Libya Tribune

After failure in Moscow, peace talks now move to Berlin. Here’s a look at who’s coming and why.

Libya has been on fire since the 2011 ouster of Muammar Qaddafi, split between rival leaders fighting for control while world powers try to play kingmaker.

Russia, Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Italy, and France have all been drawn in to the confrontation between the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and eastern-based military commander Khalifa Haftar, whose forces have been camped on the southern outskirts of the capital since April.

After brokering a truce, Russia and Turkey tried unsuccessfully on Monday to seal a peace deal in Moscow. Sarraj signed, but Haftar rebuffed. The commander then raised the stakes higher by halving Libya’s oil output with a port blockade on the eve of an international conference in Berlin that aims to end nine months of fighting.

Failure risks seeing the holder of Africa’s largest oil reserves spiral into a major conflagration and Haftar’s latest move could change the calculus of the various foreign players. Sarraj said in an interview on Saturday it showed his rival isn’t ready for peace.

Here’s a look at who came to Berlin and why.

Turkey

Ankara’s interest in Libya goes back to the Ottoman Empire. Turkish officers including Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, organized Libyan resistance against invading Italian armies a century ago.

Today, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees a maritime border deal with the UN-backed government in Tripoli to be key to Turkish aspirations for more clout in the resource-rich waters of the Mediterranean, something that worries fellow NATO member Greece. Turkish contractors also have billions of dollars worth of receivables from past projects in Libya, where they were among the most active businessmen until Qaddafi’s ouster.

Russia

Along with Erdogan, President Vladimir Putin pushed Libya’s feuding rivals to attend the Moscow peace talks. Russia and Turkey back rival sides in Libya—just as they have in Syria—and Putin may use his leverage to secure concessions from Erdogan in both theaters of conflict.

Brokering a settlement could also gain some useful kudos with Germany and the EU. But a bigger prize would be Russia securing access to Libyan oil deals.

Germany

Since the country wasn’t actively involved in Qaddafi’s overthrow, it can now present itself as a neutral mediator in the conflict. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s main interest is to reestablish a stable government that’s able to stop the flow of migrants from central Africa. 

Germany also sees Libya, which turned into a hotbed for militant Islamist groups in the post-Qaddafi chaos, as an important actor in the fight against the jihadists.

Italy

Libya was an Italian colony from the early 20th century until the aftermath of World War II and the legacy of that era endures.

Energy giant Eni SpA is the biggest player in the Libyan oil industry, while former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was tight with Qaddafi and highly skeptical about his removal.

Among Italian officials there’s a strong sense of “we told you so” about the mess that followed the NATO air campaign led by France and the U.K. In private, they’re highly critical of French intervention in the country. 

Italy is also on the front line of the refugee crisis as migrants cross the Mediterranean.

France

France was the driving force in the NATO-led air campaign that ousted Qaddafi and has been playing both sides in the current conflict. Since at least 2015, the year after the country split between rival administrations, Paris has backed the UN-mediated peace process though also helped Haftar.

One reason is that the general is seen as someone who can stem the supply of arms and money to jihadist groups in the Sahel, where French troops are hunting down their leaders.

President Emmanuel Macron has also burnished Haftar’s image politically, inviting the general and Sarraj to Paris in 2017 to try and broker a power-sharing deal. 

Egypt

The government in Cairo also sees Haftar as the only real bulwark against Islamist extremism. There’s concern Libya’s eastern border could become a safe haven for militants who would then send fighters and weapons into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

The kidnapping and beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts by a Libya cell linked to Islamic State heightened concerns. 

Haftar has admitted to close cooperation with Cairo, especially on intelligence sharing and military assistance. 

U.A.E. 

Like Egypt, the U.A.E. sees Haftar as a strongman able to crush the threat posed by Islamist militants. The Gulf state has provided the Libyan general with military and logistical support, and conducts drone strikes on his behalf.

Britain

The U.K. has largely withdrawn from an active role in the Middle East, especially anything that smacks of regime change, since former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to join U.S. President George W. Bush in toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

At one point, the U.K. seemed to be vying with France over who would lead the intervention, but Prime Minister David Cameron was criticized by lawmakers for contributing to the creation of a failed state.

When it came to Syria two years later, Cameron lost a vote in Parliament on backing strikes. Since 2016, the country has been consumed by its tortuous quest to leave the EU.

U.S.

Ever since the killing of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi in 2012, Washington has limited its role to occasional air strikes targeting members of Islamic State.

It was sending mixed messages to Libya’s rival administrations until it noticed what Putin was doing. Officials told Bloomberg that Russia sent hundreds of mercenaries in September to support Haftar (Putin denies this).

Weeks later, a U.S drone was downed and the Americans began pushing Haftar for a cease-fire and hoping for a peace deal that would squeeze out Russia.

China

Beijing has called for a return to talks and an end to violence in Libya, in part to help its state-owned companies make deals and secure resources.

While China has less at stake politically, it will want to ensure its interests are looked after and is sending a top diplomat to Berlin. 

In May 2018, for example, PetroChina agreed to buy Libyan crude. There might also be opportunities arising from the reconstruction of the country and to link up with other Chinese projects in the Mediterranean as part of the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

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With assistance by Caroline Alexander, Anthony Halpin, Arne Delfs, Onur Ant, Paul Tugwell, Samer Al-Atrush, Zoe Schneeweiss, Thomas Penny, Peter Martin, Patrick Donahue, and Ania Nussbaum

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