Germany and the United Nations are set to host another round of Libya peace talks. New Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah is set to attend, but there are questions about how much of a say Libyans will have in decisions.
Diplomats taking part in an international conference on Libya this week in Berlin are aiming to take stock of the war-torn country’s political progress, prepare for a national election set for December, and discuss the withdrawal of foreign troops and mercenaries.
The majority of the attendees — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China — as well as Italy, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the EU and the UN already met at the first international conference on Libya, also hosted by Germany, in January 2020.
However, this time they’ll be joined by members of the newly-formed Libyan transitional Government of National Unity (GNA) under Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who is set to attend.
What has changed in Libya?
Libya’s political situation has changed significantly since the first Berlin peace conference in early 2020.
A truce between the Tripoli-based GNA and the Benghazi-based Libyan National Army (LNA) under General Khalifa Haftar last August became a formal cease-fire in October. This paved the way for the UN-led formation of an interim government under Dbeibah.
The new interim government, elected in February, will run the country until polls on December 24, when Libyans are due to freely elect the next administration.
Until then, the Tripoli-based government has the responsibility to prepare the elections, focus on unifying Libya’s divided institutions and security forces, and to kick-start
To understand the challenge faced by the interim government, it’s important to highlight that Tripoli in the west and Benghazi in the east are symbolic for the domestic division of the oil-rich country.
Dbeibah’s government had replaced the two previous rival administrations — one based in the east and another in the west — that were ruling Libya since 2014.
The Tripoli-and GNA-allied countries are Turkey and Qatar, while in Benghazi the Libyan National Army (LNA) under General Khalifa Haftar rule with their allies Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
However, despite the continuous fight for power, a military solution between the warring GNA and LNA was never accomplished, but ongoing fights left the country torn apart and war-ridden.
France backs withdrawal of foreign mercenaries
While many other aspects on the ground have changed since January 2020, two significant results of the last Berlin Libya summit that were urged by both the EU and the UN have still to be implemented. These are the upholding of an arms embargo and the withdrawal of foreign troops and mercenaries.
According to recent numbers by the UN, more than 20,000 foreign mercenaries and military personnel are still in Libya. They include fighters from Turkey, Russia, Sudan and Chad. So far, there doesn’t seem much interest in relocating fighters to their home countries, or in keeping the arms embargo.
The brokered arms embargo had only lasted a few days. The embargo was limited to transports via the Mediterranean Sea. Experts believe that this was directly linked to migration to Europe — embargo-observing ships would be responsible for refugees in danger. Transports from neighboring countries, such as Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Sudan or Egypt were excluded.
Libyan voices unlikely to prevail
Sami Hamdi, managing director of the International Interest, a global risk and intelligence company in London, said he believes that Libya is not yet stable and independent enough for its politicians to form their own agenda.
“To put it quite shortly, what we need is an international accord over what Libya is supposed to be within the context of the international community, and not in the context of the Libyans,” he said.
Hamdi believes that “despite the attendance of the transitional government, it is rather obvious that whatever emerges from this conference will be uniquely an international decision, that each of the international powers will be expected to impress upon their proxies.”
Elections or no elections?
Leading up to Wednesday’s conference in Berlin, Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas reacted to rumors that the transitional government may decide not to hold the election slated for December — somewhat problematic, since the topic is one of the main pillars of the conference.
But on Monday, Germany’s foreign minister told the newspaper Die Welt that he had addressed this in a conversation with Dbeibah. “He assured me that they are working very intensively on the preparation of the elections,” said Maas.
“We understand that, after everything that has happened in Libya in the past, it is not that easy to organize elections. But difficult as it may be, I don’t get the impression from my Libyan interlocutors that they want to postpone or even cancel the elections any longer.”
Berlin conference lends hope for Libya mercenary withdrawal
The Berlin Conference on Libya provided hope for stability in the war-torn country as countries committed themselves to the withdrawal of all foreign fighters and mercenaries and the United Nations special envoy welcomed the process.
According to a U.N. statement Thursday, Jan Kubis “welcomes the Conclusions of the Second International Conference on Libya (Berlin II).”
However, more needs to be done to consolidate this progress and ensure sustainable stability and peace in Libya, it added. The statement further put forth that the special envoy also stressed the importance of addressing all human rights violations and abuses as well as violations of international humanitarian law in Libya. Kubis urged “all Libyans and external parties to agree on a comprehensive plan, with clear timelines” to achieve the withdrawal of foreign forces in the North African country.
Libyan Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush voiced hope that there would finally be progress on a key pledge from the first conference in January 2020 – to pull foreign fighters out.
“We have a progress in terms of mercenaries, so you know hopefully within coming days, mercenaries from both sides (are) going to be withdrawing and I think this is going to be encouraging,” she told reporters.
The withdrawal, which was agreed as part of a cease-fire in October, must be implemented in full and “without further delay,” according to the final declaration from the conference.
All parties must refrain from actions that exacerbate the conflict, including “financing military capabilities or recruiting foreign fighters and mercenaries,” it said.
The seven-page statement notes that Turkey expressed reservations at the conference about the demand for an immediate withdrawal.
Turkey has troops in Tripoli, which it argues were sent under a bilateral agreement with the government, implying that they are not affected by a request for foreign troops to leave.
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also attended the talks, tweeting after the meeting: “Emphasized that we will continue to support peace, security, stability and sovereignty of Libya.”
According to German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, the underlying reason for this discussion has to do with the fact that “regular forces” – for example, those training security forces in the country – should not be compared to mercenaries.
“This has occupied us very intensively today,” Maas said after the conference concluded.
Representatives from 16 countries and four international organizations were at the one-day meeting in Berlin, co-hosted by Germany and the United Nations.
“We will not rest until the last foreign force … has left the country,” Maas stressed.
He conceded, however, that this can only happen gradually. The road to peace is not a sprint, but rather a marathon, he said.
Germany and the other participants stressed the importance of planned elections for the peace process.
“Hardly anything is as crucial for peace and stability in Libya as the nationwide elections on Dec. 24,” Maas said.
Maas called for the election date to be respected: “After decades of dictatorship and years of conflict, the people of Libya finally want to be heard.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the importance of joint U.S.-German action to resolve the Libyan conflict. It is very important “that we send a united signal towards Libya,” Merkel said on Wednesday before talks with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Berlin.
She said she was pleased that the U.S. was back on the multilateral stage. “Germany and the U.S. are partners in this context. And we know about our responsibility.”
Merkel stressed that she wanted the Libyan people to decide on their own future. She also wanted to make it clear that international partners were ready to accompany them on this path. This is important in view of the strategic importance of the situation in Libya, for example with regard to Africa and the African-European relationship.
Blinken, on his first trip to Germany as U.S. secretary of state, echoed Maas and urged parties to Libya’s protracted conflict to seize the chance for peace by getting foreign fighters out of the country and laying a path for elections in December.
“We have an opportunity that we have not had in recent years to really help Libya move forward as a safe, secure, sovereign country,” Blinken said in Berlin alongside his German counterpart.
According to estimates by the U.N., some 20,000 foreign mercenaries were stationed in Libya in December 2020, and the figure has not significantly changed. Arms deliveries have also not stopped.
Russia has been one of the biggest supporters of the warlord Khalifa Haftar along with France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who also backed Haftar’s offensive on the capital Tripoli in 2019.
Formed back in 2014 in Ukraine and owned by businessperson Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group is intensely involved in several conflicts.
The group made its presence most pronounced in Syria and Libya, where Russia actively participated in the civil war and reportedly used the Wagner Group as its proxy in the region. Although Russia officially does not acknowledge any cooperation with the Wagner Group, the reports from the field prove otherwise.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres believes the election planned in war-torn Libya for Dec. 24 is in danger.
In order to achieve this goal, “urgent action” by the transitional government in the North African country is necessary, Guterres said in a video address at the start of the conference.
According to experts, one of the most pressing problems is the lack of a legal basis for the vote. Among other things, there is still disagreement about whether the Libyans should only decide on the parliament or also on a new president.
German diplomatic circles have also expressed doubts about whether the election will take place as planned.
The oil-rich country descended into chaos after dictator Moammar Gadhafi was toppled and killed in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising, resulting in multiple forces vying for power.
In recent years Libya has been split between two rival administrations backed by foreign forces and countless militias.
In October, after Turkey stepped up its support for the Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli against the forces of putschist Gen. Haftar, the two camps agreed to a cease-fire in Geneva.
Peace efforts gathered pace after an interim unity government took office in March to lead the country through the December poll.
However, about 1.3 million people in Libya are dependent on humanitarian aid – an increase of 400,000 since last year, according to U.N. figures.
Living conditions and supplies such as electricity and water remain poor for the majority of Libyans. The people would like to see an upturn in the economy. However, corruption and nepotism are widespread.
Germany has taken on a mediator role in the Libyan conflict, and Wednesday’s talks follow up on a major conference held in Berlin in early 2020.
Germany has concrete interests, as the main routes for refugees seeking to cross the Mediterranean to Europe pass through Libya.