NEW YORK // The UN Security Council will meet today in the hope of charting a way forward for Somalia, after an offensive by African Union troops that was hailed as a success for driving Islamist rebels from parts of the capital, Mogadishu.
But western diplomats and analysts warn that military success may have been overstated and that a political solution to the turbulence that has plagued this Horn of Africa nation for two decades remains as elusive as ever.
The mandate for Somalia's UN-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) expires in August. It is increasingly seen as a failure that owes its existence to donor cash and the 8,000 African Union peacekeepers who protect officials and battle al Qa'eda-linked militants.
Pirates raid ships with near impunity and as many as 2.4 million Somalis, almost one third of the population, languish from drought and hunger. The closest thing to stability is found in the semiautonomous northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland.
Li Baodong, the UN envoy for China, which holds the Security Council's rotating presidency, said delegates will brainstorm a "comprehensive strategy" before the August deadline and tackle a chronic security situation that threatens the entire region.
His council colleagues have low expectations. One envoy said the 15-nation UN body has no recipe at hand to fix Somalia's myriad woes, only a nagging sense that "something needs to be done" before the situation gets worse.
Another UN diplomat said: "I'm a bit frustrated every time we discuss this situation because what is missing is a political process. At the end of the day you need a political process, and the TFG has not been the most effective body to do it."
Somalia's president, Sheikh Sharif Sheik Ahmed, said a pro-government offensive that began last month has driven Islamists from several key positions in Mogadishu, the beginning of what he called the "final elimination" of al Shabab guerrillas.
But rebels still control swaths of southern and central Somalia and have used tactical retreats in the past. Critics say the TFG is largely reliant on foreign cash to pay, equip and supply ammunition to its army, a lacklustre force supported by heavily-armed African Union peacekeepers.
Ineffective government control has spawned piracy that costs some US$7 billion (Dh25.7bn) a year in lost revenues, with 13 hijackings already this year and 243 seamen taken hostage, according to the London-based International Maritime Bureau.
The UN's human rights expert on Somalia, Shamsul Bari, after touring camps for displaced civilians last month, warned of a "dire humanitarian crisis" in which drought has pushed 70 per cent of the population towards hunger in the worst-hit areas.
Somalia has been wracked by civil war since rebels deposed dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Repeated attempts by UN peacekeepers and troops from the African Union and neighbouring Ethiopia have failed to bring stability.
With Somalia broken into clan fiefdoms and lacking a central government, the creation of the UN-brokered TFG in 2004 failed to garner legitimacy and restore order, spawning violence from al Shabab youth militia.
As well as the Chinese Security Council initiative today, Russia is drafting a resolution designed to counter piracy in Somalia by creating three courts for trying seaborne raiders and prisons for jailing convicts.
The plan was advised by Jack Lang, the UN's antipiracy expert, who says 90 per cent of pirates are released unpunished because foreign navies patrolling the seas are loath to try detainees in domestic courts. He suggested bespoke courts and jails in the self-governing regions of Somaliland and Puntland.
Analysts say piracy courts offer short-term solutions to deep-rooted problems. The UN may need to withdraw support for the TFG, which lacks broad support and has failed to deliver either the peace or prosperity required to deter piracy.
In its latest report, the International Crisis Group said the TFG is "corrupt and hobbled by President Sharif's weak leadership". Somalia faces a "multifaceted, chaotic, clan-driven and virtually countrywide revolt against the centre".
"The international community has not yet learnt the lesson that re-establishing a European-style centralised state, based in Mogadishu, is almost certain to fail," the report said. The Brussels-based advocacy group said the UN should look to the "modicum of law and order" in semiautonomous regions such as Somaliland and Puntland.
Bronwyn Bruton, an analyst for One Earth Future, a think tank, said the TFG is unlikely to become an effective government and UN members should consider "coexisting" with an Islamist leadership that rejects terrorism and grants access to aid workers.
"The international community isn't willing to take the effort to have a decisive impact in the conflict, and if there's no willingness to intervene then a hands-off containment strategy is the only feasible option," she said. "There are many reasons to think that's not the worst approach in Somalia, and may be better than going for a whole-hog counterinsurgency approach like in Afghanistan."