Foreign powers and Libya’s new interim government of national unity have called national elections on December 24 and the gradual withdrawal of all foreign forces, starting with some mercenaries in a matter of days.
There are believed to be as many as 20,000 foreign fighters in the country on both sides of its civil war, including Syrians under Turkish control, Turkish government forces, Russians in the Wagner group, and Sudanese forces.
“It is to be expected that in the next few days the mercenaries on both sides will withdraw,” Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush said after a conference in Berlin. “This is encouraging, it will build trust and other steps will be taken.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass said that the withdrawal of foreign forces would be gradual. “There is an understanding between the Russian and Turkish sides if they start the withdrawal it will be a balanced process step by step,” he said.
Pledges for foreign forces to leave the country have been made twice before, and it is unclear what military guarantees were given at the conference, which was attended by foreign ministers from up to 15 powers, including the Secretary of State for States. United, Anthony Blinken. .
Turkey has had mercenaries and official forces in western Libya for more than a year, and says they are legitimately there at the invitation of the previous Tripoli government. Russia, operating through the Wagner Group, supports opposition forces in the east, allegedly financed by the United Arab Emirates.
In a sign of the tension behind the scenes at the Berlin conference, Turkey fought to have any mention of the withdrawal of “foreign forces” removed from the draft declaration, preferring to limit the reference to mercenaries or militants.
Anas El Gomati, founder of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, said: “Turkish Syrian mercenaries are part of the public discussion about foreign forces, and Turkey has hinted to French President Emmanuel Macron that it is happy they are leaving. , apparently on the condition that military officers can stay.
“Russia and the United Arab Emirates refuse to acknowledge and publicly deny the dispatch of Syrian, Sudanese and Russian mercenaries, who appear to remain unless the United States pushes hard.”
He suggested that given the highly centralized nature of power in Russia and the UAE, only the leaders of the two countries will make the decisions to end their military involvement.
The final statement was vague on the constitutional basis for the planned presidential and parliamentary elections, an omission that risks giving those reluctant to give up their power a chance to further delay the vote.
The United States, which has engaged with Libya with renewed vigor, pushed harder for the December deadline for elections to be the best way to restore Libyan sovereignty and create legitimacy.
Some European powers and figures within the new government, however, privately fear that a winner-take-all presidential vote in December could see the country reignite civil war.
Russia and Turkey also wanted the reference to an EU-controlled arms embargo removed from the final text, preferring that it be overseen by the UN, where it has a veto on sanctions for breaches as a member of the security council. The arms embargo has been widely ignored for two years.
Russia also resisted support for accountability to the International Criminal Court in the statement. Moscow has strongly supported General Khalifa Haftar, whose forces are widely accused of war crimes.
In a breakthrough in March, Libya formed a new UN-backed government of national unity that covered the entire country, but security forces remain divided between east and west, increasing the risk that an election campaign will break down. consider an extension of the military conflict.
The country, which has great economic potential but little history of democracy, has become a scene of rivalries involving Russia, the United States, Europe, Turkey, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates over the past decade. A UN study released this week suggested that stability in Libya could generate an additional $ 162bn (£ 116bn) growth in the region by 2025.
At the opening of the Berlin conference, Acting Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah delivered a surprisingly strong speech in favor of the December elections urging “all Libyan actors to stop hampering the process, keep their promises and help us to punish saboteurs. “
He blamed the lack of serious efforts by the current Libyan parliament, saying: “The elections are six months away, but there are still internal conflicts, the government budget has not yet been approved by the parliament and sovereign positions have not yet been elected. “.
Gomati said holding elections before the state-building process is complete could be a disaster. “Without answering important questions related to the submission of the Libyan armed forces, not just their unification, and leaving foreign troops on Libyan soil to negotiate with the next government, it could be preparing the next parliament and government to fail, return to war. or being blackmailed by armed groups, foreign mercenaries and General Khalifa Haftar, ”he said.
The current Libyan parliament has been accused of stalling on a provisional constitutional basis for the December elections as a way to postpone its own loss of power.
Faced with the impasse, Washington wants a UN-designated body – the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum – to be clearly authorized at a meeting next week in Geneva to establish the constitutional basis for the elections and thus clear the parliamentary obstacle.