Morocco has expressed its surprise at not being invited to the Berlin Conference on Libya, hosted by the German government on Sunday, January 19.
Washington DC – Morocco has expressed its surprise at not being invited to the Berlin Conference on Libya, hosted by the German government on Sunday, January 19.
Morocco stressed that it was at the forefront of earlier international efforts to end the Libyan conflict that culminated in the 2015 Skhirat Agreement, which gained the support of the United Nations and acceptance from all parties of the conflict.
The Moroccan response to its exclusion from the Berlin conference was to be expected because of Morocco’s proximity to Libya and its significant role in reaching the Skhirat Agreement. To date, the agreement remains the most prominent effort to reach a settlement in Libya.
Still, the Moroccan response raises many questions. First, why has Morocco remained silent in the face of Turkey’s diplomatic moves since November 2019, which led to the signing of two agreements between Ankara and the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA)?
The first agreement regards the maritime borders between Libya and Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean. The second is a military and security agreement that controversially allows Ankara to give military support to the government of Tripoli to counter the forces of the rebel General Khalifa Haftar.
Since the announcement of the two agreements, Ankara has become a leading actor in the Libyan conflict. Everyone is realizing that Turkey has political cards that could make it a major party in any negotiations to end the conflict.
Turkish diplomats worked assiduously toward this goal. Turkey also intensified statements that it would not let the countries supporting Haftar—the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and France—to impose their political agenda in Libya or evict the internationally-recognized GNA.
As a direct result of the diplomatic campaign, following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meeting on January 8, they agreed on a ceasefire to take effet on Sunday, January 12.
On January 13, Moscow hosted bilateral talks between the GNA and General Haftar under the auspices of both Russia and Turkey. Moscow and Ankara have succeeded in becoming key actors in the Libyan political process, despite their inability to get the warring parties to sign a ceasefire.
The West leaves a gaping hole
The two countries have taken advantage of the American government’s failure to state a clear position on Libya and its concern about the recent escalation with Iran.
While President Donald Trump expressed his implicit support for Haftar after a phone call with him in April 2019, the American position remains ambiguous, as the Trump administration continued to hold meetings with the GNA, most recently the American-Libyan trade dialogue in Tunis in December 2019.
The European Union, another major party concerned with the Libyan crisis because of geographical proximity, security issues, and irregular immigration, does not have a significant role anymore.
The EU has lost its prominence in Libya because Italy and France support opposing sides. Italy supports the GNA, and France supports General Haftar. Efforts by Germany to convene the Berlin conference, after it was postponed several times, are an attempt for the EU to remain a key player in the Libyan crisis.
Morocco needs to step up
Meanwhile, Morocco has not made any moves, regionally or multilaterally within the UN, to maintain its role in the Libyan crisis.
Morocco did not state its position on the talks hosted in Moscow, while France, Italy, the UK, Germany, the US, and the EU issued a joint statement to affirm their support for the talks, calling on the warring parties to address the political, economic, and security problems underlying Libya’s civil war.
All that Morocco has done is make sporadic statements where it condemned foreign interference in Libya and asserted that a political solution is the only way to extricate Libya from its current chaos.
The last of such statements was made by Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita on January 7. Bourita said any solution must enjoy the agreement of all Libyan political forces and should seek to preserve the higher interests of the Libyan people.
Morocco’s silence towards the latest developments in Libya was not only surprising because anything that happens there affects Morocco’s regional security interests, but, most importantly, because Morocco played a central role in the Skhirat Agreement.
This agreement is the legal basis Turkey has used to justify its intention to provide military support to Libya, albeit in contradiction to UN resolutions, including Resolutions 1970 (2011) and 2473 (2019), which impose an arms embargo on Libya.
Between a rock and a hard place
Morocco has kept a low profile in recent months because its official Libya position conflicts with the positions of countries that support General Haftar but have strong relations with Morocco: The UAE, ٍSaudi Arabia, and France.
The UAE is the leading supplier of weapons to General Haftar. The UAE was the main factor that helped Haftar achieve military success in confrontations against the GNA, especially since April 2019.
France, Morocco’s main strategic partner and foremost supporter in the Western Sahara issue in the UN Security Council, is also one of General Haftar’s main supporters.
Consequently, the only explanation for Morocco’s silence in recent months is that Morocco is in the difficult position of supporting the GNA and the Skhirat Agreement while opposing strategic partners who seek to impose their agenda in the region.
Given the situation on the ground, the unyielding positions of the warring parties and their backers, and the absence of a united European and American stance, there is little hope that the Berlin Conference will lead to any substantive progress that could pave the way for an immediate ceasefire and subsequent negotiations for a political solution.
The Moscow talks have shown that General Haftar and his supporters are keen to retain the areas they gained control over in Libya since April 2019.
If there is no direct engagement from the US by threatening sanctions on any party that refuses to engage fully in the political process, or if the Security Council does not impose a no-fly zone in Libya to prepare for the political process, there is no hope for any breakthrough in Libya.
The Berlin conference will just become part of the long list of Libya meetings that did not produce any tangible results.
Under these circumstances, Morocco may have lost the opportunity to preserve its role in Libya as a trusted mediator and influential player. However, due to the complicated situation in Libya, Morocco can recover its role after the Berlin conference by moving quickly and building on its credibility and good relations with all stakeholders to reach a political solution.
Why Turkey should not mediate
The EU does not trust Turkey, which has unilaterally made itself a main player in Libya, especially because the maritime border agreement it signed with GNA did not take into consideration the interests of Cyprus, Egypt, and Greece. The EU has rejected and condemned the agreement and describes it as contrary to international law.
Additionally, there is a vicious hostility between Turkey and the UAE, which sees Ankara as the main sponsor of political Islam in the Arab region and the main barrier to implementing the Emirates’ plan in Libya. The US has also expressed concern about the Ankara-Tripoli agreements and the deployment of Turkish military forces in Libya.
Although Turkey claims that the international legitimacy of the GNA, stemming from the Skhirat Agreement, is the main motive behind its support, all parties are aware that the Turks have ideological and economic agendas. None of the stakeholders can trust any mediation role played by Turkey.
Conversely, Morocco has strategic relations with the EU based on mutual respect. It also has strong relations with the US and Russia, as well as with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, despite the rift that has cast doubts about the strength of the ties since the Gulf crisis in 2017.
Morocco could build on these strong ties to regain its role and the trust of all parties to be a mediator and assist the United Nations in reaching a political solution.
However, Morocco will not regain its prominence by merely making sporadic statements that will not have an impact on any of the parties.
Moroccan diplomats should move to intensify their contacts with all key players, whether the EU and the US; the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt; or the UN envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, to convince them that Morocco is the only country able to mediate in the Libyan crisis and persuade all parties to sit at the negotiating table.
A litmus test for Morocco
Morocco should retake the initiative and coordinate with the UN to call for an international conference on Libya to build on the Skhirat Agreement. If Morocco managed to make the Skhirat conference a success, then it has the credibility and ability to ensure the success of any serious initiative to reach a political solution that meets the concerns and interests of all the parties.
In light of the unprecedented rifts between Rabat and Abu Dhabi since June 2017 due to Morocco’s neutrality in the Gulf crisis, no one can speculate to what extent Morocco can convince Abu Dhabi to lean towards a political solution and whether the UAE will acquiesce to any Moroccan role in Libya.
However, Turkey’s military involvement may disrupt the balance on the ground, causing Haftar’s supporters to rethink their positions.
The meeting today in Morocco between King Mohammed VI and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed will likely result in a thaw in their bilateral relations and may signal that both countries will work hand in hand to reach a political solution to the Libyan crisis.
The recent developments in Libya should cause Rabat to break its silence, to clearly state a position, and to affirm that no solution can be made without neighboring countries.
Also, these developments would be a litmus test for the resilience of Morocco’s diplomacy and its ability to preserve Moroccan interests by playing a leading role in regional issues.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis.