Berlin gears up for Libya peace conference

Germany hosts a conference on Sunday that aims to broker a peace deal between the two sides battling for control of Libya, a conflict that European Union politicians warn is in danger of spiralling into a full-blown proxy war with the involvement of states from Russia to Qatar.

Turkey supports the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) against a rival administration made up of Libyan lawmakers that set up shop in the eastern city of Tobruk after the GNA ignored its loss in an election with 18 percent participation in 2014.

The Tobruk-based House of Representatives elected General Khalifa Haftar to lead its armed forces, the Libyan National Army (LNA), and these forces, with support from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have captured most of the east and south of the country and hemmed Turkey’s allies in to an area around Tripoli.

Until Turkey intervened by sending drones and armoured vehicles to Tripoli last April, the LNA was on course to capture the capital city. This support has raised Turkey’s stakes in the conflict and, with the agreement in November to boost military aid even further with the deployment of Turkish troops, has given Ankara a key position in the resolution process.

This is a far cry from November 2018, when the Turkish delegation stormed out of negotiations in Italy after being excluded from some of the talks. Now it has escalated the conflict by arguably being the first country to openly flout the U.N.’s arms embargo, before joining with Russia to kick-start the peace process with a surprise call for a ceasefire in early January.

The talks in Moscow that followed that call ended disappointingly when Haftar left without agreeing to terms. The general was reportedly furious that President Vladimir Putin did not lay out the VIP treatment he expected. But the Libyan strongman’s demand that Turkey is excluded from any international force sent to monitor Libya and his call to break up the militias supporting the Tripoli government, which he and his Arab state backers view as Islamist terrorists, is likely to be a bigger obstacle to an agreement than the absence of a red carpet.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has placed very large stakes on the outcome of the Libyan conflict: The Tripoli government has become central to his government’s bid to grab a portion of the potentially huge hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean, but the deployment of Turkish troops does not have broad backing back home.

Since Turkey is hoping that it can legitimise its claim to a maritime jurisdiction that extends half way to Libya by propping up the Tripoli government, the talks are also crucial for Greece, which considers countering the November maritime deal struck by Ankara and Athens to be of existential importance.

The deal lays claim to seas off Crete, Karpathos and Rhodes that Athens considers as its own, and covers part of the route of a gas pipeline planned by Greece, Israel and Cyprus. Though not invited to the talks, Greece has conducted a diplomatic flurry in the lead up, hosting Haftar in Athens on Friday as well as holding talks with German officials, and gaining assurances from both that they would oppose the Tripoli-Ankara memorandum of understanding at the talks.

As for Germany, it and European Union nations are clinging to their role as leaders of the peace process, but their influence on the warring parties has doubtless been eclipsed by those states providing them with tangible support: Turkey and Qatar on the GNA’s side and Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the LNA’s.

Russia has been happy to work with Turkey toward a political solution, recreating a formula that has worked for both parties in Syria despite their support for opposing sides of the conflict. But the other states, and particularly Egypt, have a much higher stake in the conflict and ideologically oppose the Islamists backing the Tripoli government.  

© Ahval English