Berlin Conference: Breakthrough for Libya, or more of the same?

Berlin Conference: Breakthrough for Libya, or more of the same?

Comment: While the Berlin Conference had some promising elements, the fragile ceasefire has already been broken, endangering hopes for lasting peace, writes Guma ElGamaty.
6 min read
28 Jan, 2020
In Berlin, the leaders of 12 countries committed to not interfere in the conflict [Getty]
The Libyan transition post the 2011 revolution has been turbulent with the situation becoming more difficult and complex since Khalifa Haftar emerged onto the scene in 2014. 

Detrimental foreign interference has added major fuel to the fires of war in Libya, rather than playing a positive and constructive role to facilitate accord among the Libyan rivals. The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) facilitated a political dialogue which resulted in a fragile political agreement and unity government (GNA), but this has so far failed to unite Libyans and achieve lasting peace. 

International involvement backing either the GNA or the Haftar camp has escalated, with Turkey and Qatar standing behind the GNA, while rogue General Haftar has been heavily backed by the UAE, Egypt, France and more recently Russia, with alleged involvement of mercenaries from the private security contractor, the Wagner Group. 

It has become clear that for any long lasting peace and political agreement to be achieved inside Libya, a consensus must be reached among the international community.

World leaders met a week ago in Berlin, and committed to ending all foreign meddling in Libya, as well as a weapons embargo. But whether the agreement will mean an end to the Libyan conflict, or more division and escalation of fighting between the Libyan sides, fuelled by their foreign backers, remains to be seen. 

Since 4 April 2019, Khalifa Haftar has been trying to take the capital Tripoli, after launching an insurgency against the GNA and its forces based there. After more than nine months, and with several thousand killed and injured, as well as over 150,000 civilians forced to flee their homes, he has so far failed in his campaign to take over the capital and subsequently, control of Libya by force.

Detrimental foreign interference has added major fuel to the fires of war in Libya

Haftar's forces have been accused of committing several war crimes during this period, including shelling residential areas, airstrikes on a civilian airport, as well as most recently the military academy massacre in Al-Hadbha district, which killed around 30 Libyan cadets training to become part of the National Army. 

Despite Haftar receiving significant foreign backing from the likes of the UAE and Egypt, as well as reportedly relying on a large number of mercenaries from Sudan, Chad and Russia, he has failed to overrun the capital, after initially promising to "liberate" it within a few days. This indicates he likely does not have the required manpower, despite the heavy presence of foreign mercenaries. 

The GNA has also recently moved to shore up its position and grip on the capital by striking a crucial alliance with their Turkish partners, signing two memorandums of understanding (MOUs) in November 2019, to allow for both maritime and military cooperation between Libya and Turkey. This agreement has allowed for Turkey to not only support the GNA with fresh military supplies and logistical support, but Ankara could also deploy troops to Libya, were the GNA to request it.

The change in dynamics of foreign involvement, with Turkey becoming a much more significant player as well as Russia gaining more influence through its ties with Haftar has meant that Ankara and Moscow have now become the main powerbrokers. As a result, Presidents Erdogan and Putin reached an agreement in January, and proposed a ceasefire agreement, which both Libyan sides accepted, in principle.

But when GNA Prime Minister Serraj and Haftar travelled to Moscow to sign the agreement, Haftar pulled out, rumoured to be as a result of pressure from his Emirati backers.

This ceasefire was supposed to be the foundation on which the Berlin Conference, on 19 January, would be built. Though Haftar's refusal to sign meant the conference had been undermined from the outset.

Last weekend's conference also coincided with a move by local tribes in the east of Libya - and likely authorised by Haftar - to 
blockade oil facilities, supposedly in protest to Turkey's proposed involvement in Libya.

Turkey and Russia headed to the Berlin Conference as the most influential players in Libya, having sidelined the likes of Italy, France and others, and had hoped to use the conference to gain support for their initiative and to gain international consensus on how to move the peace process in Libya forward. 

It is unrealistic to expect that any further political dialogue in Libya can succeed before security and military arrangements have been agreed

The outcome of the Berlin summit, hosted by German Chancellor Merkel, was an agreement that a permanent ceasefire should be reached to allow a fresh political process to take place.

This would be implemented by a special committee made up of 
five military officials (5+5) from each side of the conflict. Merkel also stated afterwards that foreign powers involved in Libya had committed themselves to upholding the UN arms embargo, and to stop flooding the country with shipments of weapons. 

But in the short time since then, the fragile ceasefire has already been broken, with Haftar's forces resuming fighting in Tripoli. The Turkish-Russian initiative and the Berlin Conference have, it seems, so far failed to change any of the dynamics on the ground and achieve the breakthrough that was hoped for.

The meeting between the special committee of 5+5 which is due to take place in Geneva this week is not likely to achieve any tangible outcome, as the GNA is now demanding that Haftar's forces must withdraw away from the south of Tripoli. For its part, Haftar's camp is showing no signs of agreeing, and continues to violate the truce, with the shelling of Mitiga airport in Tripoli with grad missiles. 

Read more: Libya's peace summit promised to improve conditions for migrants. But will it deliver?

The coming months are likely to bring more of the same, with continued foreign intervention from Turkey and the UAE on either side. 

It is unrealistic to expect that any further political dialogue in Libya can succeed before security and military arrangements have been agreed between all parties. This would help guarantee the truce, and is necessary to allow over 150,000 displaced people from the south of Tripoli to return to their homes.

Without a commitment from both sides to a ceasefire, the withdrawal of Haftar's forces away from Tripoli, and proper implementation and monitoring of the arms embargo, fighting will most likely continue and erode any chance for meaningful dialogue to take place.

The Libyan conflict looks likely to persist throughout 2020, unless one side achieves a military victory, both sides exhaust themselves, or the international community musters the will and resolve to take real action and propose a long-term solution to the conflict.

Guma El-Gamaty is a Libyan academic and politician who heads the Taghyeer Party in Libya and a member of the UN-backed Libyan political dialogue process. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Guma_el_gamaty

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.