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Berlin Libya conference: A first step toward peace?

January 19, 2020

The German government has invited the warring parties in the North African country and their foreign supporters to the chancellery in Berlin. The hope for on Sunday's talks is to achieve stability for the whole region.

A man fighting on behalf of Libya's UN-recognized government holds a weapon during clashes in Tripoli
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Salahuddien

The German government's long-term goal is "a sovereign Libya" and an "inner-Libyan reconciliation process," according to the invitation to the conference on Sunday in Berlin. But the country is still a long way from that.

There is an internationally recognized government in Tripoli led by Fayez Sarraj, but it controls only a small part of Libya. Meanwhile, rebel general Khalifa Haftar and his militias are increasingly putting the government under military pressure. Haftar controls most of the country, including much of its oil fields.

The situation is complicated further by the intervention of foreign powers. Turkey, for example, supports the government in Tripoli — Ankara has now also sent soldiers to Libya. On the other side, countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Russia are backing Haftar, and are more or less openly providing him with military assistance.

Even the European Union is divided on the Libyan question. France is said to support Haftar, while Italy, the former colonial power, is said to be close to Sarraj.

After several preliminary meetings with officials, the German government has now invited the highest representatives to the chancellery in Berlin: the two rivals, Sarraj and Haftar, the heads of state and government of all the main countries directly and indirectly involved, as well as representatives of the European Union, the African Union and the Arab League. Because the meeting is being overseen by the United Nations, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will also be present.

General Khalifa Haftar (left) and the leader of the UN-recognized government in Tripoli Fayez Sarraj (right)
Haftar (left) and UN-backed leader Sarraj have not yet confirmed their attendance

'Key' for the whole region

But what can this conference achieve? Rainer Breul, the spokesperson for the German Foreign Office, said the focus is not yet on peace negotiations.

"The goal is for international actors to agree on framework conditions to reduce their influence on the ground," he said.

Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly told lawmakers on Tuesday: "As long as military equipment continues to come in from outside, the military battles there will not cease" — and as long as that continues, there will be no political solution. Merkel sees it as a good sign that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose countries are on different sides in the Libyan conflict, have both promised to come.

The significance of the Berlin conference, however, extends further than Libya. According to Jürgen Hardt, a foreign policy expert for Merkel's Christian Democrats, pacification in the country is "the key to the further stabilization of North and West Africa. If we succeed in leading Libya into a peaceful future, it would be a milestone for the entire region."

Graphic showing Front lines in Libya's civil war

Bijan Djir-Sarai, the foreign policy spokesman for the Free Democrats (FDP), believes Russia in particular has a duty here. "Russia, as a supporter of Haftar, must urgently convince the general to take a constructive role in achieving a peace plan, and to participate in the upcoming Libya summit," he told DW.

However, Sevim Dagdelen of the Left party believes the German government is not a credible mediator. "To deplore the violation of the arms embargo in the case of Libya, while at the same time continuing to supply arms to parties involved in the Libyan conflict, such as Turkey, Qatar, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, is hypocritical," she said.

How will Haftar behave?

One crucial question is whether the two inner-Libyan rivals Sarraj and Haftar will meet face to face in Berlin. At a conference in Moscow on Tuesday, a meeting between the two failed to take place due to Haftar's refusal to sign a cease-fire deal.

Afterward, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu even questioned the point of the Berlin conference. "If Haftar continues to act like this, there's no point to the Berlin summit," he said in a video distributed by Turkish media.

As things stand, however, President Erdogan intends to participate, even though his military support for the Libyan government is in exact opposition to what the German government is demanding. Furthermore, Erdogan has called Haftar a "putschist" who would be "taught a lesson" if he continued to take military action against the government in Tripoli.

On Thursday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was able to achieve an important partial success in the previously deadlocked situation. At a meeting with Haftar in his stronghold of Benghazi, the rebel general assured Maas that he was prepared to implement a cease-fire.

Maas again stressed the German government's most important message: "This conflict cannot be won by anyone militarily. On the contrary — a window is now opening up to rid the conflict of international influence."

Limited German influence

Despite Berlin's efforts to push for stability in Libya, Tim Eaton, a North Africa expert at the London think tank Chatham House, doubts that Germany, of all countries, will succeed.

States that have been militarily involved in Libya and have cooperated directly with one of the warring parties would have greater influence over the political process, Eaton told DW. Germany, however, is doing "neither one nor the other."

He noted that efforts at mediation were difficult because the community of states, and even Germany's European partners, were so divided on the Libyan question. Turkey and Russia in particular have played a very strong role in Libya, and expect a "return" on their engagement in the form of trade agreements with Libya as an energy supplier. Eaton believes this will mean Germany will have a very hard time getting its ideas accepted.

The German government is aware of the challenges. It also knows that it needs to be in it for the long haul. "The Berlin Libya conference is not the end, it is only the beginning of a political process conducted under the aegis of the United Nations," said government spokesperson Ulrike Demmer. "Libya's problems cannot all be solved in a single day."

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