Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 6 July 2020

Libya conference: who wants what?

In Berlin, Haftar and the GNA have goals, but so do Turkey, Russia, and the EU

Italian Minister for Foreign Affairs Luigi Di Maio and Egyptian Minister for Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry during their meeting in Berlin, Germany, 19 January 2020, on the sidelines of the International Libya Conference. EPA
Italian Minister for Foreign Affairs Luigi Di Maio and Egyptian Minister for Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry during their meeting in Berlin, Germany, 19 January 2020, on the sidelines of the International Libya Conference. EPA

The Libya Conference in Berlin will host two of the three main parties involved in the Libyan conflict as well as outside actors. Trying to find a satisfying solution for all parties involved is not an easy feat. Here's a breakdown of where each party stands:

Libyan National Army

Field Marshal Haftar co-operates with the Speaker of the eastern parliament, Aguila Saleh, though their relationship is strained. The military commander served under Muammar Qaddafi before being exiled to the US. He returned to participate in Qaddafi's downfall. In February 2014 he outlined on TV his plan to save the nation from extremist groups. ISIS seized control of the central city of Sirte in mid-2015. Before that occupation, in February, it beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian construction workers. In April, it beheaded 30 Ethiopian Christians. Field Marshal Haftar's announcement reflected popular sentiment as he moved to remove extremist groups from eastern Libya earning him the promotion to Libyan National Army.

The self-described anti-Islamist general oversees his forces from his headquarters in Marj (in eastern Libya) and has persisted in his insistence on disbanding all “militias and terror groups” that control the capital. That includes some of the forces backing the GNA although he has insisted his fight is not with nationalist groups that seek to build a stable state but hardline and extremists.

"General Haftar has made it clear that he wants to contribute to the success of the Libya conference in Berlin and he is ready to participate to it in principle," the Germany Foreign Ministry tweeted on Thursday. “He has agreed to comply with the existing armistice."

Government of National Accord

The Government of National Accord is led by Prime Minister Al Serraj and is backed by the city of Misrata politically and militarily. The city's militias were crucial in the downfall of Qaddafi and are still one of the two most relevant military forces in the country. The GNA want to be solely in control and have authority over Libya as it believes it has the mandate and international credibility. The GNA was born out of the signing of the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement in December 2015. According to this agreement, the Presidency Council presides over the Government of National Accord based in Tripoli. There was a plan to unify all the administrations in a political deal that has never been implemented.

UAE

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, met Ms Merkel in Berlin on Saturday and discussed the conflict.

Sheikh Mohamed said: “A political and peaceful solution is the best approach for achieving security and stability in the region and fulfilling the aspirations of the Libyan people.”

The Crown Prince said that the UAE has always been on the side of the Libyan people and fully supported their legitimate aspirations for peace, reconciliation, unity and development.

Turkey

Ignoring Turkey's links with Libya back to the Ottoman Empire, Turkish media says Ankara is supporting the GNA due to terrorism, mass migration and human trafficking, according to Turkey's Daily Sabah. But it also has strong energy links with Libya and a recent maritime agreement between the GNA seeks to cut through an eastern Mediterranean oil and gas alliance between Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel from which Turkey feels isolated.

Greek Cypriots, Egypt, Greece and Israel cannot establish a natural gas transmission line without Turkey’s consent

Turkey's agreement with the GNA creates two vast contiguous blocks in the Eastern Mediterranean, from the Turkish coast in the north to Libya in the south, granting potential access to a vast amount of gas, impeding the ambitious-looking plans of other eastern Mediterranean countries to build a pipeline to export gas to Europe. Turkey wasn't included in this agreement leading Turkish president Erdogan to say “Greek Cypriots, Egypt, Greece and Israel cannot establish a natural gas transmission line without Turkey’s consent”.

All these states and the EU and US deem Turkey's agreement with the GNA illegal.

Russia

Like Turkey, Russia also has extensive energy links with Libya which they would like to expand its access to Libyan oilfields but unlike Ankara, Moscow favours the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar although has it has maintained links to both sides.

Brokering a settlement could gain Moscow accolades in Berlin and Brussels as well as gain leverage to secure concessions from Mr Erdogan in Syria and Libya. Russia has said in the past that it is interested in working jointly with Turkey on energy exploration and development and Moscow’s involvement in this initiative is a step towards that objective.

European Union

The EU is divided. Germany wasn’t actively involved in Qaddafi’s overthrow and so presents itself as a mediator in the conflict. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s main interest is to reestablish a stable government that’s able to halt the flow of migrants from central Africa and beachhead to fight against militant Islamist groups in the post-Qaddafi North Africa.

Italy is the first port-of-call for Africans migrating across the Mediterranean and renewed its deal with the GNA to stop migrant boats at sea and send their occupants back to the north African country despite reports and warnings from the UN about human rights abuses. The foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, told Italy's lower house of parliament it would be “unwise for Italy to break off its agreement with Libya on handling asylum seekers and combating human trafficking”.

Italy was also the colonising power over Libya in the early 20th century and those financial and economical links endure with Energy giant Eni SpA being the largest player in the Libyan oil industry, just as Italian officials were close to Qaddafi and critical of his removal, and French and British intervention, due to the mayhem that ensued.

France was the driving force in the Nato-led air campaign that ousted Qaddafi and set the country into chaos. Since at least 2015, the year after Libya split between rival administrations, Paris has backed the UN-mediated peace process though also supported Field Marshal Haftar. He is seen as someone who can stem the supply of arms and money to extremist groups in the Sahel, where French troops are deployed in their hunt for militant leaders.

The recent GNA-Ankara gas deal has also brought EU members Cyprus and Greece into the debate about the future of Libya, although neither are attending Sunday's talks.

In short, there is no unified European position when it comes to Libya.

Egypt

The government in Cairo also sees Field Marshal Haftar as the only real bulwark against extremism. President Abdel Fateh El Sisi has made clear that the situation in Libya has a direct impact on Egypt's national security and he will take action to secure his country.

There’s concern Libya’s eastern border could become a safe haven for militants who would then send fighters and weapons into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The kidnapping and beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by a Libyan cell linked to ISIS heightened concerns. Extremists have launched other attacks across the desert-border between the two nations. Field Marshal Haftar has admitted to close cooperation with Cairo, especially on intelligence sharing and military assistance. Egypt has also carried out a number of air strikes against extremists linked to the 2015 killings and others.

The US

Since the killing of US ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi in 2012, Washington has limited its Libyan role to occasional air strikes targeting members of ISIS and a limited special forces operation to support western Libyan fighters in Sirte against the militant group in 2016.

The US hasn't definitively backed either side although calls between President Donald Trump and Field Marshal Hafter last year indicated support for the LNA in the fight against militias. Washington has taken a stronger line on Russia’s activities in the country, accusing it of sending mercenaries – a claim denied in Moscow. The Americans are now pushing to keep the shaky but holding week-long ceasefire in Libya and publically backs diplomatic efforts for a peace deal.

Updated: January 19, 2020 08:09 PM

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