In the conflict over Libya, a North African country of considerable strategic importance for Europe, three countries have been setting the agenda betting on a military solution: Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. Does diplomacy still have a chance?
By Markus Becker , Christian Esch , Christiane Hoffmann , Frank Hornig , Matthias Gebauer , Mirco Keilberth , Steffen Lüdke , Peter Müller , Maximilian Popp , Mathieu von Rohr , Britta Sandberg , Christoph Schult und Severin Weiland
Libya consists almost entirely of desert. Temperatures often climb above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) and some parts of the country haven’t seen rain in decades. In total, only 1 percent of the land is fertile enough to cultivate. What’s more, it has never really had a government, not even under the dictator Moammar Gadhafi. In Libya, tribes, elders and militias have always ruled.
And yet, major world powers are currently fighting over it.
A civil war has been raging here for years, one that has grown into a proxy war involving almost a dozen powers: Russia, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Italy and France.
The tug-of-war over who controls this country dominates international politics these days. A world war of sorts has broken out over Libya, similar to the conflict in Syria, but with fewer casualties. Many Libyans have become spectators of a showdown within their own borders. Mercenaries from Sudan are fighting against Syrians, both having taken up arms for the interests of foreign states.
That’s what prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to invite a number of world leaders to Berlin for a summit. Besides being prestigious for Germany, the conference has the lofty goal of ending a war, the significance of which extends far beyond Libya’s borders.
Oil, Migrants and Terrorists
Libya, that inhospitable corner of North Africa, is particularly important for Europe — indeed, there’s a lot more at stake here than just a bit of desert.
First and foremost, there are Libya’s oil and gas reserves. They are the ninth largest in the world, estimated at around 48 billion barrels. Total, a French oil company, and Eni, an Italian state-owned multinational, are especially active in the country.
Second, Libya is an important transit country for migrants on their way to Europe. No other country in North Africa has seen more refugees pass through it in recent years. Whoever controls Libya also controls migration flows in Africa.
Third, the region is a hotbed of international terrorism. Militants with Islamic State still maintain safe havens in Libya and profit from the conflict there. Jihadis have also entrenched themselves in the nearby Sahel region.
Libya has become an arena in which foreign actors pursue their own interests, making the already convoluted civil war that much more complicated.
Libya’s Two Rulers
After Gadhafi’s downfall in 2011, many Libyans hoped for democracy and prosperity. But the country has long since deteriorated into a patchwork of city-states in which militias, tribes and Islamists vie for supremacy.
In the capital, Tripoli, the United Nations has installed Fayez Sarraj as prime minister. A former architect, he is seen as having integrity, but is only capable of holding onto power with the help of militias.
In the east, the warlord Khalifa Hifter has established a military regime. His Libyan National Army, a union of mercenaries, Salafists and former officers under Gadhafi, has conquered large swathes of the country, including Gadhafi’s birthplace, Sirte.
Hifter’s troops have been advancing on Tripoli since April 2019. On Jan. 12, he and Sarraj agreed to a temporary cease-fire with the help of Turkey and Russia. If the warring sides fail to reach a lasting peace agreement, Hifter is likely to launch a more massive attack on Tripoli soon.
The outcome of the war will be decided less by the Libyans than by their foreign patrons. Turkey and Qatar are supporting Sarraj, who allegedly maintains close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have sided with Hifter, a self-proclaimed anti-Islamist.
War or Peace?
The conference spearheaded by Germany is aimed at these international actors. The fact that Germany is hardly involved in Libya is a handicap in terms of power, but Berlin decided to use it to its advantage and present itself as an honest broker and mediator.
The summit is supposed to focus on engaging the warring parties and their allies in a binding declaration for lasting peace. It was never meant to achieve a cease-fire. The warring sides in Libya would have to agree to such a deal under the auspices of the UN, German officials say. The summit is instead meant to be the start of a political process — in that sense a beginning, not an end.
The Libyans will have only a small presence at the summit. The fact that the leaders of both sides in Libya are coming to Germany was not originally planned — but Russia and others insisted on it.
On Thursday, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas himself traveled to Benghazi, apparently to secure Hifter’s participation. The Germans are considering leaving the two Libyan opponents to wait in their hotel rooms and only fetching them once the other participants have agreed to the summit document.
At least 10 world leaders are expected in Berlin, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council will also be there, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo representing Washington. Representatives of the regional powers directly involved in the Libyan conflict will also be in attendance.
The goal of the summit will be to find out if the conflict in Libya be solved by diplomatic means, as the Germans hope, or only militarily.
At the beginning of the week, it looked entirely possible that peace in Libya might even be attainable without the Europeans. In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Erdogan, were on the verge of finding a solution to the conflict on their own, having invited Hifter and Sarraj to a summit with their foreign ministers in the hopes of finding a solution.
Putin and Erdogan had recently strengthened their support for their respective sides. Mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private Russian paramilitary organization, fought for Hifter. Erdogan, for his part, only needed two weeks to make his own mark in Libya.
On Jan. 2, he obtained a mandate from parliament in Ankara for a war mission in Libya. Three days later, he sent the first soldiers, about three dozen men, to help Sarraj. Turkey has also deployed about 2,000 mercenaries from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), making Erdogan a central player in the conflict.
In Libya, Erdogan and Putin were apparently looking to repeat what they had done in Syria: to force a solution that would be beneficial to them both with relatively little military effort.
This week, however, they failed. When Hifter was asked to withdraw his troops from the Tripoli suburbs, the warlord refused. He simply left Moscow — likely much to Putin’s chagrin.
That’s likely because Hifter has other important supporters besides Russia, most crucially Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, or MbZ for short, the crown prince of the UAE. He allegedly supports Hifter with Chinese combat drones and airplanes and has even given him a military base. As long as Hifter has MbZ’s support, he doesn’t really need anybody else.
The strong man from the UAE is, according to experts, the key player in the Libyan conflict. As of Thursday, his participation in the Berlin summit was not yet assured. No one supports Hifter as ruthlessly as MbZ.
The European Union, on the other hand, has been more or less powerless in Libya so far. For a long time, this was because of internal disunity. France supported Hifter, while Italy, like most other EU countries, backed Sarraj, the official Libyan prime minister.
The conflict between France and Italy is largely due to economics. Eni, the Italian energy multinational, is the largest foreign oil and gas producer in Libya and holds almost half of the market there. It also owns half the shares in Libya’s only pipeline for exporting natural gas, called Greenstream, which transports gas from western Libya to Sicily. Eni’s biggest competitor is the French group Total, which recently secured shares in the Waha oil field near the city of Sirte.
The French were also concerned about terrorism, and for this they needed Hifter. Since August 2014, more than 3,000 French soldiers in Mali and the Sahel zone have been trying to stop the influx of terrorists via Libya as part of “Operation Barkhane.” The Italians have been working toward a similar goal, cooperating with Libyan militias in Sarraj’s part of the country to prevent migrants from crossing into Italy.
The Italians and the French have largely settled their dispute, though the Europeans overall have not grown more effective. The EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, said in an interview with DER SPIEGEL, “If there is a cease-fire in Libya, then the EU must be prepared to help implement and monitor it — possibly with soldiers, for example as part of an EU mission.” So far, however, the EU has been unable to fulfill its task of enforcing the UN arms embargo.
In fact, the EU has not yet dared to thoroughly inspect any ship suspected of carrying weapons. It even suspended “Sophia,” its Mediterranean operation which was meant to make life difficult for smugglers off the coast of Libya.
Such indecision on Europe’s part amid a conflict in its immediate neighborhood is dangerous. It is only a matter of time before the next major exodus of refugees from Libya’s shores reaches Italy. To prevent this from happening, the EU is counting on the country, which is currently torn by civil war, to turn into a more or less functional state. But Libya is far from becoming one.
The number of refugees setting sail from Libya is increasing again because of Hifter’s advance. In the first two weeks of 2020, the Libyan coast guard intercepted around 1,000 refugees, compared to 9,000 during all of 2019. Vincent Cochetel, the UN Refugee Agency’s special envoy, says the organization is seeing a significant increase in the number of refugees. Libyans are also now leaving their country by boat, he added, which is new.
It’s also becoming increasingly apparent how little power the man the Europeans are betting on actually has. Cochetel says the Libyan Interior Ministry is increasingly losing influence over the militias that control the detention camps for migrants. With the Sarraj government fighting for its survival, he says, the human treatment of migrants and refugees is no longer a priority for it. Various witnesses have reported that Sarraj’s militias are forcing migrants to fight for them.
Stronger Than Ever
Meanwhile, Hifter is stronger than ever. And that’s unlikely to make him or his supporters willing to compromise in Berlin. So what, given the complicated situation in the country, can the summit actually achieve?
The text prepared ahead of the Berlin summit contains concrete steps on how countries can help facilitate the peace process inside Libya. German mediators are hoping that if international leaders commit themselves to those steps in front of the television cameras, it will make it harder for them to shirk them. It has been said that all parties involved have recognized that neither side can win the war. It’s also not in the interest of the Arab states for Russia to become a decisive player in yet another country.
It won’t be clear until Sunday if all the parties can come to an agreement and deliver a successful end to the summit. If all goes well, it would be a “masterpiece of German diplomacy,” says one leading official.
But political scientist Wolfram Lacher of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, has his doubts, and argues that the Berlin conference is “taking place in a kind of parallel reality to what is actually happening in Libya.” Lacher is one of the most renowned international experts on Libya and he meets regularly with political and military actors in the country. He’s critical of the entire process leading up to the Berlin summit. He notes that the summit statement has already been largely pre-formulated and that the biggest question mark is over the issue of whether people will ultimately adhere to the decisions made in Berlin.
The countries attending the conference, Lacher argues, aren’t prepared to provide the security necessary to guarantee a cease-fire. It’s his view that a “serious, even military deterrent against violations of a cease-fire” is lacking.
The countries participating have often stated in the past that they oppose foreign interference in Libya and support compliance with the arms embargo. “But at the same time, they continue to send drones and mercenaries into the civil war,” he says. The Europeans’ problem, he believes, is that they don’t want to assert themselves against the United Arab Emirates.
A European Peacekeeping Mission?
For their part, the UAE claim they really are serious about things now. Meanwhile, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio told DER SPIEGEL in an interview that this is precisely why the EU now has “the considerable task of guaranteeing all this. We will then need a European peace mission, in agreement of course with the Libyan parties and the United Nations.”
He says European peacekeepers will be needed, with a mission that covers water, land and air in order to monitor compliance with the agreement. He also says his country is prepared to make contingents available as part of an EU mission.
But Di Maio also warned Hifter against being too overly confident in Berlin, noting that even after months of fighting, he still hasn’t succeeded in capturing Tripoli. “And even if he does get to Tripoli, the war will be far from over,” he says. Things could then descend into urban warfare, with fighting from “street to street, house to house.” This could lead to a bloodbath in the city. “Hifter can’t control a city of 3 million with just 1,000 men. He knows this himself. And that’s what all the international actors with whom I have spoken have told me, including those who support him.”
The Europeans will now have to hope that doesn’t happen. What many of them seem to have trouble fathoming is that the war in Libya could ultimately be decided militarily — without any diplomacy whatsoever, and without any of their help.