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Germany to host Libya talks in Berlin

January 15, 2020

The recent Libya peace talks in Moscow were a failure. A new attempt is scheduled to take place in Berlin. The situation is complicated: All parties involved have their own interests at heart.

Khalifa Haftar, Vladimir Putin, Fayez Sarraj

Negotiations to bring an end to the conflict in Libya will enter the next round on Sunday, when Germany hosts an international peace conference in consultation with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. This will be the latest round of talks toward a reconciliation process between the factions led by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, who heads the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, and General Khalifa Haftar, of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. An agreement had seemed possible after talks brokered by Russia and Turkey fell apart on Monday. Haftar ultimately left Moscow without putting his name on an agreement already signed by Sarraj.

There may have been reason for Haftar to fear that his opponents would not abide by the agreement. The GNA can hardly control its allied troops, said Andreas Dittmann, a professor of human geography and development research at the Justus-Liebig-University Giessen. If Haftar had stopped his troops, Dittmann said, Turkey might have moved supplies to the GNA-allied militias. "Haftar probably assumed that signing the agreement would have been a waste of time," Dittmann said.

Read more: Turkey-Libya maritime deal triggers Mediterranean tensions

Turkey's government has been providing military support to the GNA for several weeks. Although the GNA is recognized by most countries and the United Nations, it was not elected by Libyans. "The international community initially placed its trust in [Sarraj] because it assumed that he would prevail in the domestic Libyan power struggle," Dittmann said. "They figured proper elections could follow later."

The situation has changed, however. Haftar and his troops control most of Libya, with the exception of the Tripolitania region surrounding the capital. That is where most Libyans live.

Demonstrators protest the Turkish parliament's decision to send Turkish forces to Libya
Demonstrators in Benghazi protest the Turkish parliament's decision to send troops to LibyaImage: Reuters/E. O. Al-Fetori

Tim Eaton, a Middle East and North Africa researcher at the London-based Chatham House think tank, said Haftar was in a position of strength. In contrast to the GNA, which basically only receives military aid from Turkey, Haftar has the support of Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France. "Haftar has more than one international patron," Eaton said, "which makes him better able to rebuff some of the requests from individual states."

Russia's disenchantment

The general has long been regarded as the guarantor of Russia's interests in Libya. Under Moammar Gadhafi, the Kremlin was one of the country's most important partners, Dittmann said: "Both the Soviet Union and later Russia had close ties with Tripoli." Then, Kremlin officials noticed that Libya was increasingly influenced by the United States and EU. Unwilling to accept that shift, Russia supported the general from then on, Dittmann said.

Now that Haftar has refused to sign the ceasefire agreement, the Kremlin might reconsider its position. "It would be very interesting to see how the Russians respond," Eaton said, "given that this was quite a public snub of Putin's personal assets."

Fighters of the UN-backed Government of National Accord at their base near the frontline in Tripoli
Libya has been embroiled in civil war since the fall of ex-dictator Gadhafi in 2011Image: picture-alliance/Photoshot/A. Salahuddien

Germany's will be the next government to try to persuade the parties to agree to a ceasefire. The most important international parties in the conflict have already agreed to participate, including government representatives from the US, Russia, Turkey, France, Italy, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. According to Germany's government, the EU, the Arab League and the African Union will also be represented in Berlin. It remains to be seen whether Sarraj and Haftar will attend the conference.

Read more: Libya's refugees caught in the crossfire

Dittmann said the conference had a reasonable chance of success. Lessons have been learned from the mistakes made at the first Syria conferences, where not all the players involved were invited. Iran was ignored for a long time despite its role as one of the main supporters of the Assad regime in Syria — a mistake that is not going to be repeated in Berlin, Dittmann said: "All the relevant players have been invited."

"This does not mean, however, that all the cards are laid on the table," Dittman said. Russia's is not the only government interested in Libya. The United States and EU countries have their own concrete goals, he said, "but they are very different: France and Italy, for instance, are competing for Libyan oil exports." Haftar has French planes at his disposal, flown by pilots from the United Arab Emirates who were trained in France, Dittmann said. "Basically," he added, a European proxy war is also taking place in Libya."

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Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East