The overlapping of civil and proxy wars in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen have gradually turned the wider Mediterranean into a land of conflicts, asymmetric threats and geopolitical challenges. In particular, the implosion of some coastal states of the southern shore has undermined the stability and legitimacy of the old regional system built in the post-Cold war. This shift has unequivocally stressed a new perception of the Mediterranean arena: an expanded and wider space turned in one of the world’s most volatile regions.
The eruption of conflicts in some Mediterranean countries has helped to develop this area into a new space of competition, even among global players. The several wars and tensions that have broken out in the Mediterranean since the post-Arab Spring are partially influenced by competition between various regional and external players (especially Russia, Turkey and Gulf monarchies), contributing to reshape challenges to the security and stability of this geopolitical arena. In fact, several adverse interests and problems, as well as a lack of support from regional and great powers, have thwarted any diplomatic negotiations impeding progress towards a shared and peaceful solution.
From this perspective, the crises in Libya and Syria emerged as paradigm of the contemporary chaos in the wider region, in which conflicts, power policies, expanding geopolitical pressures, as well as the lack of clear fault lines and coherent political-military strategies, have shaped this fragmented scenario in a new context of global competition. In the wake of recent battlefield developments in Libya and Syria, international powers are manoeuvring for influence and supremacy, with far-reaching implications for each national sovereignty, and cohesion.
In fact, the latest developments in Libya (General Khalifa Haftar’s strategic retreat from the Western part of the country) and in Syria (the agreement between Russia and Turkey that stopped fighting in Idlib) seem to be leading towards a period of reassessments, which does not, however, seem to presage an end to the crises. In the same way, external powers attempt to freeze these conflicts to establish a settlement aimed at de-escalating tensions in the hope that a stalemate could lead to a de facto win-win situation for everyone. But managing these conflicts would fragment coalitions, preventing or slowing a clear victory of one side. This outcome cannot be averted due to the involvement of proxy powers.
The ratio of this pattern of negotiation is based on two main features: on the one hand, the new international framework created after the Cold war, in which aspiring powers tried to leverage their involvement in different ways but did not get directly involved in the conflicts; on the other, the fact that these civil wars did not have clear winners and losers. A trend that repeats itself constantly from the Balkan wars in the 1990s to the present day, adapting to the different international needs of uni/multilateralism. This pattern evolved over the years, but its pillars have remained roughly the same: 1) managing compromises among the local actors, 2) protecting conflicting interests for the external powers.
The emergence of this framework in the Arab-Mediterranean conflicts has provoked a constant failure in all recent regional crises. Libya and Syria wars, indeed, fall within the above picture, without altering the nature or the balance of power but with never ending conflicts and humanitarian catastrophes. In light of this, international powers tried to update this multilateral approach, proposing a new model based on a crystallization of conflicts and the protection of the interests of international players involved in that confrontations. This new approach has started to widespread in every crisis on the Wider Mediterranean, particularly in Syria, where Russia, Turkey and Iran – the main players involved – have tried to manage the conflict by freezing the war. This new model of negotiation is known as Astana Process. An attempt was made to replicate it also in Libya, with the same outcome of failure. the Astana approach is not aimed to solve a crisis but rather to freeze a conflict, waiting for a good compromise between external actors. Although this process could be an agile diplomatic tool to guarantee a tactical success in the power proxy strategy, it also highlights the external actor’s inability (or unwillingness) to resolve the interminable crises.
Clearly, the Astana approach cannot be a model solution in Syria and Libya, where even a potential Turkish-Russian deal would, at best, lead to a de-facto partition of these countries into spheres of interests. This means that conflicts would diffuse locally, with militia groups contesting power and resources at the local level, and that any truce could be potentially broken. In addition, other proxy powers in Libya (such as France, Egypt, UAE) and in Syria (as Iran or Hezbollah) could dispute any agreement that doesn’t satisfy them and their goals.
In short, this approach doesn’t solve any crisis, but it legitimizes foreign meddling in local conflicts, elevating the external players’ interests over those of local actors, of which they become their undeclared representatives in negotiations. Basically, the Astana model is only useful for achieving political compromises in the short term without the definition of a comprehensive solution to conflicts in this new phase of the multipolar era. It is therefore a diplomatic tool to guarantee sharing power and to prevent military escalations. The same framework that has been used – without any results – in Syria since January 2017 and in January 2020 during the Berlin Conference for Libya aimed at stopping the violence and defining steps towards a truce for those on the ground. Despite international support, the deal reached in Berlin has been considered a failure, due to the developments in the civil war.
In conclusion, the most dangerous risk for Libya and Syria is that they could quickly find itself facing protracted and expanded struggles, opening the doors to a new conflict dimension, in which these crises could resemble similar landscape, although persist different peculiarities. A further internationalization of these conflicts could finally lead to an overcoming of the local dimension causing a total deadlock to the complete disadvantage of the local populations and the emergence of several war of attrition in increasingly smaller contexts.
 E. Dacrema, “From Syria to Libya: Why the ‘Astana Approach’ Doesn’t Work”, Commentary, Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), February 28, 2020.