Germany offers to host UN talks on Libya as Turks reinforce military presence

Speaking at the end of 2018, Christian Buck, a previous German ambassador to Libya, said 80-90% of illegal migrants arriving in Italy from Libya ended up in Germany.
Saturday 14/09/2019
A file picture shows German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj arriving for a joint news  conferene in Berlin. (AP)
New rescue bid. A file picture shows German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj arriving for a joint news conferene in Berlin. (AP)

TUNIS - Responding to a call for an international conference on Libya by UN Special Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame, the German government has offered to host the meeting, possibly in November.

The Germans aim to avoid the fate of the Paris conference last May and the Palermo meeting of November 2018. Berlin enjoys a reputation of neutrality in Libya, contrary to France and Italy, which were perceived as having taken sides in the conflict.

There were reports that Turkish military officials were directing operations by troops loyal to the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli.

The meeting was floated by Salame before Eid al-Adha and received unanimous support at the G7 summit in August. France is also said to have gained Russia’s support for it.

Following talks September 9 in Moscow with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Russian and French positions on Libya were “extremely close.” “We are in agreement on the need to establish a dialogue between the Libyan government and the forces of Marshal Haftar,” Lavrov said.

The proposed conference is not about improving relations between the GNA and Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), as was the aim of the last November’s meeting in Palermo. Those efforts ended when Haftar launched an offensive to take Tripoli on April 4.

With the campaign in its sixth month and showing no signs of being resolved, Salame’s aim is to get the international community to convince countries backing the two sides with arms, supplies and funds to stop doing so.

Salame’s view is that, while they continue to do so, the conflict will become a war of attrition with neither side willing to talk peace. Turkey and Qatar have been supporting the GNA while Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia back Haftar.

 “The US is the only one that has the influence,” an EU diplomat said, adding he doubted whether Washington was prepared to exert the pressure needed on the five countries, all of which are its allies in one form or another.

The Gulf states might be persuaded to relax their involvement but not Turkey or Egypt. With their heavy strategic and economic interests in Libya, it would take extreme pressure to make them change policy, particularly in the case of Turkey, he said.

Germany’s offer to host the conference isn’t as surprising as it initially appeared and it would not be the first time it has hosted a meeting meant to resolve the Libya crisis. In June 2015, Libyan negotiators were in Berlin for the UN Support Mission in Libya’s dialogue process, which resulted in the creation of the GNA.

Germany is one of the biggest providers of international aid to Libya. At the beginning of last year, the figure was $260 million and the amount has increased since then. It also tops the list of donors to the UN Development Programme’s Stabilisation Facility for Libya, having given $32.6 million, compared to the United States’ $8 million, Japan’s $6.5 million, $3 million from the United Kingdom and $2 million from Italy.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the situation in Libya risked destabilising the region and that Germany would do its best to avoid a proxy war in the country.

Germany’s specific interest in Libya is immigration, a major political and electoral issue in the country. Speaking at the end of 2018, Christian Buck, a previous German ambassador to Libya, said 80-90% of illegal migrants arriving in Italy from Libya ended up in Germany.

The question in Libya is how the protagonists respond to any conference.

In an interview with the French newspaper Liberation published September 8, Salame said that, because of the stalemate, both sides have been forced to be more realistic and that Haftar was willing to pull his forces back under certain conditions. Those conditions include guarantees on forces controlling Tripoli and a say on appointments to important government positions.

The suggestion was denied the following day by Haftar’s spokesman, Major-General Ahmed Mismari. Haftar had not and “never will” take such a view, he insisted.

Mismari also rejected Salame’s hopes of resuming dialogue, saying the time for talks was over. The LNA was committed to capturing Tripoli and was on course to achieve it, he insisted.

Following the LNA’s failed attempts to retake the strategically important town of Gharyan, 100km south of Tripoli, earlier this month, GNA forces launched an offensive towards Tarhouna, south-east of Tripoli, which is the main base for LNA operations in the area.

The military situation has been extremely fluid in an area where locals are generally anti-GNA and pro-LNA. There have been claims of territory seized by both sides. “Both sides are lying as never before,” said one usually pro-LNA Libyan journalist. It appears the LNA had been pushed onto the defensive and GNA forces were more coordinated and effective than previously.

“They [the GNA] have regained air capacity,” noted another journalist, referring to an GNA air strike near Bani Walid on LNA vehicles carrying missiles towards Tarhouna.

The change in the GNA’s military capabilities is said to be due to a Turkish military presence. Reports that Turkish military officials were directing GNA operations were backed by a European diplomat who said: “There are no Turkish boots on the ground but we know that Turkish military personnel are now running operations.”

From the LNA’s point of view, the issue is manpower. It lacks the number of troops to carry out its Tripoli offensive. This explains Haftar’s decision to transfer several hundred policemen in the east to the army, a move condemned by Tripoli as illegal.

Despite Salame’s statement about Haftar and a possible pullback, the field-marshal is unlikely to make such a move despite the troop shortages.

The same goes for Sarraj. Regardless of what he and his government might want, they are not the masters of the situation on the ground. The militias are and they, particularly Islamic militants backing Sarraj, are bitterly opposed to negotiations with Haftar.