By Talmiz Ahmad

Italy provided the latest platform to address the divisions that have wracked Libya for nearly eight years.

Groups bitterly feuding at home came together in Palermo on Nov. 12-13, accompanied by their regional sponsors and representatives of Western countries with an interest in Libya’s security and energy resources.
There have been several efforts to bring peace to this beleaguered country. In 2015 in Skhirat, Morocco, the Libyan Political Accord had set up the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj, but this received no backing from the House of Representatives (HOR) government in Tobruk, which sees the GNA as extremist and supported by Qatar and Turkey.

The HOR is ostensibly backed by military strongman Gen. Khalifa Haftar, and gets political and military support from Egypt and the UAE. Both Tripoli and Tobruk are backed by numerous armed militia that frequently engage in internecine fighting in which hundreds of people have been killed.

France and Italy are the principal European states with a stake in Libya. While their companies vie for Libya’s energy resources, Italy is immediately concerned about the flow of hundreds of poverty-stricken African migrants who sail for Italian shores from the Libyan coast.

After the Skhirat accord, the UN special envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salame, prepared an action plan in September 2017 that called for a national reconciliation conference, the framing of a new constitution, its approval through a national referendum, and fresh elections for a new national government.

The conference, as expected, did not yield any dramatic results, but affirmed support for the Salame action plan and the reconciliation process.

Salame has now come up with an updated plan under which the reconciliation conference will take place early next year. Here, the blueprint for the reorganization and revitalization of Libya’s political, military, economic, financial and energy institutions will be finalized, setting the stage for elections in the spring of 2019.

In the run-up to the Palermo conference, a new player made its presence felt quite forcefully: Russia. On the eve of the conference, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met the leaders of all the major Libyan factions in Moscow.

The surprise visitor to Moscow was Haftar, who met with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the head of the general staff of the Russian Army, Valery Gerasimov.

The alleged head of the Wagner private military contractor group, Evgeniy Progozhin, was seen at the meetings, which encouraged talk about the possible deployment of Russian mercenaries in Libya.

The other player active diplomatically before Palermo was Turkey. On Nov. 5-6, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and the Chief of General Staff Yasar Guler met top political leaders in the Tripoli government, who sought assurances of a Turkish role in reorganizing and upgrading a unified national army, competing with a similar Egyptian initiative for Haftar and the Tobruk government.

This was followed by a visit by the Tripoli-based foreign minister, the central bank governor and the deputy health minister to Istanbul, where they were hosted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

They sought an increased Turkish role in their country’s reconstruction and easier access to Turkey for Libyan nationals.

The Palermo conference attracted 36 delegations; Russia’s was led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. He was president when Moscow backed the UN Security Council resolution that was later (mis)used by Western powers to bomb Tripoli and effect regime change, the origin of Libya’s current discord and malaise.

The conference got off to a bad start for Turkey. On Haftar’s insistence, its delegation was not invited to an informal closed-door meeting of principal delegation heads. So the delegation, headed by Vice President Fuat Oktay, left Palermo.

This suggested an Egyptian hand since President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi had been instrumental in getting a seemingly reluctant Haftar to attend the meeting, the latter’s presence being crucial to the conference’s success.

The conference, as expected, did not yield any dramatic results, but affirmed support for the Salame action plan and the reconciliation process.

Medvedev said Russia had a long-term interest in Libya that would include “the restoration of the economy” and of “the social sphere” in order to resume normal life.

But observers’ main focus remains Russia’s military role, including the possible deployment of mercenaries, the building up of a national army via weapons’ supplies and training, and even the setting up of bases in Libya, though this is hotly denied by Russian officials.

Despite the fiasco in Palermo, Turkey is likely to remain committed to the Tripoli-based Islamist group and challenge Haftar and the regional powers that back him.

A game-changer would be greater Turkish-Russian cooperation to reconcile the warring factions, as in the case of Syria.

Strong ties between Ankara and Moscow, and their constructive role in the Astana process regarding Syria, suggest that this is doable. Until then, there will be no peace on the Libyan horizon.

Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian diplomat who holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.




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