By the time you read this article, the Berlin Summit on Libya will have ended, marking a much-needed pause for the international community and the United Nations to reassess the overall situation in the North African country that verges on becoming a hotbed for exporting terrorism and insecurity in neighbouring countries, in sub-Saharan Africa, and Europe.
The summit has been in the works for the last four months. Senior officials from various countries, as well as representatives of the Arab League, the African Union, and the European Union, were meeting in the presence of Ghassan Salamé, the UN special representative to Libya, to chart a way forward in Libya. The stakes have been high for all powers, great and small, within the region and beyond, including the warring Libyan factions.
The Berlin Summit marks two distinct phases in the Libyan chaotic scene: the pre- and the post-Berlin phase. The failure of the Libyan political forces — mainly, the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and the interim government in Benghazi — to come together and implement the UN peace plan, opened the way wide open for foreign intervention in Libya. This has been compounded by a military stalemate on the ground. The Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar had launched an attack on Tripoli last April to unseat the GNA. However, the military situation on the ground has remained unchanged, more or less.
With no clear signs of diplomatic and political progress in the persistent efforts of the UN representative to carry out his mandate to bring about peace in Libya, the situation worsened with the signing of a memorandum of understanding on security and military cooperation between the GNA and Turkey last November. This agreement provided a “legal” pretext for Turkey to deploy its forces in Libya. Last week, Turkey’s President Erdogan threatened to annihilate the forces of Haftar if the latter does not lay down arms. This warning came in the wake of a meeting in Moscow two weeks ago to sign a ceasefire agreement between the LNA and the GNA. Haftar refused to sign and left the Russian capital. A few days later, he called Russian President Vladimir Putin his “friend”, and the word was out that he was ready to sign the ceasefire agreement. The good news is that a ceasefire, brokered by Russian and Turkey, has been holding since it had gone into effect on Sunday, 12 January. The reason given for the reticence of Haftar to sign was his refusal that Turkey have any role in supervising implementation of the agreement.
Needless to say, Turkish involvement in the Libyan affair is a complicating factor. Two days before the convening of the Berlin Summit, the Turkish president threatened Europe that the fall of the GNA in Tripoli would open the gates of the Old Continent to what he called “terrorists”. The irony is that his government has facilitated the transfer of almost 2,000 fighters, most of them terrorists battle-worn in Syria, to Libya in the last two months. Furthermore, he insisted that any peaceful solution in Libya would go through his country. In other words, Ankara could play a double role, either facilitator or bully, not only in Libya but also in North Africa and the Mediterranean.
The Berlin Summit, or the Berlin track that was set in motion last Sunday, could, as the United Nations special representative to Libya hopes, give impetus to his efforts to bring the Libyan warring factions to the negotiating table. For this to succeed, Russia, the United States and the European Union should have enough political will to impose the UN peace plan in Libya, the plan that they had adopted, unanimously, in the UN Security Council in 2017. Such a joint position would prove a bulwark against Turkish machinations in Libya, across the region, and the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, putting a stop to foreign intervention in Libya in all its forms is a necessary condition for the success of the Berlin track that is grounded in working in three important areas: the economic-financial; the military-security; the political-diplomatic. Salamé believes, and maybe rightly so, that the follow-up committee, composed of the same abovementioned parties, would supervise the smooth working of subcommittees that would coordinate how the three areas are being tackled and moved forward. Another condition for success is the separation between the role of outside powers and that of the Libyan factions in the process of implementation.
Nothing is guaranteed in Libya given the great stakes that some powers have in the future of the country and around the Mediterranean Basin, given the huge gas and oil reserves in the North African country and in the Eastern Mediterranean, among them Turkey, with the unmistakable Erdogan penchant for Turkish expansionism in all directions, justifying his destabilising plans on what he has called “old geography”, in reference to the Ottoman occupation of the Arab world that came to an end more than a century ago.
Still, the Berlin track remains the only hope, and dare we say the last glimmer of hope, for the world to prevent Libya from becoming a second Syria post-March 2011, and on the southern shores of the Mediterranean.
As far as Egypt is concerned, it should reassess its Libyan policies in light of the outcome of the Berlin Summit. Whatever happens, it should stand at an equal distance from the warring factions in Libya and concentrate its resources on defending its joint borders with Libya and its coastline on the Mediterranean.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.