Libya: Berlin conference and new disappointment – Feb. 01, 2020

After a brief visit by General Khalifa Haftar to the Greek capital, being his first stop, many observers considered it to be a great achievement and a response to the slap received by the Greek government from Ankara with the re-demarcation of its maritime borders with the Libyan National Reconciliation Government of Tripoli. This deal, which is a piracy in much of Greek territorial waters, has in fact come under full international silence, despite being illegal.

This visit brought a dose of optimism to Greece, perceived as an escalation from the Greek side. But the reality came with three consecutive shocks. The first was the speed of the visit which lasted only a few hours, while there was no agreement in support of Greek rights in the Mediterranean over Turkish card. The second shock was the confirmation of Athens’ willingness to send Greek army groups to monitor the ceasefire between the two warring sides of Libya. The third, confirmed by many Berlin sources, was that the Greek-Turkish issue and the signed memorandum between Turkey and Libya were completely absent from the negotiating table. This reinforces the view that the absence of a Greek government representative from the Berlin conference was a huge mistake.

Following these disappointments, we as political analysts will have to sketch in detail the backdrop for Greece to see what the right political steps are next.

First, it is necessary to dwell on the conditions of the Libyan scene that have changed in recent months. The situation there is constantly complicated and becoming increasingly bloody. Therefore, even sending a Greek soldier in any form would mean that we choose one side at the expense of the other. Such intervention can have extremely negative consequences.

Since the fall of Gaddafi, the Libyan scene has turned the eyes of European players, namely Italy and France, into an oil pie. On this basis, the two countries shared Libyan oil through their companies, but the divergence of views between the two NATO members prompted them to form a representative each. So France backed General Haftar, who also enjoys the support of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, while Italy supported the government of Tripoli, which is close to Ankara and Doha.

From time to time, Paris and Rome were quiet and found their way to Libya. But since last April in the light of increased tension between Ankara and Abu Dhabi on various issues in the Middle East, Abu Dhabi declared war on the Libyan soil until the elimination of any Turkish influence on Tripoli. This move, which began last April, continues to this day. In this complex scene, the UAE was forced to provide a military solution and open its doors and those of Haftar to Moscow, which in turn set up several military bases in his control areas, began supplying him with weapons and Wagner mercenaries to fight alongside his militias and train them.

On the other hand, this military pressure on Tripoli led it to submit to Ankara and to somehow become a servant of the Turkish government. So Ankara seized control of Tripoli at Rome’s expense. The entry of the two new players into the Libyan conflict gave it a new turn.

The Moscow conference

With this change and the great rise of Moscow and Ankara at the expense of Paris and Rome, the German government – at the request of the two European players – stressed the necessity to sit down at the political dialogue table, and so the Berlin conference was set. This conference, which was essentially aimed at trying to bring about a political solution and stop the bloodshed in Libya, urged Turkey and Russia to move faster and pull the rug from the Europeans. So they brought Haftar and Sarraj to Moscow only with the presence of Russia and Turkey.

The two new strong players thought they could repeat the example of Syria in Libya. They wanted to find an agreement that would satisfy both sides and push the two parties of the Libyan conflict to accept it and present it to the Europeans for granted. But as it turned out, there was one mistake. While Haftar needs Moscow, the one who actually decides and controls Haftar is in Abu Dhabi. That’s why Sarraj agreed in Moscow since Ankara controls him, but Haftar returned without signing.

The Berlin Conference

After the disappointment of Erdoğan and Putin, it was clear that these two players would make sure that the Berlin conference failed. Indeed, many sources have confirmed that Erdoğan’s early departure from the conference was intended to make it meaningless, while other sources said Haftar was not open to the German side in bilateral talks with Merkel. Therefore, the results of this conference are reminiscent of the results of the Geneva conference on the Syrian crisis in 2012, which did not even deserve the ink on paper.

What’s next?

It is certain that the Libyan scene will continue to be in a complicated situation without a political solution. The big player, the Americans, are not particularly interested in what is going on in the Libyan territory. To reach a political solution means that France, Russia and the UAE, on the one hand, and Italy and Turkey on the other, will decide to sit down and find a solution that will satisfy them alone. On the other hand, when Turkey openly backs Tripoli militarily and the Emirates have given an open check to Haftar and Russia for his military support means there is no other military solution at the table.

Considering the Libyan scene, Athens’ choices are limited day by day. The case of signing a memorandum of understanding with Haftar is still on the table and can be applied. But delaying this step is not the right decision. Moreover, participation in the Libyan war, even under the cover of ceasefire monitoring, is illegal as long as it is not under the auspices of the United Nations. To make it clearer, the United Nations considers this to be useless at this time. Consequently, the Greek troops stationed in the Haftar region will mean that they support him and Athens will have violated its non-engagement rule in international conflicts, which has made it one of the safest countries in the world. By sacrificing the security of the country, we will sacrifice tourism, so we will suffer financial losses that we cannot afford. Haftar needs no extra support. The Russians, the French, the Emirates, the Saudis are more than enough. Such a favor to Haftar without taking a card in exchange is naive and will lead to regional and international complications.

As I pointed out earlier, there is no political solution to the war in Libya no matter how long it goes on. The truce is fragile, as it seemed from day one. But the battles on the ground will not end easily either. The strained relations between Ankara on the one hand and Abu Dhabi and Riyadh on the other leave no room for any political talks in the near future. So betting on Haftar’s victory in his military war or on the negotiating table to burn the memorandum between Sarraj and Erdoğan is a strategic mistake. Ankara can launch research in Greek waters at any time. And as long as Athens is concerned with the redrawing of the sea border between Turkey and Libya, disregards the point of the Turkish-Libyan memorandum on their cooperation in the field of hydrocarbons. This means that Ankara has the right to build a Libyan gas pipeline to Turkey and Europe. Athens has no tools to block research or pipelines.

Fiery statements and threats of military action have no weight in the language of reality. And in this bitter reality, today’s Greek government must redefine its priorities and actions if it is to cover up past mistakes and prevent them from repeating. The solution lies in the Mediterranean, not the Gulf or the Strait of Hormuz.