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With Morocco’s exclusion from the Berlin Conference, it should revert to assertive diplomacy

January 27, 2020 at 4:30 pm

Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Nasser Bourita (L) and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres (R) [Twitter]

For sound reasons, especially proximity and familiarity with the confused situation in North Africa, Morocco has been involved in developments in Libya since 2011. Rabat has favoured giving support to a Libyan government that will establish stability, build state institutions and initiate political transition, and in return give up former leader Muammar Gaddafi’s support for the Polisario Front.

After several UN attempts to promote peace in worn-torn Libya, Morocco hosted the Skhirat dialogue that led to an accord being agreed on 17 December, 2015. Before the Berlin Conference, no other UN peace initiative has been concluded to ease the unrest, and yet many of the points agreed upon in Skhirat remain simply ink on paper, as Morocco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nacer Bourita, has admitted.

The main achievement in Skhirat was the birth of the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez Al-Sarraj. However, the GNA’s international recognition and legitimacy has done little to prevent renegade General Khalifa Haftar from exacerbating Libya’s insecurity and instability. International thirst for Libyan oil and regional counter-revolution animosity have propelled different parties to invest in the chaos that Haftar has been creating.

READ: After Haftar’s strike on detention centre, Morocco returns 11 bodies 

Morocco, however, clings solely to the Skhirat accord. It reiterates incessantly its commitment to a political, rather than a military, solution for Libya. In the process it ignores the fact that developments on the ground have never been guided by the outcome of peace talks.

Today, foreign intervention is more obvious. More and more foreign powers back diverse warring factions in Libya, to the extent that many expected a clash between Russia and Turkey. Their military cooperation and partnership to forge a truce in Syria made a new compromise over Libya very likely, which the Berlin Conference has tried to formalise. The Skhirat accord became obsolete as a result.

While Morocco prioritises diplomacy, Libya has become a battlefield with fighting continually rubbing salt into the country’s wounds. That is why, when the government in Rabat discovered that it was not invited to Berlin, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed astonishment at its exclusion.

In fact, Morocco’s expression of this looked and sounded inadequate due to the discrepancy between the internecine rivalry on the ground and wishful thinking about peace. Diplomatically, the Kingdom’s involvement had missed more timely opportunities earlier.

The first was when Haftar openly rejected the Skhirat accord. In December 2017, he clearly declared in a televised speech that his military institution would not submit to any party that had gained no legitimacy from the Libyan people. Put another way, he considered the GNA and the process behind its birth of being invalid.

General Khalifa Haftar taking over Libya - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

General Khalifa Haftar taking over Libya – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Before the Berlin Conference, the GNA stuck to Skhirat, but the unequal foreign military support and siege of Tripoli by Haftar’s forces pushed Al-Sarraj to seek help elsewhere. Moreover, Turkey tried to broker deals with North African countries before sending troops to Libya. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Tunisia and his foreign minister visited Algeria, but their own domestic fragility was expected to make a clear response unlikely.

Instead of revitalising its involvement, Morocco was slow to internalise the changes taking place around it. Too cautiously, Rabat announced its objection to any military intervention in Libya, as if war was about to start, not about to demolish the whole country. A win-win deal with the UN, Turkey and the international community was more possible, had the government altered its timid diplomacy in North Africa.

Gravest of all was Morocco’s surrender to the impact of ties with France. Following its own interests, and in utter disregard for the Skhirat accord, Paris has either intervened directly in Libya or backed Haftar with mercenaries, trainers and spies. Morocco reacted with silence, despite its “strategic alliance” with France.

In fact, losing traditional markets to global competition makes France unlikely to let go of its previous colonies. For instance, after introducing French-based school curricula in Morocco, the government in Paris opposes any advanced agreements between Rabat and China over infrastructure projects. When King Mohammed VI revealed the wish to extend Morocco’s railways to the south, which is a major socio-economic step, China offered a respectable deal.

OPINION: The concentration of economic power threatens Morocco’s stability 

However, the French blackmail started immediately. France’s Economy Minister not only cancelled a visit to Rabat but also criticised the economic model of a French company in Morocco and called for its revision. Despite the threatening insult, Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Eddine Othmani led a high level delegation to France seeking compromises, which resulted in more accords and contracts. This partly explains the ways that Paris eclipses Morocco’s foreign policies and international visibility.

Consequently, post-Berlin Conference, the Skhirat accord will no longer be the political reference point. Economically, Morocco is excluded from projects to rebuild Libya, unless through joint ventures with France.

Hence, in light of what happened in Berlin, Morocco needs to go back to assertive diplomacy, mainly by rethinking its relationship with France, and strengthening bonds with diverse established and rising international powers, learning from the Turkish approach perhaps. The confused situation in North Africa offers opportunities for that.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.