Germany called an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Friday to address the threat of a new military conflict in Libya after Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar launched an operation to seize the capital, Tripoli, from the rival, UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
"The problem with the government, the GNA, is it doesn't have any military power at all," Charles Gurdon, the managing director of the London-based risk consultancy Menas Associates, which publishes the monthly Libya Focus and the weekly Libya Politics & Security, told DW. "It is supported by militias who are largely Islamist of one persuasion or another and they are vehemently opposed to Haftar. They believe that Haftar represents the old Gadhafi regime and that he will go back to having an autocratic essentially dictatorship. At the same time, the international community recognizes the GNA. But there is growing support for Haftar because it's recognized that he may be the only person who can actually unify the country."
The news agency AFP reported that Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) had been stopped during the night by a militia loyal to the government.
"There can be no military solution in Libya," Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said as he announced the meeting during the government's regular press conference in Berlin on Friday.
The purpose of the meeting would be to avoid military escalation "and to further the political process," Seibert said. "We call on those in authority to stop military operations immediately and to distance themselves from further escalatory rhetoric."
The meeting was called in consultation with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who traveled to Libya on Friday along with UN Special Representative Ghassan Salame.
Guterres was pessimistic after meeting with Haftar: "I still hope it is possible to avoid a bloody confrontation in and around Tripoli," he said in Benghazi. "The UN is committed to facilitating a political solution and, whatever happens, the UN is committed to supporting the Libyan people," Guterres said.
Read more: Libya — from revolution to civil war
Holding the EU line
In response to Haftar's military push, the US, France, Italy, the UK and the United Arab Emirates issued a joint statement calling for restraint and an end to military posturing. "Threats of military action would only have the effect of propelling Libya back into chaos," the countries warned.
But this raised awkward questions, not least because the UAE and France have both previously supported Haftar. France's position could well be difficult if the European Union is to hold a common line on the situation.
That difficulty was raised by Omid Nouripour, the German Greens' foreign policy spokesman. After condemning Haftar's intervention as a "provocation" that risked a "deadly civil war," Nouripour demanded that the UN and EU not allow themselves to be "blackmailed by the field marshal." He also warned that Haftar intends to establish an authoritarian government similar to the one in Egypt.
"For that reason it is more important than ever that the European Union take a unified position," he said in a statement. "The government must engage more strongly than until now and pressure its partners in France to withdraw their support for Haftar."
Many analysts believe that France and Italy are playing a double game. Both countries have historical ties with Libya, and maintain their own bilateral channels with Haftar. Sources within German security circles told DW that France supported Haftar in southern Libya in the belief he could help stabilize neighboring Chad.
"In the European Union, there are discussions on the political issue of Libya," Maria Adebahr, spokeswoman for the German Foreign Ministry, said on Friday. "It would be a good European line if we stood behind the special representative, who will show paths out of this crisis towards a conference."
Many Libya specialists, such as Tarek Megerisi of the European Council on Foreign Relations, believe that France's faith in Haftar is misguided, not least because he is not as strong or as popular in the country as he purports to be. "He cannot make good on all the promises he has made either to his Libyan counterparts or to the international partners to whom he has promised preferential access and authoritarian stability," Megerisi wrote in an article for ECFR.
Adebahr also warned of the complexity of the situation. "Of course there are different militias and other structures in Libya who all have influence there and who one has to bring together to a process of national unity," she said in Friday's press conference. "There is the potential for [the conflict] there to spread, which is why we are very concerned."