January 13, 2020
Libya - the new playground for diplomatic posturing
One of the unintended consequences of Donald Trump’s diplomacy is to drive the weak Europeans into the hands of the Russians, who are now emerging as the power brokers in the conflicts of the Middle East and north Africa.
Today Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the UN-backed Libyan government, and his rival General Khalifa Haftar will sign a ceasefire deal in in Moscow. It is Russia’s latest diplomatic coup. Russia and Turkey, both backing opposite sides in this conflict, called for a ceasefire last week in a surprise move, quickly and efficiently sidelining the Europeans. They created facts on the ground, and let everybody know that they did it.
Where is Europe in all of this? Italy, the former colonial power in Libya, lost influence in the region. Disunity in the government, clumsy statements, and zig-zagging diplomacy marginalised Italy in the conflict and its resolution. The latest example is from last week: after Russia and Turkey called for a ceasefire on Wednesday Giuseppe Conte went into offensive mode and invited both opponents in the Libyan conflict to Rome. The result was catastrophic as only Haftar came without committing to anything while Sarrai turned his plane around when he learned that Haftar was in Rome already. Sarrai went to Brussels instead for talks with Josep Borrell. Conte's move was uncoordinated even with own his foreign minister Luigi Di Maio. The unfortunate foreign minister was in Cairo refusing to sign a statement with France, Greece, Cyprus and Egypt on the grounds that it posed too harsh conditions on Sarrai, the man who refused to see his prime minister.
Conte said in Corriere this morning that the rush to claim leadership does not matter. Italy puts its efforts into the political process for Libya building up towards a peace conference. Angela Merkel announced after her meeting with Putin in Moscow that an UN-led peace conference will start soon in Berlin.
In their joint press conference Merkel demonstrated harmony with Putin on Libya, Syria and NordStream 2. There was not a hint of criticism. Instead she was disagreeing with US sanctions over NordStream 2 that prevented Swiss companies from complete the pipeline project in the Baltic Sea. She confirmed that, despite the sanctions, it will be possible to complete NordStream 2. Putin said that the last 160km of the 1200km-long pipeline can be completed independently, with the help of the Russian energy giant Gazprom, by the end of the year or in the first quarter of next year.