Berlin conference on Libya postponed, Turkish involvement continues

Given the growing international condemnation of the Syrian operation, Sarraj may not want to be seen as wholly tied to Turkey but he has little option.
Saturday 12/10/2019
A journalist reports from the front line during clashes between forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar and fighters loyal to the Libyan Government of National Accord, south of Tripoli. (AFP)
Divided by conflict. A journalist reports from the front line during clashes between forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar and fighters loyal to the Libyan Government of National Accord, south of Tripoli. (AFP)

TUNIS - International efforts to resolve the conflict in Libya sustained another setback with the proposed Berlin conference being delayed.

Designed to convince countries to stop supplying weapons and other support to warring sides in Libya to help the country start towards a reconciliation, the meeting was planned to take place in October.

However, lack of progress on practical issues delayed it. There are conflicting reports as to when it might be rescheduled.

Despite a “pre-Berlin” mini-summit on Libya on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, led by the French and Italian foreign ministers, at which it was again stated that there could be no military solution to the conflict and that there had to be a return to the political process, there is no agreement on how to stop the flow of arms that could be enforced or on who would attend the meeting.

One of the most contentious issues has been the representation of Libya at the conference. The five permanent UN Security Council members along with Italy and Germany, as the host, would attend but no Libyans, either from the Government of National Accord (GNA) or the Libyan National Army (LNA).

French officials denied reports that Qatar would be excluded from the conference.

Along with Turkey, Qatar is a principal supporter of the GNA. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are among the main backers of the LNA, which, for the past six months, has been trying to capture the Libyan capital.

There are issues about who else may be invited. French officials said Libya’s neighbours, notably Algeria and Tunisia, want to attend. They would seem to have the support of GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.

At a meeting October 8 in Tripoli with UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salame, Sarraj said all countries concerned with the Libyan issue “without any exclusion” had to be invited to the conference, which could also be seen as a reference to reported attempts to exclude Qatar.

There was no reference to the fact that Libya itself was being excluded, which would seriously undermine any attempt to plan for a return to political dialogue in the country.

Regardless of who eventually attends the conference, the objective of ending the flow of arms seems as remote as ever.

The GNA is reported to be trying to persuade Turkey to provide protection for Tripoli’s Mitiga Airport. Still subject to shelling and air strikes by the LNA, the airport has been closed since the beginning of September. Misrata Airport, 200km away, has also been attacked and there are concerns it would be closed, too.

LNA officials said both airports were being used for drone operations.

Despite its offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria, Turkey has ample military capacity and political ambitions to increase its support for the GNA and it is widely believed it would do so if the LNA started to make major advances in Tripoli.

In addition to providing drones and other military hardware, Turkish military support reportedly extends to an element of military oversight of the GNA’s forces and technical guidance, notably operating the drones.

The closure of Misrata airport might also trigger increased Turkish intervention.

The battle for Tripoli continues stalemated despite a surge in LNA attacks focused on Aziziya on the road between Tripoli and Gharyan.

The LNA captured Aziziya at the beginning of the offensive but lost it. Recapturing it would leave Gharyan largely isolated and far less able to withstand an attempt to take it. It would also be a major boost to the LNA’s standing and credibility.

That is particularly important. About five months ago, the security directorate and the military operations room in Sabratha dropped their allegiance to the GNA and said they were taking their orders from the LNA. There have been reports they were considering switching back to the GNA and had asked for guarantees that they would not face reprisals if they did.

The capture of Aziziya by the LNA would stop any such move. On October 7, though, GNA forces pushed back an LNA attack, even downing an LNA aircraft and claiming it had captured LNA soldiers and killed Russian mercenaries fighting with the LNA.

The LNA countered with claims that it was advancing on Tripoli and had surrounded Aziziya.  However, with the Berlin conference delayed, the pressure on LNA Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar to advance is reduced.

Turkish support, though, remains existential for the GNA. Because of it, opposition to almost anything Turkey does is an automatic response of the LNA and the other authorities in eastern Libya.

After the Beida-based government decided last April to recognise the 1915 Armenian genocide, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, not hitherto noted for its support for the Kurds, condemned the Turkish offensive in northern Syria.

Given the growing international condemnation of the Syrian operation, Sarraj may not want to be seen as wholly tied to Turkey but he has little option.

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