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What can we expect from the Berlin II international conference on Libya?

June 17, 2021 at 11:54 am

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (R) and Jan Kubis, UN special envoy for Libya, attend a press conference after talks in Berlin, Germany, 18 March 2021. [KAY NIETFELD/POOL/AFP via Getty Images]

Germany is preparing to host the second Berlin conference on Libya on 23 June in cooperation with the UN Mission in the North African country. The first conference was convened in January last year. Since then, Libya has seen a number of positive political and military developments.

In terms of the latter, the country has been enjoying a ceasefire that has held since it was signed in Geneva last October. However, none of the foreign fighters and mercenaries have left Libya as required by the ceasefire agreement and the first Berlin conference. This is a major failure of the conference, the recommendations of which are enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 2510 and are binding on UN member states.

Politically, the first Berlin conference has helped push the process forward. In March, the transitional Government of National Unity (GNU) was sworn in after being agreed by a UN-assembled dialogue forum in Geneva the month before. The forum also agreed a date, 24 December, for presidential and legislative elections. Political dialogue within Libya has moved forward, albeit slowly. Most of the government institutions divided between the east and west of the country have been united under the new government, except for the military and security apparatus. They remain at the heart of disagreements.

READ: Will Libya’s first female foreign minister be forced out of her job? 

While the military commission responsible for the October ceasefire called for uniting the armed forces in Libya nothing has been done. And there are other aspects of the ceasefire agreement that have not been implemented, including the opening of the highway that connects the east, west and south of the vast country. So far all efforts to open the vital road have failed and are unlikely to succeed anytime soon. This particular road passes close to the country’s oil and gas fields. It also passes through the Sirte-Juffra front line where forces from both east and west are facing each other. The region’s proximity to the country’s hydrocarbon riches makes it of special interest to local and international actors involved in Libya.

Libya: Never-ending chaos - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Libya: Never-ending chaos – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The upcoming conference in Berlin is expected to take stock of what has been achieved since Berlin I and how to help Libya reach polling day united and at peace. The conference falls within the UN mission’s strategy for tackling the decade long conflict. Former UN acting envoy to Libya Stephanie Williams said in a recent interview with MEMO that there is an “outside-in” approach in which foreign countries, helping different sides in Libya, use their influence over their local proxies to facilitate agreements. At least that is what the UN hopes. The tactic is also intended to avoid the usual quarrels among Libyan factions that “divert” any international meetings on Libya, Williams explained. She pointed to at least two previous such meetings in Paris and Palermo three years ago; both failed to produce tangible results because of bickering among the Libyans themselves.

Berlin II is likely to be a little different in objectives, content and participants. The GNU is likely to be invited while the Libyan National Army, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, is not expected to take part. Haftar holds no official position within the GNU but welcomed its establishment. This means that his army is not recognised by the government nor integrated within its own command structure. This is one of the awkward situations that has yet to be resolved. A compromise to maintain the political momentum towards the elections, while remaining acceptable to Haftar and his foreign backers, including Russia, must be found.

While the first conference in the German capital may have succeeded partially in forcing the local protagonists to agree certain steps, it failed to get the international powers involved in the conflict to respect their commitments made in Berlin. The main hurdles here are twofold: international meddling in Libya’s internal affairs and, more importantly, the withdrawal of all foreign troops and fighters from Libyan territory.

READ: In conversation with Stephanie Williams, the US diplomat helping Libya come together

Despite the new foreign minister’s repeated calls for such forces to leave Libya, none has so far done so. Turkey, Italy, Russia and thousands of mercenaries from at least three other countries are still in Libya in one way or another. Turkey, for instance, claims that its presence is legal and based on a security deal it signed with the former Tripoli-based government in November 2019. Russia, on the other hand, denies that it has any troops in Libya; Wagner Group fighters, it insists, are private individuals over which Moscow has no control. The GNU, meanwhile, is supposed to organise the December elections without the presence of any foreign fighters inside Libya.

The US participation in Berlin II could offer some hope that the elections will take place as scheduled. The Biden administration appears to be more focused on Libya compared with its predecessor. Biden may have mentioned Libya three times when he actually meant to say Syria, but this does not mean that Libya is not on his agenda. He has already appointed a special envoy who visited Tripoli last month to voice Washington’s support for elections and the removal of all foreign fighters. Washington and Moscow are both expected to be represented at Berlin II but how much they could agree on about Libya is another matter. Biden has repeatedly warned his Russian counterpart that the US will no longer turn a blind eye to what Russia is doing the world over, Libya included.

Just how much Biden and Vladimir Putin discussed Libya in their first face to face summit this week will be reflected in the Berlin II conference. Any major disagreements between the two could derail the December elections and jeopardise the current ceasefire.

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