Libya's Conflict Looks Increasingly Like Syria, Says U.S. Official

Libya peace summit struggles to draw eastern commander Haftar back into diplomacy

File photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, November 19, 2018.
Mikhail Klimentyev,AP

Libya's conflict is increasingly becoming like Syria, a U.S. State department official said on Saturday, ahead of a summit in Berlin to discuss ways to end a war over Libya's capital, Tripoli.

"I think it's so complex and the heels are so far dug in that I would have moderate expectations as we go into this," the official told reporters travelling with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when asked about success of the summit.

Countries at an international peace summit for Libya struggled on Sunday to draw eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar back into diplomacy, days after he quit talks and his allies shut down more than half of Libya's oil output.

Haftar, whose forces are bearing down on the capital Tripoli with the backing of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russian mercenaries and African troops, was expected to attend the one-day summit despite having abandoned talks last week.

Turkey has rushed troops to Tripoli to help an internationally recognised government resist Haftar's assault. Up to 2,000 Turkish-backed fighters from Syria's civil war have also joined the battle, a U.N. official said on Saturday.

Haftar quit a Turkish-Russian summit a week ago and escalated the conflict on Friday when tribesmen allied to him shut down eastern oil ports, cutting oil production by 800,000 barrels a day. That would potentially hit Tripoli hard, as oil revenues pass through the capital.

"We call on all parties concerned to redouble their efforts for a sustained suspension of hostilities, de-escalation and a permanent ceasefire," said a draft of a communique to be discussed at the summit, reviewed in advance by Reuters.

But while the focus is on creating a ceasefire so that talks can restart, diplomats are worried that both sides would use any lull in fighting only to re-supply their frontlines.

"Both sides and their backers are not willing to lay down arms," said a Western diplomat.

Libya has had no stable central authority since dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown by NATO-backed rebels in 2011. For more than five years it has had two rival governments in the east and the west, with streets controlled by armed groups.

Haftar, the most powerful figure in the east, has won backing from a range of foreign allies for an assault to capture Tripoli in the west. Turkish support for the Tripoli government has turned the conflict into a proxy war. More than 140,000 people have been displaced by fighting for the capital.

The draft communique calls on all parties to recognise Libyan state oil firm NOC as sole entity authorised to sell Libyan crude, and urges them to refrain from hostilities against oil production facilities.

U.S. Secretary of States Mike Pompeo and European and Arab leaders will also attend the summit. The summit host, Angela Merkel, kicked off meetings with discussions with Congo's president, Denis Sassou Nguesso, who heads an African Union committee on Libya.

Leaders will not attempt to broker a power-sharing agreement between Haftar and the internationally recognised prime minister, Fayez al-Serraj.

In a column published by Politico on Saturday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan called on Europe to support Turkey's work in Libya providing military support to Serraj's government.

Erdogan told reporters before his departure that militants such as Islamic state were exploiting Libya, adding that dialogue was the only way out of the crisis.