Tunisia faces thorny predicament in Libya crisis

The Tunisian state is unable to convene all Libyans around the negotiation table nor make Haftar stop his forces from advancing on Tripoli.
Saturday 27/04/2019
UN special envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame arrives to meet with Tunisia's Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui in Tunis on December 18, 2018. (AFP)
UN special envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame arrives to meet with Tunisia's Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui in Tunis on December 18, 2018. (AFP)

The quandary of Tunisia's diplomacy is that its eastern and western neighbours represent the strategic focuses of major regional powers, its own strategic depth embodies the first line of defence for the national security of influential Western capitals and its national security is the space for the direct and smooth expansion of old and new empires.

It is true that Tunisia tries to maintain almost the same distance from all domestic and foreign actors in Libya. It is also true that most Libyans find in Tunisia the most appropriate space for dialogue and negotiation.

However, it is true that this line of conduct, despite its basic wisdom and logic, makes Tunisia vulnerable, ineffective, passive and reactive rather than proactive, given the magnitude of the scramble inside Libya.

Tunisia finds itself practically alone in its neutral stance regarding the situation in Libya, while the military scene and its political consequences have shifted tremendously.

None of the local and foreign actors in Libya is looking at the situation from the same angle as Tunisia, not the Libyan National Army under the leadership of Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar nor the regional capitals that support him in words at the UN Security Council and not the forces of the Libyan Presidential Council with its militias and political body nor the regional capitals supporting them with money, weapons and the media.

For the regional and international actors, Libya is part of the strategic whole. Its importance expands and wanes in accordance with the balance of power in the game of nations. For Tunisia, however, Libya is an indivisible strategic whole because of the direct and causal relations between the two countries in finances, economics and security.

Turkey is anxiously monitoring developments of the upheaval along the axis linking Tripoli, Khartoum and Damascus. It stands to lose its bet on occupying northern Syria should the Treaty of Lausanne be revived. Turkey lost ground in Sudan after the fall of Omar al-Bashir and risks losing its foothold in the island of Suakin. It is placing all its political and military eggs in the same basket as that of the Muslim Brotherhood and of various other Muslim brothers in Tripoli.

Along the strategic axis linking Tripoli, Khartoum and Sana'a, the Saudi-Egyptian-Emirati coalition says the arrival of a Transitional Military Council in Khartoum signals the end of Sudan’s policy of dancing around regional capitals. With Haftar’s forces nearing Tripoli, conditions are ripe for shrinking the Qatari-Turkish influence over the region extending from the Red Sea to the Algerian Sahara.

This is where the Egyptian-Saudi-Emirati approach intersects with the American vision of the situation in Tripoli, especially when US-Turkish relations are going through a difficult political and military stage. That leaves open the hypothesis of the exclusion of Turkey from NATO.

As for France, it is not hiding its support for Haftar, who represents the cornerstone of its campaign against militias in the Sahel area that find in southern Libya the perfect supply zone for smuggling and terrorist activities.

Rome wants to guarantee for its big companies the biggest chunk of Libyan oil revenues. It wants to install in western Libya a government that will dam the flow of illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Italian shores. It also wants to counter France’s heavy influence in North Africa.

Moscow is building its strategic presence in the Mediterranean, on the Syrian coast and in Libya and Algeria. It is awaiting its share of reconstruction projects in Syria by relying on its allies in the east and by counting on its innocence in the creation of the Libyan mess.

Amid these intersecting strategies and approaches, where does Tunisia stand? What are the options and means available to it should it want to interfere in and affect the Libyan scene?

There are signs indicating Tunisia’s desire to catch up with the events and to prevent rival sides in Libya from reaching the point of no return. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi met with representatives of the Libyan Presidential Council, spoke by phone with Haftar and had diplomatic contacts with UN Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame. In addition, a US congressional delegation was recently in Tunisia.

Tunisian diplomacy considers that Haftar's control of Tripoli may mean the end of militias in the capital but it will surely spark battles all over Libya, especially near Misrata and in enclaves in southern and western Libya, for it is not necessarily the case that he who controls Tripoli also governs Libya.

Tunisia is seeking to avoid the scenario of a military solution in Tripoli and spare the country what it considers the scenario of the "Somalisation” of Libya. It considers Salame's path the only lifeline to pull Libya to safety and wants to revive it.

The irony is that the UN tracks, whether in Syria, Yemen or Libya, failed to establish a settlement or curb the role of militias, strengthen the authority of the state or even stop the fighting.

Reading the published part of Caid Essebsi’s speech to the US congressional delegation, one realises the magnitude of the crisis experienced by the Tunisian state. It is unable to convene all Libyans around the negotiation table nor can it make Haftar stop his forces from advancing on Tripoli nor can it close its borders to the migrants and refugees who have started trickling in. Nor can it bring the foreign powers intervening in Libya to agree on the same scenario for a solution.

We will not question the value of “proactive neutrality” as a Tunisian diplomatic concept par excellence as long as it succeeds in preserving national interest and in the event that the state has full control of the file and can influence developments. However, neutrality in a file that has the greatest effect on Tunisian reality but that remains in the hands of foreign actors can only mean diplomatic resignation.