A rogues gallery meet in Berlin

The outcome of the Berlin Conference on Libya is anybody’s guess and whether it will make any difference is anybody’s guess as well. The safest bet is to claim that we are just starting a long de-escalation period with its inevitable ups and downs unless General Hafter manages to upend it militarily.

Perhaps “un bal masqué” could have been more of a diplomatic title. Still, let’s opt for this one given the backgrounds of certain characters attending the Berlin Conference on Libya as I write these lines on Sunday. The outcome is anybody’s guess and whether it will make any difference is anybody’s guess as well. The safest bet is to claim that we are just starting a long de-escalation period with its inevitable ups and downs unless General Hafter manages to upend it militarily.

A “coupist”, a “warlord”, “illegitimate” and so forth, that is how President Erdoğan qualified General Hafter, the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) in his piece penned for Politico on Saturday by way of opinion forming before the meeting. Mr. Erdoğan had also called President Sisi of Egypt a “coupist” in public several times seizing various occasions. Turkey, does not have an ambassador in Cairo, as it does not have one in Tel Aviv and in Damascus.

Via Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu, Ankara also cited France alongside with UAE and Egypt as the powers which do not help the “process” in Libya. Erdoğan himself blamed France in his Politico article for siding up with Hafter. Meanwhile, Egypt kicked the official Turkish news agency AA’s Cairo Chief out the country after briefly detaining him for his alleged connection with the Muslim Brothers. 

UAE could not escape President Erdoğan’s ire in particular. The sheikhdom is long suspected as being among the backers of the coup attempt of 15 June 2016 and is the main weapons purveyor to Hafter. MbZ, as the crown prince is known by his name’s initials, already met with Chancellor Merkel in Berlin. Furthermore, MbZ’s views towards “political islam” –read Muslim Brothers- in the region could not be more diametrically opposed to Erdoğan’s.

An unannounced lightning visit to Tunisia’s freshly elected Kaes Saeed on Dec. 25, did not pay out any tangible results to tilt of the balance of the table in Berlin. Tunisia was first shunned by Germany (maybe as a featherweight?), then a last minute invitation apparently did not go down well with the national pride of Mr. Saeed. Next door Algeria will be in Berlin but made it abundantly clear that it will neither support nor welcome Turkey’s military intervention in Libya.

That leaves Turkey with Western powers and Mr. Putin. Mr. Macron is out but Italian PM Mr. Conte seems to be on board. Yet the European trio, as UK is out of EU by now, need to jockey their positions or lack thereof in accordance with Brussels. Akın Ünver of Kadir Has University had this on the spot assessment to share via Twitter: “Ignoring geopolitical risks and wishing they didn't exist have been Europe's strategy on security stress events that arise from the shift in international system.”

Athens is furious of being relegated to Tunis’ league by the Germans and, to share an out of context observation, Germany was already the new US as Greeks’ “national hate fetish” before this perceived diplomatic mishap. Hafter symbolically travelled thru Athens to Berlin, as Sarraj of Government of National Accord (GNA) had done so while traveling to Moscow to attend the ill-fated ceasefire talks of last week. Greece made it clear that it will not green light any ceasefire within the EU unless the EEZ agreement signed between Turkey and the GNA of Libya scrapped.   

Hafter who not quite stormed but rather sneaked out of Moscow talks, cut the oil supply just in time to strengthen his hand. That’s a straightforward way of questioning the legitimacy and the sustainability of the GNA. This move also sends a direct message to Mr. Erdoğan that, although the monies go to Tripoli’s coffers, the oil is exported from Benghazi controlled ports. Mr. Putin who would have allegedly been offended by Hafter’s abrupt leave, would probably have received these news with glee.

This leaves Mr. Erdoğan with Mr. Conte and Ms. Merkel on his side and these two would not be quite trustworthy travel companions in his playbook. Hence, as Hafter cuts the oil, Mr. Erdoğan too strong-arms the process by announcing that Turkey resumes both shipping its troops and the Syrian jihadi mercenaries to Libya. He is convinced that by acting pre-emptively he is literally fortifying Turkey’s “diplomatic beachhead” in Berlin. How much Mr. Conte and Ms. Merkel are pleased to hear the news and whether Mr. Conte is after establishing an “Astana Trio” for Libya together with Turkey and Russia, I am not so sure. 

In the above mentioned Politico piece, as the bits like protecting the world liberal order, democracy, diplomacy, human rights are hard to read keeping a straight face, the real meat appears to be in Mr. Erdoğan’s offer to take over the fight against terrorism and human trafficking. So we are back at the same “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours as I full well know that you are not by no means inclined to rumble as I already do” deal as in Syria. Putin’s response to the offer: Making rain hell and fire over Idlib.

Last but not the least, like late great British poet Larkin’s metaphoric priest who comes running over the fields with his long coat, US Secretary of State Pompeo also joins the party flying over the Atlantic. Benghazi is where U.S. Ambassador Stevens was savagely killed by an Al Qaeda linked mob. Hafter is not a character particularly to the liking of the US establishment but this is Trump’s America. U.S. seems to be weighing on the side of freezing the military activity on the ground.

One may as well wonder, given the fact there is a “national accord” as in GNA and a “national army” as in LNA why the need to look for a “political solution” in Libya? Masquerade is what we deserve and more masquerade we will have watching the sorry faced B-team of statesmen and women parade before our eyes in prime time news. Thus opens the second decade of 2000’s- diplomatically speaking if you know what I mean.     

September 13, 2021 The new cold war