By Grigory Lukyanov, Valdai Club
On January 19, an international conference on the situation in Libya was held in Berlin, during which, at the invitation of Chancellor Angela Merkel, representatives of a number of interested states took part – Algeria, Great Britain, Germany, Egypt, Italy, China, the United Arab Emirates, the Republic of Congo, Russia, the USA, Turkey, France, as well as representatives of international organisations and associations – the United Nations, the African Union, the European Union and the League of Arab States. Fayez al-Sarraj, Chairman of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, Commander-in-Chief of the Libyan National Army (LNA), were invited to participate in the meeting.
Following the meeting, the German Foreign Ministry published the text of the final communiqué agreed upon by the participants, reflecting a common vision of the basic principles and directions of the political settlement process. To a certain extent, the document is based on the declarative documents on the principles and mechanisms of political settlement, signed earlier by Fayez al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar with foreign mediation in Abu Dhabi (2017), Paris (2017-2018), Rome and Palermo (2018). The ongoing crisis of the 2015 Skhirat agreements has shaped the modern disorder in Libya. The main issues of the settlement process can be summarised in terms of six baskets: a ceasefire, an arms embargo, the beginning of political negotiations, reform of security agencies, economic reform, and compliance with humanitarian law and human rights. Each of the baskets is proposed to be considered separately. It is still difficult to fully assess how much this option is realisable and promising, since earlier the resolution of any group of economic and security issues has always been linked by the conflicting parties with political agreements and guarantees.
At the preparatory stage, when the conference itself was preceded by five rounds of negotiations, a series of organisational meetings, including the negotiations organized by Russia and Turkey on January 13 in Moscow, it became clear, that the main element of the German approach to the Libyan dossier, which distinguishes it from the French (see negotiations in Paris in July 2017 and May 2018) or Italian (see the conference in Palermo in November 2018), is a desire to discuss ways to stop threats and the subsequent settlement of the armed conflict in the first place, not by the participants in the confrontation themselves, but by the most interested states capable of influencing the situation. Paying increased attention to the ability to influence the situation here and now, the German side significantly levelled the role of Libya’s neighbours, such as Algeria (which was invited only after lobbying by Turkey), Chad and Sudan, which were not invited at all. At the same time, from the very beginning, the German side focused on the need to overcome differences within the EU (on the one hand, between France and Italy, and on the other hand, between the interested Mediterranean countries and indifferent EU members in Central and Eastern Europe), and on the development of a comprehensive unified EU strategy on the Libyan issue. At the end of the conference, Berlin declared the desire of the EU to come up with a potentially more active and consistent policy and play the role of a guarantor of the implementation of the plan of Ghassan Salame, the UN Special Representative for Libya.
The method of dividing of problematic issues into baskets for separate consideration also confirms the fact, that the German side first and foremost seeks to establish an effective dialogue between interested parties not inside Libya itself, but outside it. Within the framework of the Berlin conference, the key emphasis was placed on the assessment of the destructive influence of external actors on the development of the conflict in Libya and on the mechanisms for ending it. It is difficult to disagree with this, but properly this external influence forms the main paradox of the situation in Libya. The active foreign support of Haftar and al-Sarraj has made them the most visible figures in the arena of the military-political crisis in Libya, endowing them with resources and real political weight, but at the same time, dependence on foreign aid is consistently the only reason and guarantee for their participation in the negotiation process. Only countries that support the LNA, such as the UAE, Egypt and France, have exclusive opportunities to influence Haftar, and Turkey and Qatar – al-Sarraj. If the Berlin communique offers those countries, that today have at least some opportunity to influence the situation in Libya, to abandon such activity, then it is not clear how to implement other decisions.
The greatest risks are connected with the fact, that the Libyan leaders al-Sarraj and Haftar, even though they were present at the conference, and also had the opportunity to meet with individual leaders and representatives of the participating countries, performed only the role of statisticians rather than full-fledged participants in the discussion. The conference organizers seemed to ignore, that the Libyan politicians arrived in Berlin with their own vision of the situation and understanding of the specifics of the moment. Following the spirit, and not the letter of the “baskets” principle, they are clearly not ready to separate the security issues from the solution of acute and important questions of their powers. Marshal Haftar exerted all the available forces and achieved serious military successes in 2019, and he is not ready to make concessions to his opponents in Tripoli, but to balance their influence with available military means. From his point of view, the ceasefire negotiations are a prelude to substantive talks about the surrender of the GNA, and the question of creating a unified security system under the control of the civil government directly depends on whether or not that government includes al-Sarraj and others who are considered criminals in Tobruk. For Fayez al-Sarraj, the problem is not only the political, but also the physical survival of his cabinet, which given the reality of recent months is directly dependent on assistance from Turkey. Recognising the authority of the UN and the EU, the leadership of the GNA at the critical moment in 2019 received the military assistance, so necessary for its survival, not from the international organizations, but from the Turkish government. Memorandums of cooperation with Turkey, signed by the GNA, consolidated unprecedented opportunities for Ankara and gave President Erdogan the necessary tools to influence the entire Eastern Mediterranean region, which he is not in a hurry to abandon.
Moreover, the very presence in Berlin of Haftar and al-Sarraj, which was the result of active lobbying by Moscow, cannot guarantee the recognition of the legitimacy of the reached agreements by all other prominent actors in the Libyan conflict. The configuration of political forces in Libya is much more complicated than the elementary binary model of Tripoli-Tobruk, GNA-LNA or Haftar-al-Sarraj. Many different factions have their own interests and aspirations, which usually don’t coincide with the interests of the big players.
Oftentimes they have already demonstrated that one should not overestimate the ability of “big fish” to control the situation in a country covered by a civil war. Let us recall the most telling example, when in May 2017 an attack was made by the armed militia from northwestern Libya on the LNA Brak El-Shati military base in the south of the country, which led to the disruption of the earlier reached agreements in Abu Dhabi and the resumption of large-scale military operations. The military-political crisis, which has been going on for 9 years, has long been developing in a fundamentally new reality, when unwritten laws of the economy and wartime politics prevail in the once richest country in North Africa. Both Haftar and al-Sarraj rely on many armed militia units, often with a large share of economic autonomy and political independence. In the absence of legitimate political institutions, these units have turned into powerful forces, far from always interested in ending the conflict, which creates good conditions for their existence and prosperity.
Under these conditions, the fragile hope presented by the conference in Berlin, is very vulnerable, because real, not formal, implementation of its decisions is possible only with the active participation of the Libyans themselves.