Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 15 October 2019

Libya's future is caught between diplomacy and a military solution

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned against a bloody conflict in Tripoli, but the truth is that the nation's people have little trust in the UN or its processes

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres meets Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar in Benghazi. Reuters 
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres meets Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar in Benghazi. Reuters 

The mission of UN envoys in Arab and international conflict zones is a difficult one indeed, but a combination of mistakes and submission to international pressures has undermined the credibility of many an envoy.

Today, the UN envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths is coming under scrutiny. Not long ago, his efforts came close to fruition, amid international consensus and a clear American roadmap launched by the former defence secretary James Mattis and backed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.But optimism soon faded, amid accusations against Mr Griffiths of giving in to the intransigence of the Iran-backed Houthis.

Nickolay Mladenov, the UN special co-ordinator for the Middle East peace process, is almost absent from the scene. Meanwhile, the new UN envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, has not yet left his mark on the issue, as he remains on a learning curve. However, no one expects him to pursue a different style to that of his predecessor, Staffan de Mistura. This will continue as long as the UN envoy remains hostage to the equation governing relations between the major powers, led by the US and Russia, and the regional factors, which often include sympathy or fear of Iran.

The only new development in Syria’s regional horizons is Israel’s move in the Golan. The UN envoy has to also bear in mind the geopolitical dynamics related to Russia, Iran, and Turkey, the leaders of the Astana process.

In Libya, the UN envoy Ghassan Salame, will in the coming fortnight embark on a quest that will either take Libya into a new phase, or fail and possibly prompt his resignation.

A sudden escalation is taking place there after the Libyan National Army, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, announced that it will be marching on the western regions governed by the UN-backed Government of National Accord to “purge them of remaining terrorist groups”.

This major military development comes days before the start of the National Forum peace conference, which is being prepared by Mr Salame, head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, with the goal of reaching a political roadmap for national reconciliation. It also came as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made a surprise visit to Libya – his first since he assumed his office.

A military solution is thus being pushed to pre-empt a civilian solution, amid a growing conviction among Libyans that a military approach is needed as part of any civilian settlement. However, there are also fears that the battle for Tripoli could become a bloody conflict that destroys the Libyan capital.

The official international equation in Libya is that there can be no military solution. Realistically, however, there can be no stability in Libya without military action

Tripoli is currently under the control of militias and gangs that are looting the nation’s wealth and, according to some estimates, could drive it to bankruptcy within six months. Some accuse the Central Bank of colluding with these militias. Libyans are rightly weary of the situation in Tripoli, and of the rule of the Government of National Accord prime minister Fayez Al Sarraj’s. Dr Hani Shennib, head of the National Council On US-Libya Relations, has described Mr Al Sarraj as a “lame duck … unable to serve and perform effectively because he is biding his time to become president of Libya”.

However, fear of a protracted conflict that destroys the capital has cooled the desire by some to liberate Tripoli from rogue militias.

The official international equation in Libya is that there can be no military solution there. Realistically, however, most parties know there can be no stability in Libya without military action.

Some international parties say, although in whispers, that without Mr Haftar taking over the western regions, there will be no peace. But Libyans and the world appear to want the Libyan National Army chief to knock on Tripoli’s gates until the militias collapse without a fight.

The equation for a solution that has been at play for years has simple terms: an agreement with Mr Haftar to establish a small national council under his leadership, and a transitional government consisting of five to six figures that supplant the two existing governments in East and West Libya.

The basis of this plan is that there is no alternative to a military establishment to guarantee the country’s stability. But the question that remains is about the weight and authority of the civilian branch of government, if and when Mr Haftar takes over. The idea is to unify executive, legislative and military institutions once Libyans agree that a civilian solution is not possible without a military component.

Mr Salame is a controversial figure in Libya. Some see him as arrogant and condescending, drawing his authority from the governments, consultants and institutions of the West.

The main grievance against Mr Salame today is that no one knows many of the 150 Libyan figures he invited to meet in the National Forum, even now, days before it convenes. Moreover, no one knows the substance of the agreement Mr Salame is bringing to the forum, and none of the invitees have been briefed on its contents.

The Libyans have little trust in the UN and its processes, and are sensitive to what they perceive as dictation or imposition. For this reason, Mr Salame’s approach has invited doubts about his motives. As one source put it, some see him as a theorist who lacks vision, rather than a seasoned politician.

Perhaps some of these attitudes are unfair to the UN envoy, but the only way to calm their doubts is to build trust with them. The Libyans are victims of international intervention that Mr Salame claims was for their own sake, but appears to be for the sake of their natural resources. They are caught in the grip of the giant oil companies of Italy and France, and the teeth of the jihadists who have flocked from Syria and Iraq. No one has helped the Libyans build up their institutions, which they need dearly today.

The lack of trust in UN envoys is a similar story in Yemen and Syria, albeit for different reasons. Of course, there is unfairness there too, but the same pattern of doubts suggests these envoys adopt similar approaches, working on behalf of the UN secretary-general and the five permanent member states of the Security Council, first and foremost, when the task of the UN envoy should evolve to serve the interests and aspirations of people in the countries where they operate.

Updated: April 7, 2019 10:54 AM