As EU stumbles, Putin and Erdoğan take charge in Libya

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The EU can step up or sit back down, but Russia and Turkey have taken charge — at least when it comes to Libya.

Minutes after European Council President Charles Michel vowed Wednesday that the EU would “step up” its efforts to halt “worrying military escalations” in Libya, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced a ceasefire to begin at midnight Sunday.

“In the current critical conditions and in the light of the goals defined by relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions, we decided to take the initiative and, as mediators, call on all parties in Libya to cease hostilities,'” Erdoğan and Putin said in a joint statement issued after the two leaders met Wednesday in Istanbul.

Moscow and Ankara are now well-positioned to demand and enforce the halt in fighting, having supplanted France and Italy as the most influential external actors in the Libyan conflict by deploying hard power capabilities, including weapons and military operatives.

Russia has long supported the militiaman Khalifa Haftar, a former army general, whose forces have laid siege to Tripoli, the Libyan capital, since early last year in an effort to wrest control of the country from the U.N.-recognized government led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and Turkey has just sent military forces in support of Sarraj and his government.

Appearing with Assad, Putin noted the “regrettably” increased tensions in the Middle East, but crowed happily about the situation in Syria.

The ceasefire declaration, issued as Michel and other EU leaders met with Sarraj in Brussels, provided a stunning display of the diminished geopolitical influence of Western powers whose 2011 bombing campaign ultimately led to the ouster and killing of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s longtime dictator.

The meeting in Istanbul came a day after Putin made a surprise trip to Damascus, where he met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on a visit that showcased Russia’s success in helping the Syrian strongman survive an eight-year-long civil war, often showing no regard for the many thousands of civilian casualties or millions displaced from their homes.

Assad appeared with Putin at Russia’s military headquarters in Syria, then accompanied him to an Orthodox Cathedral.

The visit, on Orthodox Christmas, appeared something of a gift from Putin to himself, highlighting the extent to which Russia has become the dominant military power in the Middle East — just as U.S. President Donald Trump is tangled in a escalating conflict with Iran, having withdrawn American forces from Syria and under new pressure to make a similar exit from Iraq.

Appearing with Assad, Putin noted the “regrettably” increased tensions in the Middle East, but crowed happily about the situation in Syria.

Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj (left) meets with European Council President Charles Michel in Brussels, on January 8, 2020 | Pool photo by Francisco Seco/AFP via Getty Images

“As for Syria, thanks to your efforts, our joint actions, the situation, of course, has radically changed,” Putin said. “The situation has not just changed fundamentally; in fact, we are witnessing the restoration of Syrian statehood, of Syria as a single, integral state, a unified country.”

Wednesday’s visit to Istanbul underscored how Russia and Turkey, which is a member of NATO, have become increasingly close partners in recent months, particularly in opposition to Trump’s erratic actions in the Middle East. And it showed how the recent chaos created by the U.S. in the Middle East has left European leaders fumbling to respond.

The joint statement by Erdoğan and Putin opened with a condemnation of U.S. actions in Iraq, including the drone strike that killed senior Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.

“We are deeply concerned about the escalation of tension between the U.S. and Iran, as well as its negative consequences for Iraq,” Erdoğan and Putin said, describing the U.S. operation on January 3 as “an act that undermines security and stability in the region.”

Then, citing Iran’s retaliatory missile strike, they also called for de-escalation of the conflict.

“We believe that exchanging strikes and using force by either side does not contribute to finding solutions to the complex problems of the Middle East and lead to a new round of instability, not meeting any interests,” they said. “We have always opposed foreign interference and inter-communal conflicts.”

But for the Russian leader, in particular, the effort to portray Washington and the West as outlaw actors is hardly new.

That Putin, whose air forces repeatedly dropped barrel bombs on Syrian civilians, and Erdoğan who has ordered mass arrests of jurists and journalists in his own country, would be in a position to take the moral high ground and demand “common sense” and a “priority to diplomatic means” showed just how thoroughly Trump has upended the geopolitical landscape.

But for the Russian leader, in particular, the effort to portray Washington and the West as outlaw actors is hardly new.

Putin has harbored an intense grudge against the West over the 2011 bombing campaign in Libya, arguing that the U.S. and its European allies used the authorization to enforce U.N. Security Council resolutions as a pretext for violent regime change.

His joint statement with Erdoğan on Libya expressed support for the series of peace talks known as the Berlin process, but it also stressed Libya’s right to settle its own affairs, while reiterating the important role of the U.N.

“We reaffirm our strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity of Libya,” the leaders said. “Lasting peace and stability in this country can only be achieved through a political process led and implemented by the Libyans and based on a sincere and inclusive dialogue between them.”

Long before Turkey voted to send military forces to Libya, Sarraj had appealed to Europe for help — a plea that mostly went unanswered.

And diplomatically, the EU’s slow response to the intensified fighting in Libya in recent days is illustrated clearly by the agendas of Europe’s top leaders.

Both Putin and Erdoğan condemned the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani | Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet Putin to discuss Libya and other issues on Saturday, while Michel is scheduled to visit Erdoğan in Istanbul that same day, and then travel on to Cairo to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke individually by phone with Putin and with Erdoğan on Friday, after the U.S. drone strike on Soleimani, and in each case the French leader addressed the Libya issue, but no serious steps were announced after either conversation.

In yet another sign of the EU’s uneven response, a meeting between Sarraj and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, scheduled for Wednesday evening in Rome, was scrapped, apparently because Conte had met earlier in the day at the Chigi Palace with Haftar.

On Wednesday, in a statement following Michel’s meeting with Sarraj, the Council president’s office said, “The European Union will step up efforts towards a peaceful and political solution.” The statement said that Michel had condemned recent attacks in Libya and “reiterated that the European Union has always and consistently supported the Government of National Accord as the legitimate government of Libya and that the EU stands ready to provide all possible support to the political process.”

The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, who also met Sarraj in Brussels on Wednesday, said the Libyan leader had voiced “full support” for the peace process. But even as Maas called publicly for a ceasefire and arms embargo, which he said was an “essential precondition” to hold another round of talks in Berlin, Putin and Erdoğan were announcing their plan for a halt in fighting.

“Libya must not become a second Syria, which is why we now need to embark quickly on a political process and agree on an effective ceasefire and an arms embargo worthy of the name,” Maas told reporters outside the headquarters of the European External Action Service, the EU’s foreign policy arm.

“We are maybe facing a watershed point. The situation is very dangerous” — Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief

European Parliament President David Sassoli, who also met Sarraj, said he had urged an end to the fighting in Libya.

“The solution to the crisis cannot be a military one; it can only be through a political process bringing together all parts of the country, under the auspices of the United Nations and without any external interference,” Sassoli said in a statement. “The EU is ready to play its role in fostering dialogue between all the main actors.”

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, who also met with Sarraj, had hoped to visit Libya this week along with Maas, and the foreign ministers of France, Italy and the U.K., but it was deemed too risky and the trip was canceled.

“We are maybe facing a watershed point,” Borrell said before his meeting with Sarraj. “The situation is very dangerous.”

Jacopo Barigazzi, Rym Momtaz, Hans von der Burchard, Maïa de La Baume and Silvia Sciorilli Borrelli contributed reporting. 

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