Berlin is preparing to host the international conference on Libya that UN Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame proposed in his briefing to the UN Security Council on 29 July and mentioned again in his briefing on 4 September. The purpose of the conference, which is to be attended by senior officials from the main regional and international stakeholders in the Libya crisis, is to prepare the ground for the resumption of the political process that was interrupted by the military campaign launched by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar on 4 April to secure control over the Libyan capital.
The Berlin conference is the latest attempt to end the regional and international stalemate on the Libyan question since hostilities erupted in April. Earlier attempts on the part of France and Italy, both of which have hosted a number of conferences, failed to make a breakthrough. Salame believes the Berlin conference has greater chances of success, in part because of Germany’s good relations with all parties which regard it as a neutral mediator. This hope is also fed by smoother relations between Rome and Paris following the dismissal of Italian Foreign Minister Matteo Salvini who was constantly at loggerheads with France on a number of issues, above all the questions of migrants and the Libyan crisis.
France, backed by Italy, called for a meeting of the foreign ministers of the countries involved in the Libyan crisis to be held on the fringes of the inaugural activities of the UN General Assembly this week. The meeting would unveil the “New York initiative” which, according to Italian news reports, was drafted by Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and his French counterpart Description Jean-Yves Le Drian. Reports offered no information on the substance of the initiative which is meant to pave the way for the Berlin conference.
In a joint press conference in Rome last week with Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, French President Emmanuel Macron hailed the initiative as a tangible step towards the realisation of the desire for stability in Libya. He stressed that Italy and France now had a “real convergence” on Libya and that two countries could work together well and send clear messages to their partners. Rome and Paris “are convinced that the only way out for the Libyan crisis has to be found in the dialogue and a political process”, he said. He reminded reporters that participants at the G7 meeting in Biarritz called for an international conference on Libya and an inter-Libyan conference to promote reconciliation between all parties harmed by the armed conflict on the ground in Libya.
Conte, in the press conference, said that he had spoken with Macron on how to proceed towards an inter-Libyan conference. He stressed that the Libyan crisis was of strategic importance to Italy and that Rome felt it “essential to work with France constructively and together with all international partners as well, because our aim is to achieve stability” in Libya.
The French and Italian leaders’ remarks lend further encouragement to Salame’s efforts to rally international and regional powers behind an agreement that promotes a ceasefire in the environs of Tripoli, reinforces the international arms embargo on Libya, and sets the course for a Libyan National Conference with the aim of reaching a new political accord backed by a broad consensus of the Libyan public.
Germany has already begun to work with key players in preparation for the international conference on Libya in Berlin. Last week it hosted an unpublicised meeting attended by representatives from the US, Britain, France, Italy, Egypt, Russia, China, Turkey, the African Union and the Arab League. Salame, who has renewed his tenure as head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), was also present. No details were released on the discussions.
On 11 September, German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her fear that a situation was developing in Libya “that can take on similar dimensions to what we have seen in Syria”. Speaking to the Bundestag, she added: “It is imperative we do everything we can to make sure this does not escalate into a proxy war and Germany will play its part... The whole of the African region will be destabilised if Libya is not stabilised.”
The fighting between the vicinity of the Libyan capital continues to escalate amid widespread rumours circulating across Libyan social media platforms that mercenaries have been engaged by the warring parties.
Salame is optimistic that the Berlin conference will succeed in producing an agreement that will support a ceasefire and return to the political process in Libya. “This peaceful scenario was unthinkable until only a few weeks ago. Today, it is one of the options on the table,” he said in an interview with the French newspaper La Liberation on 8 September.
His optimism derives from the “new realism” among international actors in particular. “I now find in my international partners a new realism that was sadly lacking so far. It has been our belief, since the beginning of this offensive, that the military solution is an expensive illusion and we are pleased to see that this understanding is increasingly shared, if not by the internal actors, then at least by their external supporters.”
Salame, as he pointed out in the interview, has been meeting with officials from the countries most involved in Libya and from the great powers in his efforts to prepare for the conference in Berlin. In this framework, the UN envoy has continued a series of meetings with the US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland to discuss the prospects for a peaceful solution to the Libyan crisis. The most recent of such meetings took place last Thursday, according to the US embassy Website, which provided no further details.
On that same Thursday, 19 September, US forces carried out an airstrike targeting Islamic State fighters in the vicinity of Murzuq in southern Libya. Eight fighters were killed and there were no civilian casualties according to a statement released by US Africa Command (AFRICOM). This is the first strike carried out in Libya by AFRICOM this year.
In another notable development, the US, the UK, Germany, France, Italy, the UAE and Turkey signed a joint statement expressing their exclusive support for Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) “as the country’s sole independent, legitimate and nonpartisan oil company”. The text, published on the US Libya embassy Website, added: “Now is the time to consolidate national economic institutions rather than break them apart.” The NOC has been struggling to remain unified amidst sharp polarisation in the country.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Will the Berlin conference succeed?