Palermo gathering shows Libya matters, settlement prospects remain uncertain

Both Italy and France appear to realise that their spat did them no favours internationally and seriously damaged their credibility in Libyan eyes.
Sunday 18/11/2018
(L-R) Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, EU President Donald Tusk, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya Fayez al-Sarraj and Libyan Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar meet on the sidelines of the Palermo conference, on November 13. (Italian Prime Minister’s Press Office)
(L-R) Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, EU President Donald Tusk, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya Fayez al-Sarraj and Libyan Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar meet on the sidelines of the Palermo confe

PALERMO - The presence of top officials from 30 countries in a conference about the Libyan crisis indicates that Libya matters for many nations, especially key European ones and the neighbouring Arab region.

Among those who attended were the presidents of Egypt, Tunisia, Niger and Switzerland, the vice-president of Turkey, the prime ministers of Algeria, Malta and Greece, the European Union’s council president and its foreign policy head, foreign ministers from France, Morocco, Chad and Qatar and officials from 18 other countries.

It is unlikely that so many would have turned up to a Libya conference a year ago. It was noticeable, however, that the United States, United Kingdom and Germany sent minor delegations, an indication that, for them, there are more important issues than Libya.

The United States, in particular, does not seem to think there are any particular reasons to get involved in the Libyan crisis. The attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi in 2012 pushed Washington to limit its interest in Libyan issues to the counterterrorism dimension.

Significantly in Palermo, the French and the Italians seemed to be less at loggerheads over Libya than in the past. When, at the end of July, it announced that it would have a conference on Libya, Rome was widely seen as a spoiler, intent on undermining the initiative by French President Emmanuel Macron to have elections in Libya this December.

Both Italy and France appear to realise that their spat did them no favours internationally and seriously damaged their credibility in Libyan eyes. As the key Europeans at the conference, both seem willing to leave the Libya file in the hands of UN Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame.

Palermo was no game changer, though. There was no ground-breaking initiative that could move Libya on an assured road to peace but Salame claimed it had been a success. “Palermo will be remembered as a milestone,” he said, “to bring back peace, security and prosperity to the Libyan people.”

The Italians went out of their way to accommodate Libyan Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, showing that they saw his role as crucial in the Libyan crisis. They organised a special meeting on the sidelines of the conference so Haftar did not have to attend the official proceedings, which he had refused to do.

Ostensibly to discuss regional security, the special meeting was attended by Haftar, Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya Fayez al-Sarraj, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, EU Council President Donald Tusk, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Milanesi.

There were complaints from some Libyans opposed to Haftar that the conference deliberately enhanced the field-marshal’s status. He became the star of the show, although he did that by the manner of his show-stopping arrival and departure.

For much of the first day of the conference, it was not known if Haftar would attend at all. He turned up in the evening, supposedly at the urging of Russia and Egypt, but refused to participate in official proceedings, leaving Palermo the next morning.

The conference revealed continuing frictions between Libya’s main players. Haftar objected to the presence of Muslim Brotherhood member Khalid al-Mishri, attending as president of the High Council of State, as well as Presidential Council Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, because of his support for the former pro-Islamist Libya Dawn regime in Tripoli.

Questions remain about what role Haftar will play in the future. It is hard to say whether Haftar and Sarraj have an understanding on a working relationship. They had separate talks, attended in part by Conte. An Italian spokesman said Haftar told Sarraj that “there is no point changing the horse while crossing the river.” This was taken to mean that the field-marshal agreed to Sarraj staying on for the time being.

Even if the French and Italians smoothed over their differences, parties in the Libyan settlement process will probably have to contend with the risk that some regional powers could turn into spoilers if unhappy about their role.

An inkling of that risk was the attitude of Turkish Vice-President Fuat Oktay, who walked out of the conference, objecting to the fact that he was not invited to the sidelines event. In a thinly veiled, sharp attack on Haftar’s show-stopping appearance and disappearance as well as on Egypt, Oktay said there had been a “last-minute fait accompli by some” who had abused Italian hospitality by “hit and run.”

The United Nations and foreign powers involved in Libya know very well, however, that key countries of the region will be playing a role in the future of Libya. Right after Palermo, Conte flew to Abu Dhabi to brief Emirati leaders on the talks.

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