Can Europe, caught scrapping or napping, mend its credibility at Berlin talks on Libya?
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A flurry of recent geostrategic gains by Turkey and Russia in Libya have underscored Europe’s failure to tackle a deadly crisis at its doorstep. Sunday’s conference on Libya in Berlin gives the European Union the chance to seize a diplomatic opportunity. But for that, Europe must overcome its divisions and crippling competitions.
Libyans, over the past few years, have grown accustomed to the hypocrisy gap between statements emerging from international conferences on their war-torn country and the deadly reality on the ground.
But Sunday’s Berlin Conference on Libya – with the sheer volume and drama of gathering players and proxies, most of them flouting UN embargoes and summit statements – beats all previously held discouraging records.
The conference brings together world powers, regional and national players, as well as major multilateral organisations to the German capital under the Berlin Process that “aims to support the efforts of UN Secretary-General António Guterres and his Special Representative Ghassan Salamé to end the conflict", according to the official conference website.
But the hurdles preventing participants from inching towards that goal are explicit in the opening line of the Berlin conference mission statement.
Since he took up the UN special representative for Libya post two years ago, Salamé has repeatedly called on foreign powers to stop interfering in the conflict in the North African nation. He repeated his call on the eve of the Berlin conference, but the sheer size of the participant list – which includes the five permanent UN Security Council members as well as regional players – belies the fact that no one is really listening to Salamé.
His boss, UN chief Guterres, suffered a similar fate during a visit to Libya last year. Guterres was in the Libyan capital on April 4, 2019, when Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar launched his military assault to seize control of Tripoli from the internationally recognised GNA (Government of National Accord) headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. The chutzpah of Haftar’s timing – while the UN chief was in Libya to help organise national reconciliation talks – caught everyone by surprise.
But it did not stop regional and world powers from overtly or surreptitiously continuing to back Haftar, breaching a UN arms embargo.
More than nine months later, the battle for Tripoli continues, with more than 2,280 people killed, including 280 civilians, and nearly 150,000 displacements, according to the UN. International human rights groups have unearthed “potential war crimes” during the war, but they barely make the international nightly news.
Headlines on Libya over the past few weeks have been dominated by an extraordinary jousting for power, resources and influence in a hydrocarbon-rich zone that bridges Africa, the Arab world and Europe.
EU should ‘talk a little less’
The diplomatic shuttle peaked with Turkey and Russia emerging this year as power centres in the contest for Libyan geostrategic gains, exposing Europe’s failure to address a major crisis on its doorstep.
While the EU supports the internationally recognised, Tripoli-based GNA, its member states have not, in deeds if not in words, been on the same page. The lack of unity has been particularly acute between France, a major EU military power, and Italy, Libya’s former colonial power that has historic oil interests in the North African nation.
“The problem is that the bloc [EU] doesn’t agree. France has a very strong position in its support for Khalifa Haftar, it’s provided significant diplomatic support [for Haftar] behind-the-scenes. France’s position is largely aligned with that of the United Arab Emirates [UAE],” explained Tim Eaton from the London-based Chatham House in an interview with FRANCE 24. “Italy is searching around, trying to be heard. I think we’ve heard quite extensive comments from Italian ministers in recent days about potential Italian engagement in Libya. Other European powers such as the UK just haven’t really been willing to put in the amounts of engagement and leverage that would be required to really shift the dial.”
The European disarray sparked a pre-conference call for unity by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In a column published on the Politico website Saturday, Erdogan said European leaders “ought to talk a little less and focus on taking concrete steps”. Failure to do so, Erdogan warned, would ensure that, “Terrorist organisations such as ISIS [Islamic State group] and al Qaeda, which suffered a military defeat in Syria and Iraq, will find a fertile ground to get back on their feet.”
Turkey wades into contested waters
Libya’s complicated proxy war pitches Sarraj’s government supported by Turkey, Qatar and Italy against the eastern Libyan-based Haftar backed by Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and France.
Russian military contractors have been fighting alongside Haftar’s forces, although Moscow retains links to both sides in the conflict. Turkey meanwhile has responded to a GNA request for military intervention, sending Turkish troops as well as Syrian fighters to help the Tripoli administration’s fight against Haftar.
Ankara’s formal military entry into the Libyan fray – in exchange for prospecting rights in the hydrocarbon-rich eastern Mediterranean waters – sparked a flurry of diplomacy and discontent. The deal between Sarraj and Erdogan for resources in contested waters incensed Greece, Israel and Cyprus, which have a trilateral undersea gas pipeline deal in the area.
>> “Between Ankara and Athens, the eastern Mediterranean is simmering with tensions”
Russia and Turkey expose Europe’s weakness
Meanwhile Russia emerged as a major player this week when it got Sarraj and Haftar to travel to Moscow to hammer out a ceasefire. While Sarraj signed the ceasefire deal, Haftar refused.
Although Ankara and Moscow have been on opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, the two powers have displayed an ability to work together, which was underscored by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Istanbul amid alarming signs of a partnership between Moscow and NATO’s only Muslim majority member.
The confluence was a stark display of the diminished geopolitical influence of the West in Libya since a 2011 NATO bombing campaign ultimately led to longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster.
“The Western powers are aware of a sort of sketching out of a condominium between Turkey and Russia to share Libya to a certain extent,” explained FRANCE 24’s Nick Spicer reporting from Berlin. “The two countries aren’t in agreement on the future of it [the fight between Haftar and the GNA], but they agree that they want to have a place at the table when peace talks do occur and that’s because of the oil reserves in that country and because they want to extend their influence in the Mediterranean.”
Over the past nine months, Western powers have declined to put their money and military power where their mouths are, by responding to Sarraj’s frequent calls for help with reiterations of commitments to “a political solution” despite the military subterfuge on the ground.
The Turkish response, according to Karim Mezran from the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, jolted Western powers. “All of a sudden US leadership has realized that the void it created by withdrawing from the area could be filled by others. The Europeans in general have woken up to their loss of prestige and relevance in an area literally at its borders,” wrote Mezran in an excoriating column published Friday.
France prevents ‘Europe from taking any strong position’
France’s role in Libya has come in for particularly strong criticism from analysts across Europe and the US.
On the diplomatic front, France backs the UN-sponsored peace process between Sarraj and Haftar. But France has been accused of providing military backing for Haftar, raising eyebrows in international circles and condemnation from the GNA.
In July 2016, a French military helicopter crash near the eastern city of Benghazi killed three French soldiers and forced Paris to confirm, for the first time, that its special forces were operating in Libya.
“France has long provided diplomatic support for Haftar, despite the embarrassing discovery of French-owned American weaponry in one of Haftar’s bases. France’s stance has prevented Europe from taking any strong position, launching initiatives that could introduce accountability mechanisms, or using any tool of leverage to constrain forces on the ground or their foreign backers,” noted Tarek Megerisi from the Brussels-based European Council for Foreign Relations in a commentary published Friday.
Paris, like Moscow, has been hedging its bets in the Libyan conflict, persuaded by Haftar’s portrayal of himself as the only man who can bring stability to Libya and crush the Islamists in the North African nation.
Haftar however turned out to be none of the above. His anti-Islamist sales pitch has been undermined by the use of Salafist fighters to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, which pleases his Arab backers whose zero-sum game form of diplomacy pleases Haftar. On the military front, despite nine months of deadly fighting, Tripoli has not fallen to Haftar’s control nor has he won many admirers in western Libya.
On Saturday, for instance, protesters gathered in Tripoli’s Martyr’s Square to denounce Haftar’s inclusion in the Berlin talks. "After nine months they say that there will be a meeting in Berlin. We now have the power and became able to return him (Haftar) back from where he came, and I myself will not agree with any meeting nor will I be accepting any dictators. We are a free people, a decent people, and a people that have suffered, and we have the men and the capacity to return him from where he came," Salah Belhaj, a Tripoli resident, told the Associated Press.
Merkel the trusted interlocutor
Despite the EU lack of policy unity, Megerisi maintains that it’s not too late for Europe to seize the latest diplomatic opportunity. “Regardless of its ineffectiveness on the ground, Europe retains an authority over the diplomatic space that it can confer on any future settlement. It should not under-appreciate this power to legitimise during the Berlin conference and what comes afterwards,” he noted.
While a resolution to the current hostilities is critical for a short-term fix, analysts warn that a peace will not hold unless non-military players, including Libyan civil society members, are engaged in a long-term peace and reconciliation process.
Germany, the host of the latest international attempt to bring peace at Europe’s doorstep, could play an important role, according to some observers.
Reporting from Berlin, Spicer noted that the Germans are “seen by all sides as politically neutral. They’re not present militarily, they don’t go off on military adventures, they’re not deeply involved in the oil,” he explained.
For Angela Merkel, who has announced she will step down as Germany’s chancellor in 2021 after 14 years in office, it could be a diplomatic win. “She’s a woman who’s said ‘I don’t think about my place in history.’ But this may be a nice way to end her tenure,” said Spicer. “Above all, Angela Merkel is a trusted interlocutor -- with [French President Emmanuel] Macron, she’s talked lots to him, with Erdogan, she’s also talked lots to Putin over the years about various crises and I think she might be the person who can really get the people at the table to agree on something.”
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