What is the deal in Libya?

Actually, maybe there is no deal in Libya anymore. Yes, of course, there was a big conference in Berlin on Sunday, which announced a “first step” toward peace (as Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel and foreign minister Heiko Maas put it) in the Haftar vs. Sarraj civil war. However….

Here are a few things that have happened over the past few days:

  • Haftar shut down Libya’s oil exports (Friday);

  • Haftar stopped in Athens on his way to Berlin to shore up support from Greece against Turkey-backed Sarraj (Friday);

  • The Berlin conference reaffirmed the already-existing truce and arms embargo…the very same arms embargo, established back in 2011, that many of the conference participants have violated (Sunday);

  • The Tripoli airport was closed briefly because it came under rocket attack, and Haftar’s forces claimed to have shot down a Turkish-made drone near the airport (today).

So, conferences are nice, and the German government definitely invested a lot of prestige in this one, but let’s face it, what are the odds that the “first step” taken in Berlin won’t also be the last step?

The Germans, necessarily optimistic (after all, it was their conference), have cited the fact that both Haftar and Sarraj did follow through enough to name their respective five-member teams that are supposed to now move us from “truce” to “ceasefire.” Heiko Maas seemed to take great pleasure in emphasizing this on Sunday night’s episode of Anne Will, an important political talk show in Germany.

(By the way, there actually is a difference between a truce and a ceasefire, not for the people who get killed in the absence of either one, but a truce is usually a temporary agreement to stop fighting, while a ceasefire would normally involve more detailed negotiation of the issues that are supposedly being fought over. According to the communiqué issued in Berlin, the UN is now supposed to “facilitate ceasefire negotiations” while what is now in place, at least sort of, is a truce.)

The argument for pessimism has, I think, two parts.

First, do the foreign powers contending in Libya really want the fighting to stop? France and Italy support opposite sides, as do Greece and Turkey, as do Turkey and Egypt, as do Russia and Turkey. One problem with proxy wars is that they involve a complex range of interests that extends far beyond one isolated theater of war. France and Britain fought in North America in the 1780s, and Americans like to think it was all about the US of A, but I’ve got news for them. Similarly, a power like Russia might have some concrete goals in Libya (like a new naval or air base), but also has goals elsewhere that it might hope to achieve by fueling instability in Libya. Libya is simply a place where instability provides space for a few more moves on a much wider gameboard.

Second, what the hell is actually going on in Libya? What is the content of the struggle? I am not an expert on Libya. I have never been to Libya. I am completely ignorant about Libya and am writing about this issue only because it is a big deal in European politics. But over the past few weeks I have sat around reading dozens and dozens of articles about Libya in three languages and listened to or watched numerous TV and radio broadcasts where journalists and politicians from the countries fighting in Libya talk about Libya. And I honestly cannot write even a single sentence explaining the substance of the Libyan civil war. The closest I got to any insight at all was a very brief allusion in Le Monde, by a French researcher, to the fact that, in her view, tribes linked to the former regime have been sitting out the war but might get involved if they think Turkey is getting too dangerous.

So, basically, you cannot get any information about what people are fighting over in Libya from anyone in the countries that have been fueling the conflict. I feel like that’s a bad sign. In reading about the war, I have learned less, and less-reliable, information about Libya itself than you can get from Herodotus, who tells us, for example, of the tribe there that cures convulsions by sprinkling goat urine on the patient and of women who “wear leather bands around their ankles, which are supposed to indicate the number of their lovers” (with more bands making the woman more desirable). That’s very interesting stuff, but here we are nearly 2500 years later, and I do feel we should have slightly better information.


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