More than eight years since the death of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, Libya remains in state of protracted conflict with rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk. Backed by the U.N., the Tripoli-based government has been at a stalemate with the eastern-based Libya Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) led Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, who launched an assault on Tripoli in April. Foreign backers have flooded into the country to advance their own interests—but this has only exacerbated the conflict. Over the weekend, a long-delayed conference in Berlin aimed to put Libya on a path to peace and end foreign interference. USIP’s Nate Wilson and Thomas Hill explain what happened at the conference, how the U.S. fits into this picture and where Libya’s conflict goes from here.

Tripoli, Libya on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, where residents hold out little hope that a conference aimed at arresting Libya’s degeneration into a multinational free-for-all will succeed. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
Tripoli, Libya on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, where residents hold out little hope that a conference aimed at arresting Libya’s degeneration into a multinational free-for-all will succeed. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

What was the Berlin Conference on Libya?

Wilson: The Berlin conference was a U.N.- and German-sponsored meeting to chart a path forward to reduce tensions among fighting factions in Libya’s long-running civil war. With a host of outside actors intervening in a variety of ways—providing everything from financial support to mercenaries—the hope was that if these foreign backers stopped fueling the conflict it would lead to a reduction of violence on the ground. The conference was also seen as a mechanism to pressure the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s LAAF to the negotiating table. The logic being that if outside actors ended their support, the GNA and LAAF would remain at stalemate and thus see the need to negotiate.

However, GNA Prime Minister Fayez Serraj and Haftar did not meet each other nor were at the main negotiating table in Berlin. Instead, participating countries like Russia, the U.S., Turkey, Italy, and others sought agreement about the situation in Libya. Countries with key equities were not invited at all or only at the last minute like Greece and Tunisia, respectively. This may adversely impact their willingness to support measures in the future. To be fair, various countries held numerous meetings with Serraj and Haftar separately prior to the Berlin gathering.

Originally proposed for the summer of 2019, the conference was postponed several times. Turkish and Russian diplomacy galvanized the process in the last couple of weeks, as European states scrambled to contribute to the process and compete for influence.

The conference comes in the wake of a cease-fire that was ostensibly brokered a week ago in Moscow. Russian and Turkish interests in seizing the diplomatic momentum aligned for a brief moment after Turkey provided overt military support to the GNA in the form of Turkish advisers and, reportedly, Syrian fighters. For its part, Moscow has supported the LAAF with snipers, weapons and expertise. In Moscow, the GNA signed the draft cease-fire agreement, but the LAAF did not. Although, according to German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass, Haftar apparently agreed to respect the cease-fire.

Negotiations in Berlin over the weekend led to a joint statement with 55 points in which, importantly, countries agreed to halt military support to the warring parties. However, the durability of the agreement to halt military support remains in question, as outside actors have for years ignored a U.N. arms embargo on Libya. A military committee was conceived of, which would include five members representing the East and the West, and will meet next week in Geneva.

Will the Berlin Conference have any real impact on Libya?

Wilson: First, it should be noted that this conference was a positive step. It had been a long time coming for major powers to sit down with each other. However, the Moscow-brokered cease-fire has already been breached in Tripoli. The Fezzan Anger Movement, a group of mostly youth that have been protesting in the last year their oppression and lack of representation, shut down oil fields in the South. Pro-Haftar tribal elders in the East were the instigators of the southern shutdown, having apparently stormed facilities in the East in the leadup to the conference.

This shows that while it is a good thing for international supporters to engage in diplomacy, it’s a band-aid, not a solution—ultimately, it will take Libyan-led diplomacy that leads to a political agreement. It is unclear to what extent the two leaders of GNA and LAAF, even if they were included, represent and have influence over people on the ground.

There are other power brokers in Libya who must be included in deal-making, including key advisers, tribal leaders, and other institutional heads, including state institutions and civil society. In addition, all three regions of Libya should be evenly or proportionally represented in negotiations. The restive Fezzan clearly has a role to play in Libya’s stability, and indeed its prosperity. Finally, Libyan women should be included because peace deals have a better chance of succeeding when women are part of the process—not to mention the fact that they, along with youth, are always disproportionally affected by violent conflict.

Will international actors abide by the agreement made at the Berlin Conference?

Wilson: The short answer is no, not if they see their interests being seriously threatened. In the near term, for example, Turkey will not immediately withdraw the Syrian troops it deployed, the UAE will not withdraw the drones it has deployed in support of the LAAF, and Haftar will not send Chadian mercenaries home. Both sides have an easy out because the cease-fire brokered in Moscow was never agreed to by both sides, nor has it fully held. So, both can make the case that the other is in violation, which in turn gives justification to international actors to continue unhelpful military assistance.

There is an opportunity to solidify and give the agreement some teeth if adopted by the U.N. Security Council. In particular, the “5+5 Committee” established with representatives from both Haftar and Serraj is a positive step. But in the final Berlin communique, it notes that, “In order to allow for substantial and serious talks in the 5+5-Committee, all participants of the Conference declare that they will refrain from any further military deployments or operations as long as the truce is respected.” Since the truce may not be respected (there were clashes on Sunday night and an apparent airstrike Monday night), the conference participants may not consider themselves to be obligated to stop military actions.

That being said, the U.N. mission in Libya, known as UNSMIL, is working on the political path and 13 House of Representative (HoR) members in the East and 13 members of the High State Council (HSC), a West-based advisory body, will meet by the end of the month in Geneva. But the HoR is fractured—a faction is based in Tripoli now—and the HSC is all but irrelevant.

The Berlin Conference was viewed as a U.S. and European attempt to stay relevant in Libya. What has U.S. policy been toward Libya and the stalemated conflict?

Hill: Since the NATO-led military effort to oust Qaddafi, U.S. policy under both the Obama and Trump administrations has tilted toward a minimalist engagement. Libya is perceived as being “in Europe’s backyard” and therefore a problem for the Europeans to resolve first and foremost. This has been especially true since the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, which turned Libya into a partisan political football in Washington.

Most recently, the U.S. position has been focused on three lines of effort: 1) ensure the steady flow of energy to international markets; 2) use military strikes to neutralize terrorists; and, 3) provide rhetorical support to the U.N.-led peace process. As that process has broken down, the U.S. has remained largely disengaged, allowing other states to advance their own narrow interests—often at the expense of the Libyan people. Historically, the U.S. has supported a relatively robust bilateral foreign assistance program in Libya although some have questioned the underlying strategy.

Often lost in the discussion are everyday Libyans most directly impacted by the conflict. What do they want to see come out of a conference like this? How can they be more meaningfully included in peace talks?

Hill: One of the most consistent criticisms of the Berlin Conference was that it seemed to focus almost exclusively (at least when first announced) on the role of external actors, not the Libyan people.  Perhaps in response to that criticism, the conference did eventually seek to include representatives from both the GNA and Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar. Nevertheless, many Libyan have been unhappy with the pattern of holding peace conferences outside Libya without all relevant actors in attendance.

In April 2018, the U.N. tried to host a National Conference in Libya with representation from most, if not all, of the relevant Libyan factions but that process was scuttled by Haftar’s military offensive.  Understandably, the Libyan people are tired of their country being used as a battlefield to settle regional rivalries and as a source of economic exploitation. The introduction of foreign mercenaries has not been well received by the Libyan people who are notoriously fiercely independent. To be sure, the Libyan people are not without culpability for the post-2011 mess; their leaders have promoted narrow self-interests and been co-opted by external predatory states. Ultimately, it is the Libyan people who will have to make the decision to put the long-term interests of their country first and move toward reconciliation and peace.

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