Professor of Political Science and former UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salamé offers his vision of global geopolitics in this unprecedented time of crisis. Interview by Hichem Ben Yaïche and Nicolas Bouchet
How do you assess events in Ukraine and in Eastern Europe? Is Putin intoxicated with power?
We face a crisis unlike any other since 1945, for three reasons at least. The first one is that a nuclear alert is on, and this is not a common event; it has happened about a dozen times since 1945, regarding Cuba, Berlin or the Middle East.
Moscow sends a strong signal that this crisis is, as Putin stated it a few years ago, existential to Russia. That is an element of concern.
This does not mean that we will suffer nuclear war! It is very improbable. But even if the odds of nuclear conflict are very low, they frighten us very much because nuclear warfare is of a very different nature than classic conflict.
The second reason is that what we now see was a foreseeable tragedy. Actually, Putin brought troop carriers and tanks from remote Siberia. That operation took weeks of preparation during which it was possible to avoid the crisis.
I believe most people thought the invasion would not happen. Those who, as the Americans did, considered it could happen, perhaps did not do everything they could to stop it.
The third reason relates to what we have seen since the start of the war: a very costly war. The Government of Ukraine has already estimated more than €10bn in infrastructure destruction was inflicted to the country.
We all saw images of Kharkiv absolutely wrecked. It’s Grozny, Homs, Aleppo, you name it. And we have to account for a collateral to the world economy that reaches out to our countries and further to other African countries.
Even if the war was stopped today, we would not avoid an increase in the price of raw materials, of oil, gas and also wheat and other commodities that will affect the international economy for a long time. These are three good reasons for saying that this crisis should worry us to the utmost, even more as it is happening at the very heart of Europe.
Putin does not stand for Russia only. His international presence is felt in Africa and in many countries. What are the main trends that will emerge from this crisis?
Some wars have no winners because they cost too much to everyone. There allegedly are two Ukrainian million refugees already in neighbouring countries, especially in Poland and about ten other countries. Russia has already lost many tanks and trucks but above all thousands of men in the field.
With the international economy being negatively affected in the long term, factories in countries such as France, Great Britain and others will face difficulties obtaining the raw materials they used to import from Ukraine and mostly from Russia.
Out of this conflict, we will maybe find ourselves in a situation where everyone has lost and where no one can claim victory…
The way that Russia will exit this conflict will necessarily impact its future global role, that is beyond its borders and its neighbours. Namely in Libya, the Central African Republic, Romania and elsewhere.
Another obvious effect is that some countries will be very busy with foreign affairs and will have to look inwards to solve issues happening imminently in Roma, Paris, Berlin and London. These problems are inflation, a rise in commodities prices, difficulty accessing raw materials.
What can the solutions be?
At this stage, I think what is most urgent is cutting this war short. And pushing now to the background the mobilisation phase benefiting the Ukrainians and attempts at explaining Moscow’s intentions.
After a dozen days of extremely harsh fighting that saw cities largely destroyed and a capital city practically surrounded, we must ask ourselves what the conditions for exiting the crisis are.
I think we did not put enough thinking into it. We hear suggestions coming from all parts but exiting the crisis actually depends on three fundamental elements. The first is knowing to what extent we can exactly understand what is acceptable to Putin and what is not, so we can put an end to this invasion.
The second one, not less important, is knowing to what extent the Ukrainians, who are the weak part of this power struggle, are ready to make concessions so they eventually avoid more destruction in their country.
There remains a third condition. To what extent will the West escalate the conflict or, in contrast, nudge countries like China and maybe Turkey into a mediating role?
I would of course favour the organisation I served for many years, that is the United Nations. The United Nations Secretary General could play a peace-making role. I very much look forward to him doing this.
What was your impression leaving Libya, was it unfinished business, a bitter aftertaste? What remains after three years managing Libyan affairs?
I took on responsibilities in Libya in an extremely difficult context. In a divided and overarmed country, where there are more than a million weapons in the country. With an agreement signed in Skhirat in late 2015 that was never acknowledged by important actors for the Libyan context and, oppositely, acknowledged by others. There was so much to be done.
I am, and I say this sincerely, quite proud of all we have accomplished during these three years. In December 2017, we stopped an upcoming attack on Tripoli. We managed to stop the attack when it eventually happened, in September 2018, and following several weeks of fighting in Tripoli, through a ceasefire agreement and the withdrawing of troops that came from Tarhuna and Misrata especially.
More importantly, when the big conflict started with an attack on Tripoli by the troops of General Haftar on 4 April 2019, we managed to gather a summit for heads of states who had not met since the start of the war, especially Presidents al-Sisi and Erdogan. Notwithstanding heads of state from other countries that matter in Libya.
We produced an action plan that is still being implemented. This plan achieved something I consider to be crucial – establishing the “5+5” Military Commission that continues to meet in Sirte on a regular basis.
It achieved a ceasefire in October 2020. We managed to start up all oil wells in Libya and to get back to exports of 1.3m-1.4m b/d. And we managed to launch a political process that has since, admittedly, met highs and lows and has had a complicated life…
Unfortunately, I had to leave the field for health reasons. But the team, and particularly the mission’s co-director, relentlessly continued its field work, especially on political affairs which have known a worse evolution than military, economic or oil issues.
What weighs most heavily on Libya? Is it foreign intervention, armed groups? How can we explain the interest in Libya from Turkey, Russia, Egypt, the UAE and others?
There is not one civil war that happens today without foreign intervention. We live in a world where what we used to call civil war, wars made within borders by domestic actors, has ceased to be. It is not true anymore. We see foreign intervention in every civil conflict all around the world, without exception.
I see laziness in the way international media and think tanks treat Libya, that is by only looking at foreign intervention. That is because it is what is easiest to understand! Actually, we must first analyse Libya’s internal dynamics.
If the Libyans do not want to be at war with each other, no other country can force them to. This domestic dynamic can only be understood when one is in the field. Hence my decision, as soon as I arrived in Libya, to bring back the UN mission from Tunis, where it was taking refuge, to inner Tripoli, so as to be as close as possible to the Libyan and to events.
Libya’s internal dynamics are too often described from the outside as a conflict between East and West, between Benghazi and Tripoli. I don’t believe it is so. What happened in 2011 was a country imploding, with numerous armed groups managing to grab the vast arsenal left by Colonel Ghadaffi. They then obtained weapons from abroad.
Libya’s problem is that it lives off oil profits. This is not Somalia, Lebanon or Yemen. This is a country that can fund its own war. Foreign intervention does not weigh as much as in other countries where armed groups cannot equip themselves if they are not funded by foreign groups. In Libya, a 1.3m b/d output allows the country to fund its own civil war every single day. This is what hurts me most. We regret, beyond the implosion into a multitude of groups throughout the country, the fierce competition around oil profits.
Up to 2011, a “arbitrator” managed this redistribution of oil profits to all groups, cities and tribes of Libya. In an unequal way that is, by punishing some and rewarding others. But there was arbitration. Since 2011 and the weakening of the state, with armed groups imploding and multiplying, no arbitrator has been there to distribute oil profits. This is why it was, and still is, essential for my successors to try to reestablish the state.
That is a slow process that cannot be done in a day. One of my goals was to reinstate the Central Bank and I am happy that this is currently being achieved. We also wanted to reinstate oil companies, police and eventually the army.
We see negative and sometimes positive intervention but the January 9, 2020 Berlin Summit has established a code of conduct for all countries intervening in Libya. They have accepted it and more or less respected it since this summit was held and has been crucial for exiting the crisis in Libya.
Do the tribes, parties and armed groups in conflict with each other threaten to partition the country?
The risk of partition is there but I do not believe actual forces are pushing towards partition. There is a federalist party and we sometimes hear about partition but it does not worry me. I lived 15 years in Lebanon where partition was everyday talk.
I am happy to see today that this country has kept its shape. This being said, the conflict in Libya, as all other conflicts in the world, will necessarily be affected by the major crisis that is happening in Europe, as we said.
There will have to be less attention given by other countries to peripheral conflicts that may have grabbed their attention for some time. This is also true of Turkey as it involved itself in Libya and all of Africa.
Turkish Airlines is the one company that flies the most to African capitals. There is no doubt that the way Turkey will position itself after the conflict in Ukraine will enormously affect the expansion of its influence in Africa.
Libya’s problems spills over to its neighbours, particularly to the Sahel. Has it become an incubator for jihadism?
We all have an interest in preserving a strong state in Libya that can put an end to terror groups who use the country as a haven, as well as problems such as illegal immigration into Europe.
This being said, I believe the importance of the Libyan drama for the Sahel and Western Africa has been exaggerated. It is easy to say: “If there was no Libyan problem, there would be peace everywhere”. I do not believe that.
If you look at the origins of the Boko Haram movement, it has little to do with what happened in Libya. If you look at the intense internal conflicts in most Sahelian countries, they have little to do with Libya.
I do not mean to say there aren’t weapons coming from Libya that find their way there. But I do not agree with thinking about Libya as an incubator for jihadism in Africa.
Despite an extremely difficult situation, Libya managed to thwart entirely the Islamic State’s project in Sirte. In 2016, Misrata lost more than 700 youths in an extremely hard battle.
As we speak, France, the United States and other countries, authorised by Libyan authorities, continue antiterrorism actions within Libyan territory.
Your experience is well known, as is your passion for analysis and concepts. Do you offer a core idea for understanding the world and making some sense out of it?
Before the war in Crimea, I started writing a book about what I call “the deregulation of force”.
The world was heading towards a convergence of political and economic systems at the end of the Cold War in 1989. But that hit a snag. A mostly American front wanted to take strategic advantage and reshape the world its own way.
Instead of moving towards the shaping of norms, organisations and rules, we went into a deregulation of force, just as there has been a deregulation of the economy, of speech through the flourishing of social media, and of identity through the triumph of culturalism and of ideas like the clash of civilisations.
To me, this deregulation of force happened on the day when, contrary to the opinion of their allies and rivals alike and without a Security Council resolution, the United States decided to invade Iraq in March 2003.
Since then, the US has been imitated in many places. Many countries have understood that we have entered an era where force is deregulated and that they can use it if they have it. And that they should not respect the Security Council, international norms or their neighbour country’s sovereignty.
They can send their own army, foreign mercenary groups, even other countries. We saw that in many situations during the past fifteen years.
This is what is at the core of my analysis: this deregulation of force started with the American attack against Iraq, which was illegitimate, unjustified, unpunished by the Security Council, and illogical.
For this attack, reasons were continually found, each more ludicrous than the other. This logic has reached a peak today with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq, which I closely watched since I was working for the United Nations there before moving on to Yemen and Libya, has spawned imitators in Russia, China, Turkey, Iran and many other countries.
If the first world power disrespects international law, why would other powers respect it? They too will take advantage of the deregulation of force that we have suffered from for more than fifteen years.