The five permanent members of the Security Council plus Egypt, the UAE, Italy, Turkey, Algeria and Tunisia met in Berlin Wednesday in the framework of preparations for the international conference on Libya that UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salamé called for in August as a step towards resolving the recalcitrant Libyan crisis. Germany has yet to announce a definitive date for the international conference that Salamé hopes will set the stage for a Libyan National Conference charged with devising a new roadmap to national reconciliation and the reunification of bifurcated governing institutions.
Berlin began hosting preparatory meetings for the international conference on Libya two months ago in order to bridge gaps between the participants. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is sponsoring the preparatory meetings “in partnership” with Salamé in order to ensure that all participants seriously commit to what will be agreed on during the conference, thereby averting past breakdowns that followed the Paris and Palermo conferences last year.
Diplomatic sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that the reason the German government has not yet set a date for the Berlin conference is that the participants in the preparatory meetings have not yet finished discussions on the main issues that will be addressed during the conference. Foremost among these are how to re-launch the political process, the conditions for concluding a ceasefire and the security arrangements that will need to be restored or introduced once a ceasefire is in place. Other questions have to do with the economic reform programme that the Government of National Accord (GNA) began to implement in 2018, the equitable distribution of wealth, combating terrorism and extremist organisations, adhering to the international ban on arms imports to Libya and the application of international humanitarian law.
The sources added that Merkel and UN Special Envoy Salamé had participants in the preparatory sessions draw up proposals laying out their perspectives on how to achieve regional and international consensus over the abovementioned points and the mechanisms they envisioned for remedying recurrent problems. The assignment was given during the second preparatory session held at the beginning of October. However, the sources said, participants are still far apart on all these issues.
The sources predict that the international conference on Libya will be deferred until the beginning of the new year because of ongoing differences between the major powers, especially following the recent American warning regarding Russia’s growing role in Libya. Washington claims that Moscow has been taking advantage of regional polarisation over Libya since 2014 in order to strengthen its profile in the region.
The Berlin process has come under criticism from a number of quarters for limiting the number of participants in the international conference and excluding some of Libya’s neighbours and the African Union. According to Salamé, it was his German partner that wanted to keep the number of participants down, although Berlin might consider inviting regional organisations. He added that Germany is under heavy pressure to broaden participation in the conference and he did not rule out the possibility of Berlin ceding to the pressures in order to avert the fate of the Paris and Palermo conferences.
Libya’s western neighbours, Algeria and Tunisia, are adamant on their right to attend the international conference. Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui told his German counterpart that Tunisia was the country most affected by the warfare in Libya, which was drawing closer to Tunisia’s border. An Algerian diplomat said it would be “unacceptable and unreasonable” not to be invited. Turkey and Italy have both urged Merkel not to exclude Tunisia and Algeria.
The UN envoy to Libya said that he and his German partner are currently working on two separate stages, the first focusing on mending differences between the major powers involved in the Libyan conflict. The second is to reach a consensus between the stakeholders in Libya. Salamé hopes that an international consensus will lead to a UN Security Council resolution to halt the war in Libya and then to the creation of a follow-up committee made up of representatives of regional organisations and a large number of regional and international stakeholders to help the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) that he heads to broker understandings between Libyan factions.
Merkel and Salamé’s tasks are further complicated by mounting tensions between international participants in the envisioned conference. Western anger has flared against Russia because of its role in Libya, especially in light of news reports from Washington, London and Moscow confirming the presence in Libya of mercenaries linked to the Wagner Group which is owned by a Russian businessman, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is reportedly close to President Vladimir Putin. Activists in Tripoli have circulated images of fighters they claim are Russian mercenaries fighting in the ranks of the Libyan National Army (LNA).
Last Friday, the US warned against Russian interference in Libya and called on Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, LNA commander, to end the offensive he launched against the Libyan capital in April. Following a “security dialogue” with representatives of the Tripoli-based GNA, the US released a joint statement stating: “The United States calls on the ‘Libyan National Army’ to end its offensive on Tripoli. This will facilitate further US-Libya cooperation to prevent undue foreign interference, reinforce legitimate state authority and address the issues underlying the conflict. The US delegation, representing a number of US government agencies, underscored support for Libya’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s attempts to exploit the conflict against the will of the Libyan people.”
The GNA was represented by Foreign Minister Mohamed Siala and Minister of Interior Fathi Bashaga who had flown to Washington to express the GNA’s “grave concerns regarding the security situation and its effect on the civilian population”, as the joint statement put it. The meeting was also attended by ministers of member states of the international coalition to fight the Islamic State group.
Washington’s warning against Russian interference was the strongest US statement against Moscow since fighting started in the vicinity of the capital between the LNA led by Haftar and forces fighting for the Fayez Al-Sarraj-led GNA. The statement contrasts starkly with President Trump’s praise for Haftar in April.
Some analysts believe that Washington’s warning could have the effect of triggering an escalation of hostilities in Libya, especially in the vicinity of the capital, in anticipation of a new international stance on the Libyan crisis and a possible UN Security Council resolution or, at least, in anticipation of a sharp reduction in outside military support for the warring factions.
Moscow has charged that US reports of Russian mercenaries in Libya are based on fictions intended to target Russia. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted by TASS as saying, “I categorically reject speculation of this kind... We don’t believe there are grounds to make assertions and speculations like this.” He added: “We’re acting in the interest of Libyan [conflict] settlement. We support the appropriate efforts [to achieve this], including through the UN. We’re in dialogue with those who in one way or another influence the situation.”
Russia does, indeed, have channels of communication with diverse parties in Libya. However, since 2016, it has strengthened military cooperation between its Defence Ministry and Haftar while a Russian company has been minting currency for the parallel Central Bank based in Beida. But Russia has simultaneously been conducting communications with the GNA in Tripoli through the Russian contact group on intra-Libyan settlement chaired by Lev Dengov.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.