Until the international community confronts head-on the elephants in the room of Libya’s protracted plight, there is no end in sight to the country’s crisis.
Rabat – Leaders from 11 countries met in Berlin on January 19 to discuss peace and de-escalation prospects for the protracted geopolitical mess playing out in Libya. The result of the one-day summit, it would appear from reports, is a renewed sense of hope and maybe confidence that—just perhaps—this time might be a little bit different.
In calling for the one-day summit, Germany surely hoped that her acknowledged neutrality in the Libyan mess, the fact that Berlin backs none of the Libyan warring factions, could help in winning the trust of both camps and convincing them and their international backers to commit to a UN-moderated ceasefire. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have meant exactly that when he recently contrasted France’s and Germany’s stance on Libya and called on Europe to act more boldly and more responsibly to solve the Libyan crisis.
That the Berlin summit could even take place (a week after similar efforts by Russia and Turkey failed spectacularly), and that the concerned parties gave an impression of genuine commitment to an eventual ceasefire, many have explained, was in itself a small step towards making sure that the Syrian experience can be averted in Libya.
Heiko Mass, Germany’s foreign affairs minister, said as much after the summit. “We have to make sure Libya does not become a second Syria,” Mass commented. The German diplomat added a wry note of caution, however. “We know that today’s signatures aren’t enough,” he announced, sounding concerned, almost rueful.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor and the main instigator of the whole peacemaking exercise, while as concerned as Mass, was relatively more sanguine. Like her foreign minister, Merkel acknowledged the seemingly (some would say essentially) unbridgeable differences separating Libya’s warring factions. Like him, she understood that for all the promising vibes that may have come from the meeting, yesterday’s summit was but the start of what is sure to be an arduous and cumbersome process.
“We have embarked on a very arduous road. We need a comprehensive plan,” she said.
The German leader went on to highlight the summit’s conclusions, as well as her repeated calls that all participants commit to what they signed up for in the German capital.
“We all agree that we should respect the arms embargo and that the arms embargo should be controlled more strongly than it had been in the past,” she offered. But unlike Mass, Merkel unequivocally told reporters that the summit was a “success,” mainly because the conflicting parties subscribed to the prospect of a UN-led political process and promised to respect an arms embargo that they had all notably breached.
‘No military solution’
While Morocco, having been monumental in earlier peace talks, was surprisingly left out of the summit, the Berlin meeting, in both its spirit and conclusions, sounded more like an extension of the Morocco-brokered Skhirat Agreement.
In Skhirat, a coastal town between Rabat and Casablanca, Morocco insisted—and tried to convince the conflicting parties—that the only way towards genuine de-escalation and lasting peace in Libya is to commit to a political process of dialogue and trust building. For Rabat, military engagement, no matter what the arguments would be in favor of one, and regardless of who would be doing it, was off the table.
The idea, as Rabat has reiterated in successive statements condemning “any foreign intervention” in Libya, was that external military or logistic support to any of the warring Libyan factions would cause more havoc and instability in the region.
In Berlin, this was most vividly echoed by Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general.
“I cannot stress enough the summit’s conclusion that there is no military solution to the conflict in Libya,” the UN chief said. “I hope the commitments made today will contribute to a lasting solution to the Libya crisis. We need a ceasefire. We cannot monitor something that does not exist.”
Elsewhere, there were similar echoes, as almost all the world leaders spoke from a place of urgency and a “never again” spirit. The UK’s Boris Johnson, for example, perfectly encapsulated the conclusions of the summit when he called for establishing a multinational peacekeeping force to monitor the ceasefire agreement that Libya’s conflicting parties agreed to in Berlin.
Even Turkey’s Erdogan, who hours before the summit said in wide-ranging comments that “the road to peace in Libya goes through Turkey,” seemed to concede that perhaps there were alternatives other than Ankara’s insistence on being militarily involved to “teach a lesson” to Haftar. Nominally at least, the Turkish president agreed to the terms of the Berlin summit, which included an embargo on arm exports to the North African country, a point on which critics have repeatedly slammed Ankara in recent months.
Beyond half-hearted commitments
But that was about it for the glimpses of hope. For all the after-summit talks about “success” and “positive momentum,” about concerns and commitments to avoid plunging Libya in the same impasse as Syria, tougher questions were avoided, deliberately unattended to amid hopes of future talks in Geneva to perhaps speak more daringly to the conflict’s main protagonists.
For one thing, even as they agreed to each nominate five members on the prospective UN-moderated ceasefire committee, General Khalifa Haftar and Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, the two main faces in Libya’s ensnaring geopolitical quagmire, did not directly meet in Berlin.
The two men were carefully put in separate venues to avoid the fiasco that happened in Moscow a week ago, after Haftar “snubbed Putin” and left the Russian capital when the Kremlin expected him to meet with al-Sarraj and sign a ceasefire deal. In Berlin, however, it has been reported, it was al-Sarraj who insisted on not crossing paths with Haftar.
Another elephant in the room was the certainty that, at some point, the meeting, or its aftermath, would morph into a blaming exercise, with each side blaming the other for all the failures, breaches of international accords, as well as the ensuing instability. This was most visible in the indirect jibes France and Turkey sent each other.
France’s Emmanuel Macron insisted that those who are sending troops and arms stop doing so. Erdogan, for his part, emphasized that all the talks respecting commitments and supporting the soon-to-be-established UN-led ceasefire committee will yield no significant results if Haftar’s side does not end its “aggressive stance.”
In their comments, both Erdoğan and Macron tried to stay above the fray, to claim the moral high ground by casting themselves as sincerely committed to Libya’s and the region’s stability and wellbeing. But this was bound to come along as hollow, face-saving talks, especially when both countries have already picked their sides, and are directly or indirectly engaged in the fight.
Coupled with the fact that it will take solid, sustained diplomacy and long-term-oriented efforts to convene Haftar and al-Sarraj to the same negotiating table, the internalization of hostilities that Berlin sought to avoid is already taking place. “The Berlin conference was largely designed to discourage external actors from turning Libya into a battleground for rival countries backing either side in the civil war,” the Guardian’s Patrick Wintour rightly noted after the summit. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to argue that this goal was not achieved.
UN diplomats and world leaders may have glowingly spoken of the Berlin conference, with almost everyone somehow suggesting that this was not business as usual, that, as the UN’s secretary-general insisted, there will be more talks “in the coming days in Geneva” to uphold the cease-fire that has come out of the Berlin conference.
This is all laudable, and it was about time that the international community finally showed that it really cares for Libya, for the lives of millions of civilians caught up in the trap of an internal conflict fueled and made worse by external powers fighting for influence and geostrategic interests.
But until the international community addresses the elephants in the room, those uncomfortable, uneasy sticking points that Berlin conveniently sidelined, the recently brokered ceasefire is set to become another one of those commitments that everyone involved in the crisis is sure to break as soon as the next opportunity avails itself.