Scepticism about international efforts after Berlin’s ‘failure’

In Tripoli, there were concerns about the presence of Syrian mercenaries, both in terms of their objectives and how long they would stay.
Sunday 26/01/2020
Vicious cycle. A fighter loyal to the Libyan Government of National Accord exits a vehicle in an area south of Tripoli, January 12.          (AFP)
Vicious cycle. A fighter loyal to the Libyan Government of National Accord exits a vehicle in an area south of Tripoli, January 12. (AFP)

TUNIS - The response among journalists at the Berlin Conference on Libya was uniformly negative. “A failure” and “a complete waste of time” were the comments.

So, too, were those from Libyan officials who were in Berlin for a meeting January 19. Regardless of which side they backed, the response was much the same. “Disappointing” was how the more diplomatic put it.

The presence of some of the world’s most powerful leaders — the presidents of Russia, France, Turkey, Egypt and the heads of the British, German and Italian governments as well as of the United Nations, the Arab League, the European Union and the African Union, in addition to officials from China and the United States — failed to achieve anything, they said.

There was no breakthrough, no ceasefire deal signed. The head of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and his rival Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), could not even bring themselves to sit in the same room together.

They did agree to appoint military figures to a “5+5 committee” to work on a lasting ceasefire but no time limit was set for its discussions. The United Nations hopes to push the process forward with an inter-Libyan meeting in Geneva at the end of January.

Although the Berlin participants agreed that no further military support should be sent to either side in the conflict, there was no discussion on what sanctions would be applied if the arms embargo was breached.

Turkey, which has dispatched hundreds of Syrian militants and mercenaries to fight against the LNA and numerous military advisers, said it would send “no more advisers” to Libya while a truce is supposedly in force but it and other parties know they can send in arms or fighters with impunity.

The 55-point declaration issued at the meeting was full of good intent, calls to action and encouragement to peace but short on decisions and action that would help peace happen. As a result, the consensus was that the Libyan conflict would reignite and any ceasefire would be a fleeting mirage.

Following Turkey’s decision to send forces to support the GNA and the announcement by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that deployment had started, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan cemented their burgeoning regional entente with a call for Libyan ceasefire.

Haftar, seeing it as a challenge to his planned takeover of Tripoli, initially refused but then changed his mind, as a result of Russian pressure.

Russian mercenaries, whose arrival in September helped the LNA cautiously advance after months of stalemate, were said to have begun to pull out.

For Putin, a regional entente with Erdogan was evidently far more important than backing Haftar, especially an entente that could weaken Turkey’s ties to NATO.

With a ceasefire going into force January 12, Haftar and Sarraj were called to Moscow the next day to get them to agree a permanent truce. Sarraj signed but Haftar balked.

Germany pushed ahead with the conference, which had Russia’s active support. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Moscow to discuss the matter two days before Haftar and Sarraj arrived. Whether or not Putin expected it to be a success, he wanted to be seen backing German diplomacy.

He shared his Libya ideas in a phone call with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who said he would go to Berlin. Erdogan also confirmed he would be there.

With the assured attendance of Turkey and Russia, which in a matter of weeks have made themselves the arbiter of Libya’s future, plus that of Italy, previously a major political player in the country, other world leaders could hardly demur.

The conference’s supporters saw it as a relaunch of the political process pursued by the United Nations before Haftar’s April 4 offensive against Tripoli but there is no guarantee that the new process will go anywhere. There is concern about the participants’ refusal to take decisive and effective measures to end the flow of military support for one side or the other.

It had been the original aim of the conference. Without it, the call for a return to inter-Libyan political negotiations faces an uphill struggle. That was seen in clashes in Tripoli even as the conference began and which have continued. The shelling included attacks on Mitiga airport.

Even before Berlin, there was scepticism in Libya about international efforts to reach a settlement. Sarraj-Haftar meetings in Paris and Abu Dhabi and the November 2018 gathering in Palermo produced promises of a peaceful way forward in Libya but came to nothing.

There is a plan for a Berlin follow-up meeting at foreign ministerial level but, with Germany’s and the international community’s credibility affected by the perceived failure at the Berlin conference, it may be difficult to garner enthusiasm for it, especially in Libya, if the main combatants remain locked in a fight to the end.

In Tripoli, there were concerns about the presence of Syrian mercenaries, both in terms of their objectives and how long they would stay, and it has not boosted support for the Sarraj government. There are exceptions but the fear among many residents is that their presence will result in massive clashes and more civilians will die.

Oil again came into play with the closure on the eve of the Berlin conference of Libya’s eastern oil terminals and the pipelines from the western Sharara and El-Fil oilfields, which resulted in a 70% plunge in oil production.

The National Oil Corporation and the GNA blamed Haftar, although sources close to the LNA say Haftar had nothing to do with it and that the terminal closures were done by eastern tribes angered at all oil income going to the Tripoli-based central bank and the GNA.

The closure also upset Washington. In a comment on the Berlin conference, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he hoped the oil facilities would reopen. Keeping oil flowing and making sure prices do not rise is likely to remain US President Donald Trump’s primary interest in Libya — that and hitting the Islamic State and other terrorists whenever they appear.