By Pierre Tran
Paris – The next few weeks will be critical for Libya as much depends on opposing sides of the civil war maintaining a fragile ceasefire and their foreign backers observing an arms embargo, Tarek Megerisi, policy fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations, said in a panel debate on Libya held in Paris, France on January 22, 2020.
The ceasefire and embargo were two key measures in the 55-point communiqué issued at the Jan. 19 Berlin conference on Libya, he said at the debate, titled “What Next for Libya After the Berlin Conference.”
A split in Europe, the absence of the US, and direct intervention by Turkey and Syrian militia are among foreign elements which add complexity to armed strife in Libya, panel speakers said.
That civil war is effectively a “proxy war,“ fought by foreign nations through the Libyan Government of National Accord and the rebel forces, said Leela Jacinto, journalist at television channel France 24 and moderator for the ECFR panel.
The recent deployment of Turkish troops and Syrian militia to back the national government was a “game changer,” she said.
The Berlin conference offered a slim chance for the ceasefire to be upheld and would call for the foreign backers to uphold their commitments to step back from the conflict. More than 2,000 people have been killed and 200,000 displaced.
“Everybody is ready to resume fighting so unless this brief opening is seized quickly, we’ll be back at square one in a couple of weeks,” Megerisi said.
In Libya, there were low expectations for the Berlin conference, with a sense of helplessness as Libyans saw themselves as merely “spectators at a football match,” said Mary Fitzgerald, researcher and consultant.
At the high-level gathering in Berlin, backed by the UN and German chancellor Angela Merkel, the national government and rebel force agreed on those officers who would sit on a military committee (5+5 committee) for stabilization in the ceasefire.
Libyan and many international representatives signed up for that Berlin accord, the latest in a series of political efforts to stem the war racking the Arab nation since 2014.
In Tripoli, in western Libya, there is the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) led by prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj, while in Benghazi in the east, there is Gen. Khalifa Haftar, head of the opposing Libyan National Army (LNA). There are also a number of militia forces active on the ground.
The long-standing conflict intensified some 10 months ago, when Haftar launched an air and ground attack on Tripoli in a bid to overthrow the GNA.
Just shortly before the Berlin conference, Haftar seized control of the nation’s oil facilities in the eastern region, effectively the economic life blood of Libya.
The US embassy in Libya formally called on the LNA to lift that oil blockade, the only international response to that action, with no joint European reaction, Fitzgerald said. It remained to be seen whether Washington would put pressure on Haftar to end that blockade.
A sense of the cynicism over the Berlin meeting grew out of the knowledge that the formal communiqué was drafted weeks before the conference while there were “blatant violations” of the arm embargo and fighting on the ground, she said.
Germany and the European Union account for some 75 percent of foreign aid to Libya, where oil exports generate $55 million in daily revenue, said Olivier Vallée, researcher and consultant, and specialist in corruption.
The Libyan National Oil Company receives oil and gas revenues from both the eastern and western region, sends the funds to the central bank, which sends them to commercial banks, he said. That meant an equal distribution of wealth between the national government and LNA rebel force.
The Berlin accord included redistribution of resources and reunification of economic institutions, a positive element and first time the call was made in clear terms, he said.
In the European Union, there are differing views, with one side calling for Europe to act as “honest broker” or “mediator,” while the other side prefers to “wait and see” or pursue national interests, Megerisi said. That split is not limited to France and Italy, with the latter making effort to build bridges with the former, he added.
Paris supports Haftar in the east, with the militia led by the Libyan general acting as a buffer to Islamic State irregular fighters entering from neighboring Chad, crossing Libya to enter Niger, an allied nation in the French Barkhane military mission in sub-Saharan Africa.
Meanwhile, Rome backs al-Sarraj and the national government as there is a oil pipeline and large Italian investment in western Libya. Italy also looks to Tripoli to crack down on people smuggling across the Mediterranean to land on Italian soil.
That conference could only be held in Berlin as Merkel was seen as neutral, while Paris is seen as backing Haftar, Vallée said.
France and Germany are divided on Turkey’s desire to join the European Union, with Paris blocking Ankara’s application for membership, he said. That French rejection “is a critical factor” in Turkey’s entry into Libya, which also recalls the days of its occupancy under the Ottoman empire.
The tighter links between Tripoli and Turkey reflect a perceived lack of support from the EU and led to the Libyan national government signing a memorandum of understanding with Ankara for gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.
That deal with Turkey has startled nations in an EastMed coalition which includes Cyprus, France, Greece and Italy, which are working with Egypt and Israel.
Haftar has close links with the U.S., as he has worked with the CIA, which sheltered him and helped him train 600 fighters in Egypt, Vallée said. Before taking action, Haftar communicates to the U.S. either through Egypt or directly with president Donald Trump, he added. Haftar organized the coup d’état against then Libya leader Moammar Kadaffi.
The U.S. position is completely unclear, said Megerisi. There is no interest as president Donald Trump does not want to enter a quagmire.
But the U.S. is a superpower and if Washington made its position clear, that allowed the other actors to adapt to it.
France has long had a presence on the ground in Libya, mostly undisclosed. A helicopter shot down in 2016 killed three special forces troops, a deadly incident acknowledged by then president François Hollande.
Last April, Tunisian authorities caught 13 armed French nationals crossing the common border with Libya, with Radio France International reporting those were French intelligence officers.
The afternoon daily Le Monde ran a Jan. 21 2017 editorial pointing up how the private office of the then defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, had excluded its defense reporter from briefings of the defense ministry.
That exclusion was in response to a Feb. 25, 2016 article from the reporter disclosing French special forces and agents of the DGSE secret intelligence service conducting “clandestine operations” in Libya against the Islamic State, the editorial said.
The Le Monde article apparently particularly annoyed Le Drian as the reporter revealed that Paris “initiated” a Nov. 13 2015 US air strike which killed Abu Nabil, an IS leader in Libya, weekly magazine l’Obs reported.
Besides support from Egypt, France, Russia and Saudi Arabia, the LNA relies on “mercenaries” from Sudan, Chad and Russia, while the United Arab Emirates is the most robust backer of Hafta, having broken the arms embargo in the past and given air support, Fitzgerald said.
Last April, the UN special representative to Libya, Ghassan Salamé, said “keep your hands out of Libya,” Jacinto said.
The Berlin conference documents highlighted a desire to see some changes.
”We call on all parties concerned to redouble their efforts for a sustained suspension of hostilities, de-escalation and a permanent ceasefire.
“We commit to unequivocally and fully respect and implement the arms embargo established by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1970 (2011) and the Council’s subsequent Resolutions, including the proliferation of arms from Libya, and call on all international actors to do the same.”
There was need to follow up on the Berlin conference, otherwise Europe would be a bystander as Russia and Turkey move in, Megerisi said.
European states needed to ensure the arms embargo was observed and put pressure on the militia groups, with tools such as EU sanctions, travel bans, and bilateral pressure.
“Libya is the pre-eminent case for Europe to play a more active role,” he said.
The alternative was “marginalization of Europe.”
The featured photo shows French President Emmanuel Macron and General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), attendingd a press conference after talks about easing tensions in Libya, in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, near Paris, on 25 July 2017 (AFP)
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