“The Berlin summit’s softness and toothlessness indicated to Turkey and the UAE that the international community wasn’t about to institute a mechanism capable of making arms-embargo violations the slightest bit costly to the perpetrators,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague. “This helps us understand why the volume of weapons injected in Libya by Abu Dhabi and Ankara exploded to the upside right after Berlin, which was perceived as a go-ahead.”
Days after the summit, the weapons shipments to both sides increased. Turkey sent air defense systems, heavy guns and anti-mortar radars, along with as many as 3,500 pro-Turkey Syrian fighters, military advisers and trainers, to support the U.N.- backed government based in Tripoli, according to U.N. and Western officials, military analysts, and images and videos posted on social media.
Several dozen cargo planes, meanwhile, took off from the UAE carrying weapons for the forces of Khalifa Hifter, the eastern commander whose offensive in April triggered the North African nation’s turmoil, according to U.N. officials and researchers tracking flights from the UAE to eastern Libya.
UAE officials did not respond to requests for comment. Russia has denied any connections to Russian mercenaries working for the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked firm, who are fighting alongside Hifter. U.S. and European officials have said they remain engaged in Libya and are applying appropriate measures to achieve a cease-fire and a political solution.
Hami Aksoy, a spokesman for Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, said Ankara was intervening in Libya at the request of the U.N.-installed government. He said that the support is not a violation of the U.N. embargo and that it mainly consists of military expertise and training.
The United Nations is in talks with the warring sides to disarm militias, launch new economic measures and reach a cease-fire. Any progress hinges on stopping the flow of weapons into Libya, say U.N. officials and analysts. The broken promises of Berlin, however, underscore the extent to which the arms embargo has become toothless.
Today, Libya’s fate remains in the control of at least six foreign powers — Turkey, Russia, Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — that seek to ensure that the country’s future becomes aligned with their own geopolitical, economic and ideological interests.
External powers have funneled weapons, mercenaries, military trainers and other support into Libya since as early as 2011, when a populist revolt backed by NATO air power ousted dictator Moammar Gaddafi. Yet the United Nations and Western nations have never applied sanctions or found other ways to punish the perpetrators.
“I am deeply frustrated with what’s happening in Libya,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres told reporters last week in New York, describing the broken promises by foreign powers as “a scandal.”
“They committed not to interfere in the Libyan process, and they committed not to send weapons or participate in any way in the fighting,” he said. “The truth is that the Security Council [arms] embargo remains violated.”
The U.N. special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, said last week that the resolutions agreed upon in Berlin were not being “respected” and that “new mercenaries, new equipment, are arriving for both parties in Libya by air and by sea.”
'Lack of political will'
In Libya, both Russia and Turkey are seeking to access billions of dollars in oil and construction contracts and to extend their influence in the Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea. The UAE, Egypt and other regional powers are wary of the growing influence of Turkey, which backs Islamists they have branded as terrorists.
Hifter’s drive to take Tripoli has stalled as pro-government militias have risen to fight his forces. In September, Kremlin-linked Russian mercenaries arrived on the front lines to aid Hifter, bringing sophisticated weaponry and tactics.
The U.N.-backed government then turned to Turkey for more military help, enticing Ankara with economic and security agreements. By last month, Turkey and Russia were the most influential power brokers in Libya. Russian President Vladimir Putin brought both sides in the conflict to Moscow to seal a cease-fire, but Hifter abruptly left without signing the pact.
European powers sought to become more relevant in Libya with the Berlin summit.
“It didn’t really make anything binding,” said Emadeddin Badi, a Libya analyst with the Middle East Institute. “It wasn’t coercive. It didn’t leverage any big political capital. The initiative became numbing because of lack of political will.”
While the fighting is not as intense as before the Berlin summit, clashes have continued on several fronts, as has indiscriminate shelling, repeatedly striking civilian areas. Since April, several thousand people have been killed or wounded in the conflict, and more than 150,000 people have fled their homes.
In the coastal city of Sirte, much of it captured last month by Hifter’s forces, a Sufi shrine was destroyed last week, allegedly by ultraconservative Salafist militiamen. It was a sign that the war is becoming, at least for some warring elements, religious and sectarian in nature.
On the eve of the Berlin summit, pro-Hifter tribes blockaded key oil ports. Oil production has been hit severely, Salame said. In a nation where oil and gas exports account for more than 90 percent of all state revenue, Libya is producing only 72,000 barrels per day, compared with 1.3 million barrels before the closure.
“This situation is not sustainable,” Salame said. “I would be grateful if some of the largest countries in the world, who have been helping us in solving previous crises in oil production and export, do the same in this particular crisis.”
Last month, the United Nations released a scathing report about a June airstrike that killed at least 53 people, mostly African migrants, at a detention center in Tripoli. It concluded that the airstrikes were “likely conducted by aircraft belonging to a foreign state” — without naming the country. Last year, five officials with the United Nations and Western aid agencies said that the UAE’s warplanes were behind the attacks.
The United States, European powers and the United Nations have consistently refrained from singling out the UAE as a main driver of the conflict.
They “don’t wish to alienate an Arab Sunni country they see as assertive, dynamic and willing to spend on shaping the political and security landscape of the northern half of Africa,” said Harchaoui, of the Clingendael Institute. “As long as this is the case, the U.N.’s arms embargo will likely continue to be empty rhetoric.”
France and other nations that back Hifter, meanwhile, have strongly criticized Turkey for its interference.
“The problem is you can’t really tackle the Libya crisis with this one-sided approach,” Badi said.