Can Germany stop Libya becoming the new Syria?

The forthcoming Berlin conference offers the chance of a diplomatic breakthrough for all sides in Libya’s proxy ‘civil’ war. Will they seize the opportunity?

The international community’s approach to Libya has been the preserve of just a few countries for several years now – and they have little to show for it. So Germany’s recent entry into the fray is a potential game-changer: a United Nations international conference on Libya is set to take place there in late October or early November. Angela Merkel’s decision to host followed a warning from the chancellor about the dangers of Libya sliding into Syria-like chaos.

The conference does not mean much on its own: after all, many such summits have convened and dispersed over the years, with the same Libyan faces and the same states around the table. Declarations mount up and are then forgotten. If Germany wants its new initiative, and rare foray into north African foreign policy, to result in greater Libyan stability, then it will have to work hard to ensure that the right agenda is on the table, and that it has enough allies present to make it count.

Indeed, the choice of location for previous high-profile Libya meetings, and recent initiatives’ lead states, tell their own tale: two for Paris, two for Abu Dhabi, and Egypt the sole state mandated to carry out a part of a military unification project within the UN’s most recent action plan for Libya. Given that France, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt are also the three biggest supporters of one side in the war in Libya – Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar – it is no surprise that these meetings ended up favouring that side, by raising Haftar’s station or bending Libya’s political transition to try to secure his position.

To illustrate, the first meeting convened by Emmanuel Macron, in La Celle-St-Cloud, elevated Haftar to parity with the president of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez al-Serraj. This move compressed the great complexity of Libya’s internal political and security situation into a two-part template that relegated the country’s elected parliament to obscurity. More recently, the March “Abu Dhabi deal”, whose contents remain unreleased, undermined the UN’s national conference process, which is a bottom-up initiative intended to reset Libya’s political scene and thereby jumpstart its transition. Had it gone through, the Abu Dhabi initiative would have resulted in a crude deal, which would have given Haftar almost absolute power, and to which neither Serraj or even Haftar ultimately even agreed.

The end result of the string of summits and initiatives over the years has been war of a scale unwitnessed in Libya since 2011’s uprising against Muammar Qaddafi. In particular, the country saw an emboldened Haftar attack Tripoli in a thinly veiled power-grab. These renewed hostilities further internationalised the conflict; led Haftar’s opponents to beseech Turkey to level the playing field in terms of military technology; normalised a state of war across the country; allowed the Islamic State group to reassert itself; and devastated Libya’s already crippled infrastructure. The renewed conflict has deepened existing divisions and created new ones, meaning the two already-loose alliances could yet disintegrate into a patchwork of conflicts covering the entire country.

Germany will have to work hard to ensure that the right agenda is on the table

All this has done little to dissuade Haftar’s backers from continuing to promote and protect their ally. France, the UAE, and Egypt have wielded their diplomatic influence in Washington, DC and New York to ensure that the United States continues to be sympathetic and that the UN Security Council remains unable to address the issue, despite continued flagrant violations of the UN arms embargo.

Germany knows the problem facing it all too well, given that Haftar’s assault coincided with its presidency of the Security Council, during which time its attempts to see through resolutions in special sessions were blocked or watered down. Recent statements by Merkel and Germany’s ambassador to Libya suggest that Germany is aware of the perils of allowing Libya to continue down its current path, and of the importance of constraining international interference in Libya.

Germany has at least picked its moment well. Haftar’s military assault on the capital has been crumbling since he lost his forward operating base in the town of Gharyan in late June. Offensives since then have failed to hold ground for more than a few hours, and the anti-Haftar alliance is slowly closing around his last remaining bastion, the town of Tarhouna. His force is increasingly reliant on a recent surge of Egyptian and Emirati air strikes, and on heavy weapons deliveries, just to retain relevance on the battlefield, regardless of their collateral damage. This could therefore create an opening for the conference to result in a new agreement.

Indeed, it appears that the destabilising impact of Haftar’s weakness in the country’s south, and the Field Marshal’s eastern stronghold, is causing consternation among his international supporters, judging by their increased calls for a diplomatic resolution. Alongside this, other north African states have long expressed worry about the stability of Libya, as have west African states: a recent ECOWAS meeting heard a clear call for an urgent resolution. These factors are now coming together to create a rare widespread will for a negotiated solution. As such, Haftar’s supporters are now open to revisiting the three-part plan put forward by UN Special Representative Ghassan Salamé in July, which calls for a truce, trust-building exercises, and an international conference to push a bottom-up political process.

Germany has taken on the challenge of the third part of this plan. To make a success of this, it will have to remain focused on international state actors, and avoid getting sidetracked into Libyan politics. In anticipation of the summit, the Haftar triumvirate are already putting forward their proposals for a negotiated solution. This includes floating economic and military concessions from Tripoli and touting rapid elections in a one-sided deal that will no doubt receive short shrift from the forces fighting under the GNA, who feel they currently have Haftar on the ropes. If the conference is allowed to focus on formalising such proposals and throwing international weight behind them, it will fail to produce an agreement. Such an approach would reinforce the siege mentality already present in western Libya, leading the anti-Haftar alliance to believe that the international community is against them and so they must double down to secure military victory. In terms of the international dynamics, it would tighten the bond between western Libya and Turkey and enhance the conflict’s regional proxy war character.

The follow-up matters too: if the Germany conference is to be the first step towards stability, then it will inevitably be followed by a mediation process. Berlin should work to ensure that this event is used to provide Salamé with the space to resume his bottom-up process as that mediation process. As such, the best thing it could do is to lay the groundwork for a more genuine discussion by limiting the conference to creating consensus positions on stopping the international activities that drive war. The two main goals should be to agree a monitored commitment to enforcing the arms embargo, and to devise a similar mechanism for the enforcement of existing UN resolutions that protect Libya’s National Oil Company as the sole legitimate seller of Libyan oil. This would prevent Haftar from making illicit oil sales, or from seeking to cut off the country’s National Oil Corporation and attempting once again to seize it and sell it all himself.

The logic behind such a position is that neutralising third party actors’ destabilising role in Libya’s conflict is perhaps the only way for the current international desire for diplomacy to find expression on the ground. The inevitable horse-trading between international and Libyan actors for a settlement will only credibly happen once the potential for continued war or financial independence has disappeared. This should be an incentive for all the foreign states currently involved in Libya. Moreover, were Germany to get drawn in the Libyan side of the conversation, this could effectively create another mediation track and encourage Libyan actors to circumvent the UN.

As such, Germany’s conference can make a difference by easing the path for Salamé once his turn comes to try, once again, to mediate a Libyan settlement. It can do this by convincing the global players in Libya’s civil war that there is a deal to be made – but only if they can constrain the drivers of war. Having inserted itself into the midst of the Libya policy world, Germany will also be more likely to succeed if it involves European states that back no particular side but do want stability in Libya. Rallying these states around a common position would help create a neutralising bloc between the two existing sides and feed constructively into the eventual mediation.

Germany entered a hotly contested space when it announced it would host the conference. But, if it plays its cards right, Germany could become the neutral, yet assertive, actor that has long been absent from efforts to stabilise Libya’s crisis.    

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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