Libya is moving closer to getting foreign mercenaries out of the country. During this week’s Berlin Conference – the second to take place in the German capital in an effort to end Libya’s long-running conflict – Libyan representatives and international powers said progress was made on the ejection of foreign fighters ahead of a planned national election on December 24. But, it’s not going to happen overnight.
“We can’t wave a magic wand and make this happen, but working together with the Libyan people, I think there’s a strong chance that we can set the conditions to provide the incentives and maybe other parameters for these forces to leave. But frankly, there’s no organization or body that is more capable of bringing about that departure than a strong, unified Libyan government chosen by its own people. And so that’s why elections are so important,” Joey Hood, acting US assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, said in a briefing following the conference.
The United Nations estimates that 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries remain in Libya – a presence seen as a threat to the UN-recognized transition leading to the elections. Much of the foreign interference in Libya is the result of a regional rivalry between two US allies: the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.
There’s been very little public news regarding American dialogue on the Libyan file with Ankara and Abu Dhabi, and Hood says that’s been by design.
“We have had those discussions in both of those capitals and elsewhere. But I think a difference between this administration and maybe previous ones is that this: the Biden administration has decided to undertake diplomacy in a very quiet way. And, so you’re not likely to see well-publicized meetings and readouts of every single discussion that are very detailed because we think that we can get more progress by having quiet conversations with our partners, and then coming in with as many allies as we can with a unified position. So that’s why I think you’ve seen so much work done on trying to get unified positions on very clear sets of points,” said Hood, who attended the Second Berlin Conference on June 23 together with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The Trump administration did not send a high-ranking representative to the first Berlin Conference in January 2020, which was attended by the presidents of Turkey, Russia and France.
We can’t wave a magic wand and make this happen, but working together with the Libyan people, I think there’s a strong chance that we can set the conditions to provide the incentives and maybe other parameters for these forces to leave
Khalifa Shaheen Al Marar, UAE minister of state and head of the UAE’s delegation to the talks, called on Libyan and international parties to “commit themselves to the political process and provide all factors to its success in order to realize security, stability and unity of Libyan institutions to fulfill the aspirations of the Libyan people for a more prosperous future.”
Meanwhile, a senior official at the State Department said Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides in Libya, had reached an initial understanding to work toward a target of pulling out 300 Syrian mercenaries from each side of the conflict, something that Hood would not confirm.
“We think that foreign actors of all stripes should respect the Libyans’ desire to reassert their own sovereignty by respecting the terms of the cease-fire agreement from last October. With regard to any understanding between the Russians and the Turks, or separately from those two parties, I would have to refer you to them to know exactly what they intend to do,” said Hood.
“But, we call on both of them and all sides to immediately pull out all foreign forces, whether they are regular forces, mercenaries or something else. The best way for Libya is to decide on what countries it’s going to have security cooperation relationships with, once it has a government that comes out of these elections and that clearly represents the will of the Libyan people,” Hood said.
Libya has been in chaos for a decade since longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi was toppled in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising.
The country was subsequently split in two. The UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) operated out of the capital, Tripoli, and a rival administration, led by renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar, based itself in the country’s east. Both sides were backed by armed groups and foreign governments.
In April 2019, Haftar and his forces, supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, launched an offensive to try and capture Tripoli. Haftar’s campaign sank after 14 months, with Turkey stepping up its support of the Tripoli government, providing advanced military hardware, troops and thousands of mercenaries.
Finally, this past October, the two camps agreed to a cease-fire in Geneva.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that although progress has been made, the withdrawals likely would proceed gradually.
“I believe that between the Turkish and the Russian sides, there was also an understanding that if you stop, this will not mean that everybody will take their mercenaries back overnight,” he said.
Germany, the host country of Wednesday’s conference, is acting as an intermediary in the conflict. Other states involved in the process include the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with the UAE, Italy and Turkey.
The recommendations coming out of the conference are quite similar to those from the initial Berlin Conference, leading some experts to wonder what gives the US hope that things will turn out differently this time around.
I think if you’d asked people a year and a half ago if that was even possible, they would have said no. And, so, we’ve seen remarkable progress among the political actors being willing to stop fighting
Hood identified one difference being the presence this time of Libyan Government of National Unity Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dabaiba. The unity government took office in March with the backing of the UN and Western powers.
“With regard to the question about hope, it’s interesting – I noticed that almost every speaker at the conference looked at the prime minister and said, ‘Your presence here is what represents hope for us.’ Because what the prime minister represents is a successful effort by the Libyan people and the major political actors to come together and to form a Government of National Unity on an interim basis to bring them toward elections,” Hood said.
“I think if you’d asked people a year and a half ago if that was even possible, they would have said no. And, so, we’ve seen remarkable progress among the political actors being willing to stop fighting,” said Hood.
Still, the removal of foreign fighters, while essential, is far from the only challenge on the way to a functioning, stable Libyan government. There are still several obstacles to overcome and milestones to be met.
“The first one is setting the constitutional and legal basis for the elections, which must be done by July 1. So, doing that will then unlock a number of things that the high national electoral commission needs to do to move to the next steps. But security is obviously going to be a problem in many places throughout the country where armed groups that are not part of any government organization are moving around freely and attacking. I mean, we’ve seen attacks by terrorist groups in the past couple of months that have been just shocking, especially in the south,” said Hood.
With regard to the question about hope, it’s interesting – I noticed that almost every speaker at the conference looked at the prime minister and said, ‘Your presence here is what represents hope for us
“Administratively, obviously they haven’t had a nationwide election in a long time. I’m sure that they need to train people and they need to even bring electricity and other things like that to certain parts of the country to make sure that just administratively the election can take place. But, as I said, Libya is not a poor country. It doesn’t have a huge population. And, so these things are possible. They can overcome these challenges and they have a lot of partners, like the United States, who want to help them do that. So, I have every confidence that they can do it, and they seem determined,” Hood said.
Still, Dabaiba himself raised a number of concerns over Libya’s progress, scolding the legislature for failing to make serious efforts to create electoral laws and a functioning constitution. It is still unknown exactly what Libyans will be voting for, particularly if the president should be directly elected.
Libya’s High National Election Commission has said a decision on the constitution should be made by July 1 to prevent a delay to the December 24 election.