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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Lebanon’s Ghassan Salame appointed UN envoy to Libya

The 66-year-old Lebanese scholar replaces German veteran diplomat Martin Kobler.
Outgoing UN special envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler (L) and his successor, Lebanon's former culture minister Ghassan Salame. Twenty-eight other candidates rejected the job as "mission impossible". Fethi Belaid / AFP  and Lynn Bo Bo / EPA
Outgoing UN special envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler (L) and his successor, Lebanon's former culture minister Ghassan Salame. Twenty-eight other candidates rejected the job as "mission impossible". Fethi Belaid / AFP and Lynn Bo Bo / EPA

Lebanese political science professor Ghassan Salame has been appointed UN envoy to war-torn Libya after an unusually delayed and fractious appointment process.

The former Lebanese culture minister replaces German diplomat Martin Kobler after months of delay and is the 29th candidate considered for the job by UN secretary general Antonio Guterres and his predecessor, Ban Ki-moon.

The appointment needed approval from all 15 members of the UN Security Council.

In February the United States blocked Mr Guterres’ preferred candidate, former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad, with America’s UN ambassador Nikki Haley saying: “For too long the UN has been unfairly biased in favour of the Palestinian Authority to the detriment of our allies in Israel.”

Two months later it was Russia’s turn to nix a candidate – the dual American-German World Food Programme official Richard Wilcox, who had worked as director of UN affairs in the Clinton White House. Russia gave no reason for the decision, but sources at the UN said Moscow thought he lacked experience for the job.

In Mr Salame, the UN has finally found a candidate acceptable to all member states, and he has a wealth of experience, having worked as special Middle East adviser with two former UN secretaries-general, Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon.

While others among the 29 candidates considered for the job labelled Libya an “impossible” assignment, Mr Salame has spent years working in and on intricately complicated war zones that appeared broken beyond repair. Although a Christian, he chose to live for seven years in Muslim-majority west Beirut during Lebanon’s brutal 1975-1990 civil war, a time when religious differences often led to deaths. In 2003 he served as the political adviser to the UN’s mission in Iraq after the US invasion and subsequent occupation.

But despite his resume, Libya remains a daunting conflict to tackle.

The Libyan civil war is between forces of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and the rival House of Representatives (HOR) parliament in the eastern town of Tobruk and has brought chaos and suffering. The UN says 400,000 of Libya’s 6.5 million population have been displaced by fighting.

A sign of the chaos is that while Mr Salame has the job of leading peace talks, the UN regards Libya as so dangerous that for security reasons he will be based, like Mr Kobler, in neighbouring Tunisia.

The new envoy’s challenge is to find a way for the GNA, installed in Tripoli last March, to make a deal with the Tobruk parliament and form a unity government.

For the moment the military balance in the civil war is with the HOR, which may make it reluctant to negotiate a compromise with the GNA.

Parliament’s army commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar began a chain of victories against forces aligned with the GNA last September when he captured four key central oil ports. That victory gave the HOR control of the so-called Oil Crescent, home to the bulk of the country’s crude production. Last month, HOR forces captured key airbases in south-west Libya and the central region of Jufra, giving the HOR domination of most of Libya’s interior.

A second problem for Mr Salame is that the UN itself is split on Libya, and he will need to find consensus among member states for any new peace initiative. While most western powers including the United States support the GNA, several states, notably Russia, Egypt and the UAE, continue to recognise the HOR, while France has given HOR forces military support.

One positive sign for Mr Salame is that Libya’s oil industry has managed to increase production despite the war. Exports are predicted to hit one million barrels a day by the end of July, the highest level since 2014, according to Mustafa Sanallah, chairman of the National Oil Corporation.

Another positive is that a framework for peace was agreed in May, after talks hosted by Egypt and the UAE. The GNA prime minister Fayez Al Serraj and Field Marshal Haftar agreed, in principle, to a peace commission composed of 15 members from the GNA and 15 from the HOR.

* with additional reporting by Josh Wood

foreign.desk@thenational.ae