By Muriel Asseburgk, Wolfram Lacher, and Mareike Transfeld
This section of the study answers the following questions: Why are the Libyan conflict so resistant to resolution efforts?
What are the specific aspects of the conflict configurations that impede UN efforts?
What factors in the UN approach are obstacles to a successful conclusion?
What lessons can be learned for future mediation efforts? And how can Europe contribute to progress in this area?
The Growth of Vested International Interests
If Egypt and the UAE were able to obstruct international efforts, this was not least because Western governments were unwilling or unable to prevent them from doing so. Western governments barely raised the issue of the continuous violations of the arms embargo.
Their economic interests in both countries – especially regarding arms deals – and cooperation on conflicts in Iraq and Syria carried greater weight in the calculations of Western governments than the need to persuade regional powers to play a more constructive role in Libya.
In contrast to the regional powers, Western states had not contributed to the escalation of the conflicts in 2014. Indeed, they had united in support for a negotiated solution. However, the more protracted the situation in Libya, and the more remote any restoration of state authority, the more Western governments became directly involved.
This initially occurred in pursuit of counterterrorism. From early 2016, French special forces supported Haftar’s forces in Benghazi.
While French diplomats consistently played down this presence as merely for reconnaissance, the political signal was unmistakeable: despite his aggressive opposition to the Skhirat agreement, Haftar enjoyed Paris’s support.
This made the official French support for the agreement meaningless, and shattered European unity on Libya.
In May 2016, the US, UK and Italy began to support Misratan forces – the biggest military counterweight to Haftar – in their offensive against the IS stronghold of Sirte, including with special forces.
From August onwards, US fighter jets flew hundreds of sorties on Sirte. Officially, US airstrikes came on the request of the newly-formed GNA, and in support of forces loyal to it. In reality, politicians and armed groups in Misrata were divided in their attitude towards the GNA.
The government had no influence over the course of the offensive, and the lack of GNA support alienated even militias that had backed the agreement. In turn, opponents of the GNA saw assistance for Misratan militias as proof that Western states used the cover of the GNA to extend support to their political adversaries.
The victory of local forces over the IS affiliate in the eastern city of Darna in April 2016, the IS defeat in Sirte in December, and Haftar’s steady advances in Benghazi annihilated “Islamic State” as a territorial force in Libya – almost entirely without the GNA’s help.
The threat of an IS emirate on the southern Mediterranean coast receded, and Libya slid down the priority lists of the US, UK and France. At the same time, the increasing migration flows through Libya were a priority for Germany and Italy.
Following the EU’s refugee agreement with Turkey in March 2016, the central Mediterranean route became the biggest challenge in attempts to seal off the EU’s external borders. The number of migrants arriving in the EU via Libya rose to a record high in 2016.
Since early 2017, Europeans have come to terms with the fact the GNA as such lacks the capacity to curb migrant flows. As a result, networks of vested interests have formed between EU governments and local conflict actors.
The Italian government quietly made arrangements with local militias that controlled the migration business in western Libyan port cities. Among the coastguard units that benefit from European support are local groups that are directly involved in these criminal activities.
The cooperation of the Serraj government with European efforts to seal off Libya’s shores has undermined the GNA domestically, provoking accusations that it was Europe’s puppet.
The now overwhelming focus of EU Libya policy on containing migration has not only supplanted the original goal of contributing to the re-establishment of a functioning government – it is diametrically opposed to it.
The growing entanglement of external actors in Libya’s conflicts also led to a proliferation of mediation forums. The fact that the UMSMIL-led process had reached a dead end by mid-2016 paved the way for unilateral initiatives, which in turn was detrimental to the UN’s role.
Egypt took the lead, organising several rounds of talks from December 2016 onwards with Libyan politicians who were seen as acceptable by Cairo.
Egypt subsequently began mediating between Haftar’s representatives and military officers from western and southern Libya.
These Egyptian efforts conflicted with those of UNSMIL in that Cairo sought to negotiate an arrangement in which its Libyan clients would play leading roles, and Islamists were to be excluded.
At the same time, Egypt resisted Algerian and Tunisian attempts to build a joint initiative, which would have required a more balanced approach.
Russia remained largely passive during the Skhirat negotiations, but it did not try to undermine the talks. Once the agreement was concluded, it weighed in as an advocate for the deal’s opponents. Haftar made several high-profile visits to Moscow.
Subsequently, however, Russian diplomats sought to diversify their contacts in Libya and dispel suspicions of Russian support for Haftar, trying to position Russia as a mediator.
In July 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron received Haftar and Serraj near Paris, and subsequently gave the misleading impression that they had reached an agreement.
Macron’s initiative was extraordinary both for the French leadership’s nonchalance in unilaterally trying to reshape international mediation efforts, and for its willingness to make Haftar a legitimate interlocutor for European heads of state without extracting any concessions from him.
Several visits by Haftar to Rome followed. However, the fact that European governments now courted Haftar did not increase his readiness to compromise.
Finally, the African Union proposed yet another mediation initiative outside the UN framework with a summit for Libyan actors in September 2017. Haftar apparently did not consider that meeting sufficiently important to merit his attendance.
The UN Special Representative Ghassan Salamé, in office since July 2017, initially managed to breathe new life into the UN efforts and contain the drift towards unilateral mediation initiatives. However, Salamé still had to contend with the French-led push for quick elections.
When Salamé was unable to demonstrate much progress by the spring of 2018, individual states re-appeared with their unilateral initiatives – including, once again, France.
In May 2018, the Elysée surprised other Western governments and UNSMIL with a single-handed attempt to coax a handful of Libyan actors into accepting tight deadlines for parliamentary and presidential elections.
While several Western governments were sceptical, the Italians, in particular, openly opposed the French initiative. Salamé was left to juggle Macron’s insistence on the deadlines he introduced with other governments’ demands for progress on the conditions necessary to hold elections.
While the French initiative was entirely unrealistic – both for its improbable deadlines, and because it extracted no firm commitments from Libyan actors – it nevertheless severely limited Salamé’s room for manoeuvre, depriving him of the time horizon he needed to develop a more sustainable negotiating framework.
UNSMIL’s mediation efforts were able to build on fortuitous international circumstances, but also had to adjust to conditions it could not influence.
The fortunate circumstances include clear Security Council backing and unqualified Western support for UN mediation, as well as – until the agreement was concluded – no attempts by Russia or China to undermine these mediation efforts.
Up to the moment the deal was signed, no state disputed the UN’s lead role as mediator in the Libyan conflict. At the same time, differences between Security Council members meant that UNSMIL was unable to mobilize international support for a more muscular approach. Sanctions against so-called spoilers who sabotaged the agreement, the enforcement of the arms embargo, or the deployment of peacekeepers were out of the question.
There were no easy answers to the question of who the real conflict actors were and who should represent them in negotiations.
Among the conditions that the UN Special Representative could not readily alter were the Egyptian and Emirati positions. Western governments were not committed enough to persuade both countries to adopt a more cooperative stance on Libya. This posed a massive obstacle to any attempts at mediation.
Of particular interest here, however, is how the UN dealt with these circumstances. The adverse conditions outlined above notwithstanding, which decisions contributed to the failure of efforts to find a sustainable solution?
In late 2014, UNSMIL faced an extremely confusing political and military landscape in Libya. There were no easy answers to the question of who the real conflict actors were and who should represent them in negotiations.
This was not only due to the problem – common in peace negotiations – of how to involve those directly responsible for military action without bestowing such controversial figures with legitimacy or losing their adversaries as negotiating parties.
An additional complication in Libya was that the armed groups were often only loosely associated with formal political figures such as parliamentarians, but at the same time they rarely had leaders empowered to negotiate.
In most cases, these groups were organised on the basis of individual cities, and claimed to defend the interests of these cities – yet in few localities did political and military actors agree on representatives for negotiations.
UNSMIL built its framework on the two rump parliaments as negotiating parties, which corresponded to the fact that the dispute over legitimacy was central to the conflict.
It also allowed UNSMIL to circumvent the difficulties it would have faced if it had chosen the representatives of the conflicting parties itself – accusations of arbitrariness and prejudice would inevitably have ensued. However, this approach also raised the question of how to involve a broader spectrum of actors and ensure that the actual forces on the ground were represented.
UNSMIL’s solution was twofold.
First, it invited several figures to the political negotiations who were associated with neither parliament.
Second, it launched several other dialogue tracks in parallel to the political negotiations, including meetings of representatives of municipal councils, civil society activists and political parties, leaders of armed groups, prominent women and women’s right activists, as well as tribal representatives.
It thereby hoped to garner broader support for the negotiation process without allowing these actors any actual influence over the outcome.
The implementation of this approach had considerable shortcomings. UNSMIL chose the independent figures it invited to the negotiations for their ability to build bridges between the conflicting parties and propose consensual solutions. However, they often had no power base of their own and distinguished themselves primarily by their good relations with Western diplomats.
The same applied to several of the participants UNSMIL chose – just as arbitrarily – for the political parties and civil society track. The meetings of tribal representatives were discontinued after two unsuccessful attempts in Egypt.
Fatal for the negotiations’ success, however, was the fact that UNSMIL in mid-2015 abandoned its efforts to mediate between armed actors, after several fruitless attempts.
From then on, this key constituency was only indirectly involved in the process, and the guessing game began as to how the armed groups would react to the agreement.
Dr Muriel Asseburg is a Senior Fellow in the Middle East and Africa Division at SWP
Dr Wolfram Lacher is a Senior Associate in the Middle East and Africa Division at SWP
Mareike Transfeld is a doctoral student at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies