A solution to the civil conflict in Libya is the ultimate hot potato. A series of global and regional powers have tried to bring the warring sides together; Turkey and Russia were the latest to try and fail in Moscow on Monday. Now it’s Germany’s turn, and if it fails as well, the standoff is likely to go on until the collapse of one faction or both.
The complex, multisided game playing out in Libya provides a window on how things work in a new, post-Pax Americana world. An assertive US, missing from the Libya deliberations as well as the action on the ground, is difficult to replace.
The Moscow talks were meant to consolidate a shaky cease-fire around the Libyan capital, Tripoli. Since last April, Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s forces have been trying to take the city from the United Nations-supported Government of National Accord led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey unequivocally backs Sarraj, in large part because they’ve signed a controversial pact demarcating their maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean, bolstering their claims to undersea natural gas deposits that Cyprus, Greece and Egypt also consider their own. Erdogan has also sent a small number of troops to Libya to train Sarraj’s forces.
Russia plays a more equivocal role. On the one hand, Libyan and US officials have reported the involvement of Russian mercenaries from the infamous Wagner Group on Haftar’s side. According to some sources, there are more than 1,000 of these private soldiers, who usually operate in close coordination with the regular Russian military. (Russia, as usual, officially denies any military involvement.)
Russia also has printed banknotes for a parallel central bank established by Haftar in eastern Libya, and Russian-made weapons have filtered down to his rebel troops through the United Arab Emirates. On the other hand, Russian oil company Tatneft last month resumed exploration in Libya under a deal with the country’s National Oil Corporation, which is aligned with the Sarraj government.
Russia’s attempts to work with both sides are part of President Vladimir Putin’s interest-based policy in the Middle East and Africa. Whatever works for the Russian oil and weapons industries works for Russia, too. Ultimately, Putin wants a stable government in Libya with which Russia can build a relationship. The heavier bet the Kremlin appears to have placed on Haftar is explained only by the greater territory he controls. But a lack of clear commitment on Putin’s part, and his good relationship with Erdogan, mean a lack of control over Haftar, who left Moscow Monday night without signing the cease-fire deal already signed by Sarraj.
Erdogan and Putin were not the first parties who tried to bring the sides to a compromise. In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Haftar and Sarraj near Paris, and even got them to agree to a cease-fire -- which didn’t hold.
His neutrality has also been called into question: Last year, antitank missiles the US had sold to France were discovered by Sarraj’s troops at a base formerly used by Haftar’s forces, and Macron blocked a European Union statement calling on Haftar to stop his Tripoli offensive.
Italy, which sees itself as Europe’s natural broker in relations with its former colony, brought Haftar and Sarraj together in Palermo in November 2018, but the meeting was inconclusive. Italy has maintained strict neutrality in Libya, but its main interest is in limiting the flow of undocumented immigrants, who mostly arrive on Italian islands if they set sail from the Libyan coast. That has put it into close contact with the Sarraj government, which controls the Libyan coast guard. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s attempt to organize another Haftar-Sarraj meeting in Italy collapsed last week.
Thus, no foreign power that has tried to broker talks between Sarraj and Haftar is able to bring enough pressure to bear on either side to make a peaceful solution possible. This is the kind of deadlock which, in the old days of a sole-superpower world, the US could have broken -- for better or for worse -- by weighing in for one of the sides. The US has a small military presence in Libya, acting occasionally against terrorist groups there. Libya, the country with Africa’s biggest oil reserves, is important for oil-price stability, a key US geopolitical interest, and for the fight against the spread of Islamist terror. Haftar is a dual US and Libyan citizen; he’s someone the US could talk to.
President Donald Trump, however, has refused to play by the old Pax Americana rules. “I do not see a role in Libya,” he said plainly in 2017. “I think the United States has right now enough roles.” The US military presence actually was reduced when Haftar began his offensive on Tripoli last year. This is a far cry from the US involvement, say, in shaping the aftermath of the Balkan wars or its role in getting Israeli and Egyptian leaders to make peace in 1978.
The absence of a dominant power capable of altering the balance of forces on the ground makes the Libya conference in Berlin, planned for Jan. 19, a difficult undertaking. Even the persuasive skills of German Chancellor Angela Merkel may not be enough to break the deadlock in a way that will please the Libyan rivals.
For all the clashing foreign interests and all the attempts by foreign powers to mediate, a lasting solution to the Libyan crisis lies with the Libyans themselves. They need to make a deal to unify the country before the disparate militias and tribes making up each side tire of the stalemate and it disintegrates into chaos. Despite his seemingly greater military strength, Haftar, who is 76 and not in the best of health, doesn’t have an unassailable bargaining position. Libya’s disintegration is a realistic scenario.
In a world where Uncle Sam doesn’t send in the cavalry at decisive moments, conflicts can only be extinguished if the parties show common sense and compromise. Libyans should hope that Merkel, for whom this is an art form, can serve as a good example to Haftar and Sarraj.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. -- Ed.