The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights on the most significant developments in the MENA region, bringing together unique opinions on the topic and reliable foresight on future scenarios. Today, we focus on the second Berlin Conference, where twenty-one representatives of national governments and international institutions with vested interests in the Libyan crisis agreed to push for a prompt withdrawal of foreign fighters from the country and stressed their endorsement for national elections in December.
The need to hold elections this upcoming December and the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country were at the center of the second international Berlin Conference on Libya, co-organized by Germany and the UN on June 23rd. The summit, which followed its January 2020 format, gathered representatives from Libya and a series of international stakeholders with vested interests in the country, including Italy, Russia, France, the UAE, the US, Turkey, and Egypt. In the presence of the Head of the Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU), Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, the international community welcomed the GNU’s commitment to organize the national elections scheduled for December 24th, 2021, while calling for a prompt withdrawal of foreign fighters from the country, with no further delays. In this regard, Turkey and Russia (which backed opposite factions during Libya’s civil war) have reached an initial understanding to withdraw 300 Syrian mercenaries from each side. According to the Libyan Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush, this tangible, practical first step will occur “hopefully within coming days”. Nevertheless, while significant efforts have been made on the security front, agreement around how to manage Libya’s economy — that includes structural reforms and a de facto reconstruction from the ground up of the country — appears weaker. Against this backdrop, the diplomatic scene confirmed the re-engagement of the US in Libya, as the US Acting Assistant Secretary of State Joey Hood’s latest visit to Tripoli and Secretary Blinken’s presence in Berlin for the conference on Libya demonstrate. Washington’s involvement could be crucial in mediating between Ankara – which controls several forces in Libya, part of them through a bilateral agreement with Tripoli – and other international actors such as Egypt and the UAE.
Experts from the ISPI MED network react to the second Berlin conference on the future of Libya.
A multinational force to oust foreign presence?
“The withdrawal should have happened by 23 January 2021, but no one moved, neither the Turks — who feel legitimized by many official agreements signed with the now-expired GNA and restored with the new GNU — nor the Russians with the Wagner Group — a private company of mercenaries particularly active in Africa — who repositioned themselves on the Sirte-Jufra line and in the Fezzan. Besides, there are other mercenaries groups from Syria, Chad, and Sudan who work for/respond only to the highest bidder. Nevertheless, it is now clear that the two main camps will maintain this balance as long as the political situation allows it. To eliminate these nefarious presences for the stabilization of the country, a multinational force is needed. Until then, their quick withdrawal increasingly looks like a remote possibility.”
Federica Saini Fasanotti, Senior Associate Fellow, ISPI, and Non-resident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution
Unaddressed issues risk hampering Libya’s real unification.
“Since the formation of the GNU in March 2021, little progress has been made around conflict resolution. Talks on the Central Bank’s reunification, the establishment of unified military command structures, and the withdrawal of foreign forces have stalled. This is largely due to the inherent limits of the settlement, which allows factions to access state funds through government posts but does not create a coalition with a common interest in re-establishing central authority. The pendulum has swung from a superficial sense of unity towards renewed polarization in recent weeks, which crystallizes around the planned December 24th elections. The struggles currently unfolding will block further steps towards military reunification and the withdrawal of foreign forces over the next months.”
Wolfram Lacher, Senior Associate, Middle East and Africa, Institute for International and Security Affairs, Germany (SWP)
Berlin II: an essential step for the EU coordination on the Libyan dossier
“Following the visit held by Italian, French, and German ministers of Foreign Affairs to Libya in March 2021, Berlin II is an essential step towards real European coordination on the Libyan dossier. This direction was confirmed by the recent rapprochement between Italy and France. Italy has demonstrated to be ready to make concessions and support French security vision for the Sahel region – an approach well exemplified by Rome’s participation in the TAKUBA task force under French command. On the other hand, France should be ready to abandon its unilateral approach – on the Libyan dossier as elsewhere – and to really distance itself from Haftar. Certainly, a common European position is not sufficient to solve the Libyan crisis, but it is certainly a prerequisite.”
Arturo Varvelli, Head, Rome Office and Senior Policy Fellow, ECFR
The re-engagement of the US: a trait d’union for the International Community
“The New American administration, with its emphasis on the “US’ return on the world stage” based on the reassertion of the principles of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, has already impacted the MENA region as a whole and the Libyan crisis in particular. By stressing the fact that its actions will be based on values rather than brute interest, the Biden administration has strongly contributed to causing, by all appearances, a realignment of the international actors dealing with the north-African country, as exemplified by the apparent contradiction of important and loyal US allies such as Egypt, Turkey, the UAE, Italy, and France fighting each other in Libya and some of them (such as Egypt and the Emirates) even fighting alongside Russia, Washington’s long-time rival. It is the fear of getting on the wrong side of an ally as powerful as the US that has convinced these rivals to begin a rapprochement with each other. The result has been the Berlin II Conference, which, albeit disappointing in its practical outcome, has been important in so far as it has provoked a unanimous reiteration of the will of the international community to help Libya undertake election in December 2021 and support the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country. The US’ continuous attention and engagement in Libya, even though it is not a priority, is well understood in Washington and its strategic importance is given high consideration.”
Karim Mezran, Senior Associate Research Fellow, ISPI; Head, North Africa Initiative, and Resident Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council
Ankara and Cairo can collaborate in the formation of a joint military command in Libya
“The commitments to hold national elections on December 24th and to expel foreign military forces and mercenaries were renewed in the second Berlin Conference. While Ankara holds the belief that Turkey is not bound by the decision of withdrawing foreign forces since its military forces were invited by the internationally legitimate government in Tripoli, Western pressure is likely to compel Turkey to act accordingly. The Turkish and Egyptian strategies for Libya could then be appropriated to bring rival armed groups under a joint military command structure in the path towards the national elections, as holding elections without the unification of the military establishment carries the additional risk of further polarizing opposing armed groups in Libya.”
Evrim Görmüş, Assistant Professor in Political Science and International Relations, MEF University