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The U.S. & Europe must work together in Libya

Arturo Varvelli, European Council on Foreign Relations

Arturo Varvelli, ECFR

Since the beginning of the Libyan crisis external actors have always had a decisive influence: NATO and Arab countries had a paramount role when they started supporting revolutionaries in 2011, and foreign actors continued to be extremely influential, particularly when their preferencs for the groups and actors that should rule the "new Libya" emerged and crystalized. This resulted in competing agendas on the ground, a framework within which each external power held a divergent vision for Libya's future.

The Libyan crisis has been substantially affected by the international context from the outset. Polarization between secular forces and the so-called Islamists did not simply originate in Libya, but is also a product of the regional conflict between Turkey and Qatar on the one side, and the UAE and Egypt on the other. Therefore, external forces certainly have and will continue to have far-reaching influence over the crisis. The political vacuum created by the retreat of the U.S., the reluctant hegemon in the MENA arena – which was markedly exemplified by former U.S. President Barack Obama's "lead from behind" strategy – has allowed regional actors, as well as Russia and Europe to have a renewed role. As a result, Libya has become a theatre for proxy war.

Some foreign powers who have "boots on the ground", like Turkey and Russia, are planning to maintain their presence in the long-term. It is unlikely that they will simply withdraw, even in the event of such requests from the UN or if the country establishes a new government of national unity. Europe also has a responsibility: with too little conviction, the European Union accompanied the initial state building phase in Libya in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising, but it also became divided over the scope, scale and direction of the support that should be provided to Libya's new leadership and political class. The product was a zero-sum game in which there were no winners, which has had costs and consequences for Italy and France in particular, the two key and most influential European countries engaged in Libya.

To truly help the Libyans in this difficult and extended transitional phase, and to address the country's marginalization, Europeans and Americans should develop a coordinated and unified response to the country's challenges and the faultlines within the political and security landscape. The emphasis on multilateralism by the new U.S. administration and a "more geopolitical" Europe could take a more hands-on approach to blocking and isolating domestic and international spoilers, refocusing the political track onto common interests and objectives, including support for a genuine security sector reform strategy and effort. It is a painstaking and long-term process, but it is the only viable option.


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