Brussels MENA Briefing: The Status Quo of the Libya Conflict: Is the Berlin Process Obsolete?

Brussels MENA Briefing: The Status Quo of the Libya Conflict: Is the Berlin Process Obsolete?

May 5, 2020

On May 5, the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO) and the EastWest Institute (EWI) hosted their third “Brussels MENA Briefing,” a series of after-work briefings on the MENA region, on the state of affairs of the ongoing Libyan Civil War.

Speakers included Anas El Gomati, founder and director of the Sadeq Institute, and Kristina Kausch, senior resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. CARPO’s CEO Adnan Tabatabai served as moderator.

During the briefing, participants addressed the question of whether the Berlin Conference on Libya—initiated in the German capital in January of 2020 and resulting in a UN arms-embargo—has become obsolete, considering the continuation of the conflict in recent months. At the moment, Libya is divided into two political factions: the Government of National Accord (GNA), under Prime Minister Fayes Al-Sarraj, and opposition forces led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The UN-backed GNA was installed in 2016 as an interim, unity government meant to persuade Libyans to vote in free elections.

To begin to answer this central question, discussants raised the pivotal events of April 2019, when General Haftar launched an attack on Tripoli with the implicit backing of powerful international players, among them the U.S. and France. General Haftar’s actions were not internationally condemned, giving his approach a sense of immunity and the incentive to continue the military campaign around Tripoli.

The EU, paralyzed by differences in stance towards Libya between its member states Italy and France, did little in the wake of General Haftar’s assault. While Italy supports the UN’s efforts in stabilizing Libya and has invested in the diplomatic processes, France provides military and diplomatic support to General Haftar. One participant raised the belief that France is responsible for having held the EU back from condemning General Haftar’s assaults.

Several speakers argued that France’s involvement in Libya has paved the way for more external interference and involvement. While General Haftar receives arms and personnel support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Russia, Prime Minister Al-Sarraj has been backed militarily by Turkey, reportedly in return for a maritime deal between the two parties that allows Turkey economic influence in the Mediterranean.

In the past year, the EU’s influence has thus been dwindling. When Russia and Turkey initiated a ceasefire in January 2020 that resulted in failed negotiations, the EU realized the full extent of its sidelined position in the Libyan conflict.

Many players in the international community, especially its host country of Germany, regard the Berlin Conference on Libya as a successful attempt to bring the EU back into the loop. However, speakers at the briefing highlighted that the Berlin process is becoming increasingly obsolete for the following three key reasons:

  1. The conflict has intensified and the international players involved are not showing any signs of retreat. France is reluctant to give up its political capital and Turkey has an invested economic interest in Prime Minister Al-Sarraj’s leadership. At the same time, inviting General Haftar to the negotiation table has given the opposition a greater level of legitimacy and, as mentioned during the briefing, could even be perceived as bending to General Haftar’s will for more power. In this respect, the negotiations have given both parties an opportunity to transform violence into a means of pressure.
  2. The arms embargo reached at the Berlin Conference has not been implemented sufficiently. Germany, which initiated the process, does not have a seat in the UN Security Council, leaving it without any formal power to implement the embargo. France could make use of its seat but instead appears to be providing General Haftar with the diplomatic backing he needs.
  3. The COVID-19 virus has made planned follow-up meetings impossible, thus, the conference is losing its political momentum.

Considering these realities, a continuation of the EU’s diplomatic policy is futile unless member states back it consistently, especially France.

The briefing concluded with a discussion focusing on the EU’s remaining options in Libya. One possibility would be for the EU to monitor a ceasefire, agreed on by other international actors, such as Russia and Turkey. Its Maritime Operation “Irini,” launched in April 2020, has already been set up to enforce the UN arms embargo and could be incorporated into such actions.

Another area where the EU could play a larger role is in supporting state-building and local governance, something the EU has tried to do in other conflict areas, such as Syria, but seems strikingly reluctant to do in Libya. Rather, its priority has consistently been countering migration from Libya into the EU, with the recent spread of COVID-19 from North Africa added to the list of its main security concerns. Many experts regard Germany as a prime model of the necessity for state actors to realize the importance of investing more political capital into Libya—but acknowledge the need for other nations to follow suit.

Throughout the briefing, speakers established that the most important condition for the EU to achieve any positive developments in Libya is to develop a clear policy, followed and backed by all EU members. Meanwhile, the plight of the Libyan people requires much more attention. Whatever future agreement may result from international efforts, the difficult question of reconciliation in Libya’s social fabric and resilience against violence and war after six years of conflict, must be brought to the table and included in future discussions.

Desirée Custers, MENA Briefing