In Libya, a grand bargain remains elusive

Published 17.01.2020 16:56
Updated 18.01.2020 00:20

Libya's putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar left the negotiating table in Moscow last week, putting off the prospect of a cease-fire until this weekend's Berlin conference . The man trying to topple Libya's internationally recognized, legitimate government did so under pressure from the United Arab Emirates. He denied Russian President Vladimir Putin his diplomatic accomplishment, fueling disappointment and anger in the Kremlin. It is possible that France and the United States, too, did not want the decision to end the Libyan crisis to be taken in Moscow. Seeing that he was more dependent on his other patrons than Russia, Haftar concluded that he could survive without the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization whose mercenaries have been fighting for the warlord in Libya. To be clear, a frustrated Moscow is unlikely to withdraw its proxies from the battlefield. Putin won't abandon Haftar to preserve his influence over the negotiating table in Berlin. The Kremlin will act rationally, looking to protect its geopolitical interests in Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya. The Russian president, however, could look to strengthen his relations with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) due to the limits of Haftar's influence. In my view, the cease-fire agreement's postponement until the Berlin conference was not a serious problem for Turkey.

The Turkish government, which became a heavyweight in the Libyan conflict by concluding two agreements with the GNA in late November, will be a powerful player wherever the negotiating table is set. First of all, Turkey proved that it could keep its promises by persuading Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj to sign the cease-fire agreement. It was Moscow's reputation that Haftar tarnished. At the end of the day, the Turkish-Russian cease-fire initiative will continue in Berlin. The Libyan warlord, who disappointed the Russians, left Moscow with zero accomplishments and ended up accepting Germany's invitation.

For Turkey, what matters is to get the cease-fire deal done. If the parties reach an agreement in Berlin, that would be a good thing because Europe would have to get involved. Keeping in mind the Libyan civil war's implications for terrorism and the refugee crisis, Turkey's interests are aligned with Germany and Italy. Obviously, Ankara and Moscow could have expedited the process as co-guarantors. Nonetheless, they would have needed to get the European Union and the United States on board for a lasting cease-fire to take place and for the reconstruction of Libya.

In light of the latest developments, Germany emerged as a heavyweight. Yet there is no reason to believe that the parties will agree on everything in this initial round of talks. Instead, all stakeholders must be prepared for a Berlin process involving a multitude of such summits. After all, finding a middle ground between the various participants in the Libyan conflict won't be easy. There are people in Sarraj and Haftar's corners, who believe that they can still achieve a military victory, and they will need to be convinced.

So what will be on the table in Berlin? The technical issues are hardly serious. Judging by the preliminary meetings and the consensus in Moscow, the parties will negotiate a cease-fire and the arms embargo as well as the establishment of a 5+5-strong joint military commission and a 40-member political dialogue committee. Italy's proposal to send U.N. peacekeepers to Libya, too, could be on the agenda.

Still, it will be difficult for everyone with a vested interest in Libya to agree on the country's future. Germany and the United Kingdom will presumably stay neutral, whereas Turkey, Italy and Algeria will support the GNA. The United States and China will monitor the proceedings with low-level representatives, while France, the UAE and Russia will back Haftar. The obvious question is how Moscow will respond to its latest embarrassment at the hands of the putschist general. It is possible that the United States, unwilling to let Russia dominate the negotiating table in Berlin, will make a few surprise moves through France and the UAE.

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