The presence in Berlin of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Trump’s National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien may be a sign of greater US engagement on Libya which is no doubt motivated by Russian and Turkish muscle-flexing. Washington has reportedly been actively engaged in preparing for the conference. On the other hand, it is doubtful that the Berlin process will compel the US to take a more sustained role in Libya in terms of forcing key allies like the UAE and Egypt to quit meddling in Libya. The Trump Administration is distracted by the impeachment, Iran, Iraq, and the November 2020 election. Trump has forged a strong alliance with the UAE and its de facto leader, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, in the US’ maximum pressure campaign against Iran. It is therefore unlikely to use any leverage it might have over Abu Dhabi on the Libya issue. In addition, the messages from Washington have been inconsistent: days after Pompeo urged Khalifa Haftar to stop his assault on Tripoli in April 2019, President Trump telephoned Haftar and expressed his support, and therefore the following day, Haftar began shelling civilian neighbourhoods in Tripoli.
One thing is clear: as in Syria, Russia has emerged as a major kingmaker after a long period in which both the US and Europe have remained reticent to engage forcefully in Libya. It was following talks with President Vladimir Putin that Chancellor Angela Merkel became convinced to host the Berlin conference. It was Moscow that hosted the 13 January ceasefire talks which is promising to follow up on the Berlin conference.
In Moscow’s eyes Libya always embodied Western failure and it has never forgiven the West for what it saw as a ‘regime change’-driven intervention. Putin is also motivated by lucrative weapons deals and other commercial contracts that Moscow enjoyed with Libya under Muammar Qadhafi’s 41-year rule. But, as in other conflict zones, he is content to embarrass the West at a low cost to Russia. Moscow does not want to completely ‘own’ the messy Libyan conflict or be completely beholden to Haftar. The Kremlin sees him as a prickly and unreliable ally as illustrated by his behaviour last week in Moscow. Indeed, Russia would probably likely dispense with Haftar if it saw a reason to do so and it would significantly change Haftar’s calculations if he thought that he had entirely lost Moscow’s support.