government was thrown a lifeline after G7 foreign ministers stated their “strong support” for its prime minister, easing concerns of a shift in policy by the Trump administration.
Fayez al-Sarraj’s government, based in Tripoli, has been struggling to gain control since it was set up following UN peace talks last year, as a rival power centre in the east, led by renegade anti-islamist strongman Khalifa Haftar, has challenged its authority.
Since the ousting of Muammer Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has fallen into chaos.
It has become a geopolitical flashpoint in the Mediterranean, as well as a hub for human trafficking, with thousands of migrants travelling to Italy every month, pushing it to the top of the G7 agenda.
Italian officials had been concerned that Washington might perform a U-turn on Libya policy, shifting its support to Gen Haftar, who is also backed by Russia and Egypt.
This in turn could have raised the chances of a partition and a new flare-up in the civil war which has ravaged the nation since the fall of the Gaddafi regime, potentially also jeopardising its oil and gas supplies, which are crucial to Italy’s energy security.
But Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, clarified Washington’s position after signing off on the G7 foreign ministers’ statement expressing “firm opposition to any attempt to disrupt the stabilisation process”.
The G7 added :“We urge all actors who have a role to play . . . to engage with a spirit of compromise towards the goal of achieving full political reconciliation, while desisting from actions that would exacerbate internal division and fuel further conflict”.
This appeared to be a message targeted not only at Gen Haftar, but also to other militias — including in the west — who have been seeking to undermine and overthrow Mr Sarraj’s government.
“There is no military solution to Libya’s problems,” the G7 statement added.
The G7 statement also warned all parties in Libya against “escalating tension” in the country’s oil-producing regions.
Gen Haftar’s forces last month recaptured two key oil ports of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, the latest in a wave of clashes that has hit the Opec member’s crude output.
The UN-backed government has sought to keep all oil production under the control of the National Oil Corporation, one institution along with the central bank which has managed to bridge the political divide in the country.
But that effort has grown increasingly fraught in recent months From a security perspective, worries about Libya have subsided a little in recent months after Isis fighters in Sirte, a city on the central coast, were heavily defeated. However, there are still concerns that the progress could be reversed if jihadists losing battles in Iraq and Syria see Libya as a safe haven.
From a political point of view, Italy is desperate to stem the flow of migrants, because it is fuelling the popularity of anti-establishment parties — including the Five Star Movement and Northern League.
In January, Italy signed a memorandum of understanding with Mr Sarraj that was intended to begin the process of training the Libyan coast guard to intercept migrant boats before they leave territorial waters. But so far, evidence is scant that it is working, with migrant arrivals in Italy at the beginning of April running higher than the record set last year at the same time..
James Politi – FT Rome Bureau Chief, via DC and NY.