By Barbara Bibbo
Meeting fell short of putting Haftar in his place, as fears rise that Libya’s destiny – like Syria’s – would be decided by foreign powers.
The Berlin conference that convened last month to salvage the feeble Libyan political process was generally regarded by participants as a step in the right direction. German Chancellor Angela Merkel successfully kept the motion afloat as catastrophe loomed.
A few more days, maybe a few more hours, and the situation would have been past recovery. With Tripoli’s civilian population under threat of massacre by renegade general Khalifa Haftar, the United Nations and the international community were losing face.
Turkey would have become Libya’s only saviour, with an eye on its oilfields. Egypt and the UAE would have been obliged to keep their purses open to fund Haftar and his reckless militias, as Russia pondered how to deal with its ungrateful client, after Haftar left Moscow without signing a ceasefire deal brokered by the Kremlin.
When the Berlin conference began, Haftar was about to launch his final assault on Tripoli, with the aid of Russian mercenaries and Emirati military support. Meanwhile 2,000 Syrian fighters had been deployed from Turkey to assist Tripoli, with Ankara promising to land its own troops soon.
Germany, the only country in Europe with enough political clout to summon all the players, preempted further perilous moves and came to everyone’s rescue – at least for the moment.
Merkel was successful in one regard: she put Germany at the head of Europe’s policies towards the southern Mediterranean. This was a role the country had previously shelved, rather looking east and focusing on relations with Russia and Turkey on behalf of the bloc, Arturo Varvelli, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told MEE.
Germany’s engagement in managing the Libya crisis briefly raised hopes that the military confrontation might be stopped, and that the process was being pushed in the right direction, towards a negotiated political solution under the umbrella of the UN.
France and Italy, the two European countries primarily involved in Libya, have thus far been either disruptive or ineffective. A German-led initiative containing their interference came as a welcome development to many Libya observers. France in particular has been accused of playing a double game in Libya, undermining any attempt at a cohesive European response in support of a negotiated solution.
Since the toppling of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, France has been propping up Haftar’s attempt to conquer the country’s leadership. While formally backing the UN-sponsored Government of National Accord (GNA), France has provided Haftar with arms and military intelligence, alongside the UAE, Egypt and Russia.
An incident in 2016, when three French soldiers died in a plane crash, revealed Paris’ secret operations in aid of Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA). In 2019, while Tripoli was under siege, the Elysee was unable to explain why French anti-tank missiles were found in the hands of Haftar’s militias, in a clear breach of a UN arms embargo.
Meanwhile, Italy has been supporting the UN-backed GNA, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, in a bid to preserve its energy interests and longtime investments in the former colony, an area that France has always coveted. But Italy’s latest attempts to befriend Haftar and mediate between Tripoli and Benghazi, in addition to Rome’s stark refusal to provide Tripoli with military aid, have only complicated relations.
But has Germany been successful in its attempt to rein everyone in and reset the path of the crisis? No – the events on the ground seem to indicate that the summit had failed.
The conference ended with a 55-point communique calling for a permanent ceasefire, the implementation of a UN arms embargo, the dismantling of militias, and the resumption of political process – all under the auspices of the UN Support Mission in Libya.
In a highly militarised conflict, with foreign forces and mercenaries on the ground, it is hard to figure out how a few UN employees from their bureau in Tunis could possibly enforce any of the above.
‘Last nail in the coffin’
As the document got the nod from Turkey, Russia, Germany, France, the US, the UAE, Egypt and others, militias loyal to Haftar continued their attacks on Tripoli, shut down eastern oil ports and imposed a no-fly zone on the capital.
Oil revenues are controlled by the Tripoli-based state oil firm National Oil Corporation (NOC), which supports the internationally recognised government. By cutting the oil, Haftar has sought to export it and bypass the NOC.
France immediately halted a joint US-EU resolution meant to condemn Haftar’s blockade on oil and therefore Tripoli’s lifeline. It was the first clue that participants in Berlin were paying lip-service to the diplomatic efforts, while continuing to pursue their own agendas.
“Berlin has probably been the last nail in the coffin of the UN-led process in Libya,” Karim Mezran, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, told MEE.
“Acknowledging an aspiring dictator as a legitimate interlocutor for the Libyans, a man whose militias stand accused of war crimes, was simply immoral to start with.”
Mezran said the international community has caved to the Arab and French narrative that Haftar is the strongman Libya needs to unify the country, keep Islamists at bay and wipe out groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
However, the 76-year-old general, a former CIA-trained officer, doesn’t lead a secular army, but rather a heterogeneous set of tribal militias, Saudi-backed hardline Salafists and mercenaries from other African countries, ready to sell themselves to the highest bidder.
Haftar is also highly unpredictable. In Moscow, he apparently took the advice of his “consultants” accompanying him – rather than listening to his Russian sponsor – and left without endorsing the Russian proposal for a truce, causing some irritation at the Kremlin, which is building a reputation as a regional peace broker.
“Berlin is yet another conference Haftar has used to buy time,” Mezran said. “The Western silence over his siege of Tripoli and the killing of thousands of people and civilians is scandalous and is just emboldening him.”
Sarraj: A doomed government?
With the Berlin communique calling for the creation of a “new, representative and unified” government – one that would appease Haftar and his sponsors – Sarraj’s days are numbered. He has been unable to curb the country’s cash crisis and rampant corruption. He has also failed to guarantee an equal distribution of the country’s revenues to eastern and southern provinces, his foes say.
Without an international force to protect his government, Sarraj has been left to the mercy of the mighty militia groups that rule Tripoli, over whom his government is helpless. On the other side, rival institutions in eastern Libya and Haftar’s LNA enjoy foreign military and political support. Sarraj’s government seems doomed.
In recent weeks, the Libyan crisis seemed to have reached a tipping point, while Europe sat at the windowsill looking in. Nine months into the siege of Tripoli, the dispatch of hundreds of Russian military contractors to fight on the side of Haftar tipped the balance of power in his favour. Sarraj knocked on every door in Europe asking for military aid, but left disappointed each time.
Only Turkey replied to Sarraj’s call by sending its own advisors and some 2,000 Syrian fighters, following a maritime agreement that granted Ankara exclusive rights over a sea strip in the eastern Mediterranean. The deal angered both Arab and European countries and further polarised European states, with Greece and Cyprus now siding with Haftar.
Turkey’s bargaining chip
Turkey, while wishing to see a pro-Islamist government in Tripoli, will also be using Libya as a bargaining chip at other negotiating tables. Ankara, which faces a serious economic crisis and finds itself sidelined by Europe and the US, is handling difficult files in Syria and in relation to migration. A foothold in Libya will guarantee Turkey space for maneuvering on other vital issues.
But Turkey’s intervention, while giving the GNA some respite, has further complicated the path towards a solution. If the Berlin conference remains a temporary attempt to contain Turkey’s ambitions, rather than finding a negotiated solution to the Libya crisis, its benefits will be short-lived and turmoil will soon resume. With Europe more polarised and the US disengaged, it may signal the end of the UN-led political process in the country.
As in Syria, the destiny of Libya would be decided by foreign powers.
Secondly, there can be no condoning of war crimes, extrajudicial killings or enforced disappearances on either side. By appeasing a would-be dictator without imposing on Haftar clear red lines, Berlin may be dealing itself a losing hand.
While leaders at the conference sanctioned Haftar’s role as inescapable in any future arrangement, they disregarded the fact that his ambitions – and those of his sponsors – go in the opposite direction of a democratic, stable and independent Libya.
Haftar’s siege of Tripoli’s population should have been clearly condemned. But Berlin fell short of putting Haftar in his place, and in doing so, fatally damaged any prospects for a fresh path for Libya.
Without a military presence and an international force to contain the fighting in Libya, there is little Germany and the rest of Europe can do.
In Berlin, European countries flagged up the resumption of Operation Sophia, formally the European Union Naval Force Mediterranean, with the aim of implementing the arms embargo. But “it’s difficult to imagine that European countries would be willing to take on Russian, Turkish or other vessels,” Varvelli said.
On the heels of the Berlin conference, Nato said it would offer the EU its support in Libya, if requested. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s statement elicited surprise in some quarters, as Europe is not even capable of deploying a multinational army of its own.
“One of the reasons why Europe would be unable to operate as suggested, is that Turkey has always refused any attempt by the European Union to utilise the Nato military infrastructure,” former Nato General Leonardo Tricarico, who now heads the ICSA security and intelligence think tank, told MEE.
“Europe cannot rely on Nato, and therefore has to conduct any military operation entirely on its own, as Mr Stoltenberg knows very well,” Tricarico said.
As of last week, the UN special envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salame, was still working on convening a military committee representing the two warring sides in Geneva.
“Berlin was a serious effort to try to unify a discordant international community,” he said in a statement, while expressing outrage over “the conduct of actors inside and outside the country who nod towards peace yet double down on military actions.”
The so-called 5+5 meeting was supposed to be the first building bloc of the Berlin conference. But indiscriminate shelling continued to hit residential areas in Tripoli and Turkish frigates appeared off the Libyan coast, as if the Berlin meeting never happened.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Barbara Bibbo’ is an Italian journalist who has been living and working in the Middle East for the past 20 years. She has been a producer at Aljazeera English between 2008 and 2015, doing extensive research on international issues and world leading figures for the Talk to Aljazeera show. Her interviews and articles have also appeared or been quoted by El Pais, Repubblica, the New York Review of Books, La Voce di New York and other publications worldwide.