Foreign powers and Libya’s new interim government of national unity have called for nationwide elections on 24 December and the phased withdrawal of all foreign forces, starting with some mercenaries in a matter of days.
There are thought 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.
“Hopefully within coming days mercenaries on both sides will be withdrawing,” Libya’s foreign minister, Najla Mangoush, said after a conference in Berlin. “This is encouraging, it will build trust and other steps will follow.”
The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said the withdrawal of foreign forces would be gradual. “There is an understanding between the Russian and Turkish side if they start the withdrawal it will be a step-by-step balanced process,” he said.
Commitments for foreign forces to leave the country have been made twice before, and it is not clear what military guarantees were given at the conference, which was attended by foreign ministers from as many as 15 powers, including the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken.
Turkey has had mercenaries and official forces in western Libya for more than a year, and says they are there legitimately at the invitation of the previous Tripoli government. Russia, operating through the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, props up opposition forces in the east, allegedly financed by the United Arab Emirates.
In a sign of the tensions behind the scenes at the Berlin conference, Turkey battled for any mention of the withdrawal of “foreign forces” to be removed from the draft declaration, preferring to limit the reference to mercenaries or militants.
Anas El Gomati, the founder of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, said: “Turkish Syrian mercenaries are part of the public discussion on foreign forces, and Turkey has intimated to the French president, Emmanuel Macron, it is happy for them to leave, seemingly on the condition military officers are able to remain.
“Russia and the UAE refuse to acknowledge and publicly deny sending Syrian, Sudanese and Russian mercenaries, which look set to remain unless the US pushes hard.”
He suggested that given the highly centralised nature of power in Russia and the UAE, only the leaders of the two countries will call the shots on ending their military involvement.
The final declaration was vague about the constitutional basis for the planned presidential and parliamentary elections, an omission that risks giving those reluctant to give up their power opportunity to further delay the vote.
The US, which has engaged with Libya with renewed vigour, pressed hardest for a December deadline for elections as the best way to restore Libyan sovereignty and create legitimacy.
Some European powers and figures within the new government, however, fear privately that a winner-takes-all presidential vote in December could divide the country again and reignite civil war.
Russia and Turkey also wanted reference to an arms embargo policed by the EU removed from the final text, preferring it to 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 declaration. Moscow has strongly supported Gen 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 covering the whole country, but security forces remain divided between east and west, which raises the risk of an election campaign being seen as an extension of the military conflict.
The country, which has vast economic potential but little history of democracy, has become a theatre for rivalry involving Russia, the US, Europe, Turkey, Egypt and the UAE over the past decade. One UN study published this week suggested stability in Libya could lead to $162bn (£116bn) in extra growth in the region by 2025.
At the opening of the Berlin conference, the interim prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, gave a surprisingly strong speech in favour of December elections urging “all Libyan actors to stop impeding the process, stick to your pledges and help us punish the spoilers”.
He blamed a lack of serious efforts by Libya’s current parliament and said: “The elections are six months away but internal conflicts still exist, the government budget has not yet been adopted by parliament and sovereign positions have not yet been chosen.”
Gomati said holding elections before the state-building process was complete could be a disaster. “Without answering major questions relating to the subservience of Libya’s military, not just its unification, and leaving foreign troops on Libya’s soil to negotiate with the next government could be setting up the next parliament and government to fail, fall back to war or be blackmailed by armed groups, foreign mercenaries and General Khalifa Haftar,” he said.
The current Libyan parliament has been accused of stalling over an interim constitutional basis for the December elections as a way of deferring its own loss of power.
Faced with the impasse, Washington wants a UN-appointed body – the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum – to be clearly empowered at a meeting next week in Geneva to establish the constitutional basis for the elections, and so clear the parliamentary roadblock.