Libya Deal Is a Gentleman’s Bargain, Between Rogues

(Bloomberg Opinion) — If you strain your eyes very hard, you might see a silver lining in the gloomy outcome of the Berlin summit over the Libyan civil war: At least Khalifa Haftar didn’t storm off in a huff. The commander of the rebel forces besieging Tripoli did not reprise his performance of the previous week, when he left Moscow without so much as a by-your-leave to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.German Chancellor Angela Merkel was able to extract a modicum of courtesy from Haftar, getting him to stay through the end of the summit, and agreeing to a deal she tried heroically to cast as progress. It was “a comprehensive plan forward,” she said, claiming that “all participants worked really constructively together.” It isn’t, and they didn’t.If Haftar showed his contempt for the peacemaking efforts in Moscow — by refusing to sign a deal after Putin and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had persuaded Libya’s internationally-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli to agree — he signaled his disdain for the Berlin parleys even before they’d begun. On the eve of the summit, he blocked oil exports from ports under his control, effectively slashing Libya’s output by more than half.It was a demonstration of power ahead of the gathering of belligerents, and added to the list of disputes that the middlemen would have to mediate. The Europeans, led by Merkel, and the U.S., represented by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, weren’t even able to extract from Haftar a firm commitment to reopen the ports.  All they got from the rebel commander and the GNA leader Fayez al-Sarraj was an agreement to talk some more; each is to name a five-person team for meetings in Geneva.Pompeo, like Merkel, made an effort to portray this pig’s ear as a silk purse, but then gave up. “There was progress made toward a full-fledged ceasefire, a truce, temporary stand-down,” he said as he left Berlin. “There’s still a lot of work to do.”In truth there’s not a great deal that the Europeans and Americans can do — or are prepared to. Such leverage as exists in Libya now is in the hands of other powers: Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates on the side of Haftar, and Turkey shoring up al-Sarraj’s besieged GNA.In Berlin, all of these players said they wanted peace, committed to end their military backing of the warring parties, and signed an agreement to uphold a United Nations arms embargo. There were plans, too, for international monitoring of the ceasefire.These promises ring familiar, and hollow. Even if Egypt and the UAE were entirely sincere in their desire for peace, they will not agree on any terms that leave Turkey — in the proxy of the GNA — firmly ensconced in Libya. Nor is Erdogan in any mood to back down: On the eve of the Berlin summit, he reiterated his commitment to send Turkish troops to Tripoli’s aid. To make matters even more complicated, Ankara seems already to have dispatched hundreds of Syrian proxies to Libya, to hold the line against Haftar.The only party facing anything like a quandary is Russia. Putin has been backing Haftar, and has cultivated warm relations with Egypt, but he greatly values his relationship with Erdogan. In a straight fight between the rebel forces and Turkish troops, can the Russians be neutral?Haftar is adept at exploiting rivalries among the other belligerents to his advantage, and Libya’s long, poorly-guarded borders undermine any efforts to impose an arms embargo. He knows that the Berlin agreement is no more than a gentlemen’s bargain among rogues, and doomed to fail.To contact the author of this story: Bobby Ghosh at aghosh73@bloomberg.netTo contact the editor responsible for this story: James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.netThis column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.For more articles like this, please visit us at now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.