The “new spirit” that Angela Merkel proclaimed had been achieved by the Berlin Summit to support UN efforts to find a lasting solution to the Libyan conflict appears to have crumbled, a deterioration aided and abetted by some of the parties at the summit.
“The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) deeply regrets the continued blatant violations of the arms embargo in Libya, even after the commitments made in this regard by concerned countries during the International Conference on Libya in Berlin, held on 19 January 2020,” UNSMIL said in a statement posted on its website 25 January. “The 12 January truce agreed by the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA), which led to a remarked reduction of hostilities in Tripoli, has provided a much-needed respite for civilians in the capital. However, this fragile truce is now threatened by the ongoing transfer of foreign fighters, weapons, ammunition and advanced systems to the parties by member states, including several who participated in the Berlin Conference.”
The statement added: “Over the last 10 days, numerous cargo and other flights have been observed landing at Libyan airports in the western and eastern parts of the country providing the parties with advanced weapons, armoured vehicles, advisers and fighters. [UNSMIL] condemns these ongoing violations, which risk plunging the country into a renewed and intensified round of fighting.”
UNSMIL reiterated its appeal to all concerned parties to abide by their commitments and to fully and unequivocally respect the arms embargo on Libya imposed in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1970 and subsequent resolutions.
On Sunday, a LNA contingent launched an attack in the vicinity of Abu Grein, a village 120 kilometres southeast of Misrata. LNA Spokesman Major General Ahmed Al-Mismari described the action as “a pre-emptive operation, an attempt to test the pulse and power of the militias, and a means to ascertain whether there are Syrians in their ranks,” referring to the Syrian rebel fighters Turkey has sent in to support the militias allied with the Tripoli based GNA.
Addressing a press conference in Benghazi Sunday evening, Al-Mismari stressed that LNA forces would not retreat from their positions and that the solution to the Libyan conflict “is in the gun”. The LNA position remains unchanged since last year when Al-Mismari said that whatever was agreed on in Berlin would stay in Berlin.
More than 20 fighters from both sides died in the LNA’s “pulse taking” operation. Misrata forces announced afterwards that they had succeeded in repelling the attack, but the skirmish is a sign that forthcoming rounds of battle will be fiercer than those in the last quarter of 2019, especially given the ongoing flagrant breaches of the arms embargo and the international community’s lack of resolve on how to handle the Libyan crisis.
The GNA Presidency Council issued a statement condemning the LNA’s breach of the ceasefire and said the GNA was “forced to reconsider participating in any talks because of these breaches”. The statement held the sponsors of the ceasefire responsible for the lack of commitment of the other side and stressed that the GNA had only signed the ceasefire agreement “in response to their intervention and out of esteem for their position”. It claimed that the breaches that occurred in Abu Grein as well as in Mitiga Airport, Al-Qaddahiyah, Souq Al-Jumaa, Arada and other areas on the outskirts of Tripoli were carried out by LNA contingents “together with mercenaries supported by foreign aircraft”.
Commenting on the ongoing breaches of the arms embargo and flareups of violence in Libya, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell urged patience and persistence. Speaking at a joint press conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in Berlin on Monday, Borrell said: “Everybody knew that the results of the Berlin conference would not be automatically implemented. Everybody knew that it was not an agreement that we were going to enter into force tomorrow, but it was the first step. This kind of problem cannot be solved overnight. But we needed a starting point and the Berlin Conference provided this starting point. So, let us be a little bit patient. Active but patient. Because it is not going to be solved tomorrow. But we are on a much better track than before the Berlin Conference.”
Maas, in the joint press conference, urged the UN Security Council to pass a resolution sanctioning any country that breaks the arms embargo on Libya. The UN Security Council should make it clear that the violations “should not remain without consequences,” he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also called on the UN Security Council to take appropriate actions with regard to Libya. Speaking at the international gathering in Jerusalem, Friday, to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz and condemn antisemitism, the Russian president cautioned that current international division over the Libyan crisis will have grave repercussions.
Meanwhile, foreign sponsors of the Libyan civil war continue their marathons in support of their local allies. On Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid another visit to Algeria, meeting with counterpart President Abdelmadjid Tebboune while, the following day, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed met with Algerian counterpart Sabri Boukadoum, also in the Algerian capital. Libya was the subject of both meetings.
In a statement released after the Tebboune-Erdogan meeting, the Algerian Presidency said that the two leaders agreed that there could be no military solution to the crisis and pledged to follow up on the resolutions of the Berlin Summit and to closely monitor developments on the ground on a daily basis. In like manner, the Algerian and Emirati foreign ministers, in a brief joint statement after their meeting, underscored their rejection of outside intervention in Libyan affairs and their resolve to support UN efforts to promote a solution to the Libyan conflict.
In mid-January, Boukadoum headed a high-level Algerian delegation on a visit to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in order to discuss developments in the Arab region as a whole, and in Libya in particular. As an Algerian Foreign Ministry press release reported afterwards, Boukadoum and his Saudi and Emirati counterparts discussed ways to halt the military escalation in Libya, to foster a lasting ceasefire and to support UNSMIL’s efforts to restart the Libyan political process and organise a Libyan national conference aimed at fostering a new spirit of consensus in Libya.
It was hoped that the political track would recommence in Geneva on 28 January, but the scheduled meetings had to be postponed to 9 February because the Tobruk-based House of Representatives had not yet selected its team for this purpose. The House has indicated that it first wants UNSMIL to clarify the criteria it used to select 14 Libyan individuals to take part in the political track which aims to reach a consensus over the formation of a new government, legislative electoral laws, and outstanding points of difference over the constitution drafted by the Constituent Assembly over two years ago.
As the UN Special Envoy to Libya and UNSMIL Chief Ghassan Salame said in Berlin, the military track is to be steered by a military commission headed by 10 officers, five representing LNA Commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and five representing the GNA. The “5+5 commission”, which was to hold its first meeting in Geneva on 28 January, is made up of Major General Al-Fitori Gharibel, Major General Ahmed Abu Shahma, Brigadier General Mukhtar Al-Naqasa, Major General Mahmoud Bin Saeed and Major General Abdul-Rahman Mohamed Al-Jatlawi representing the GNA, and Major General Faraj Mahdawi, Brigadier General Abu Qassem Al-Abaj, Brigadier General Al-Hadi Al-Falah, Brigadier General Idris Madi and Brigadier General Attia Hamad Al-Sharif representing the LNA.
According to an GNA official, the commission held a preparatory meeting in Tunis Monday before heading to Geneva Tuesday to begin discussions which will focus on the flash points between combatant forces, their constituent elements and mechanics for enabling the return of thousands of displaced persons to their homes.
In a subsequent phase, the commission will address the dismantlement of militias and the reunification of the military establishment, proceeding from the outputs of the series of meetings of Libyan military personnel from both sides sponsored by Cairo in 2018.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.