UN Mediation in Libya, Syria and Yemen

 By Muriel Asseburgk, Wolfram Lacher, and Mareike Transfeld

The upheavals in the Arab world since 2011 have led to civil wars in three countries: Libya, Syria and Yemen.

In all three cases, the United Nations (UN) are trying to mediate agreements between parties in the conflicts to bring about peace through power-sharing.


The UN has an established leadership role in media­tion efforts to end civil wars. Since the 1990s, some of the most protracted civil wars have been settled under the UN’s overall command or with its partici­pation. Most of these negotiated settlements were based on power-sharing agreements.

Not so for the three conflicts analysed here: all UN efforts to end them through power-sharing have failed.

In Yemen and Libya, power-sharing agree­ments have not prevented conflicts from continuing or resuming. In Syria, the UN has not even managed to hold direct negotiations on power-sharing between the parties in the civil war. The changed military balance of power has now made the initial goal of a political transition unrealistic.

Why are these three conflicts so resistant to reso­lution efforts?

Which aspects of these conflicts im­pede UN efforts?

Which factors in the UN approach hinder progress?

What lessons can be learned for future mediation efforts?

And how can Europeans help to move the UN’s attempts at mediation for­wards?

The conditions under which the UN is trying to negotiate a resolution to the three conflicts are extra­ordinarily difficult. In all three conflicts, the balance of power and alliances between multiple actors change constantly.

Many local actors in these con­flicts are not seriously committed to negotiations because they receive support from regional and great powers. All three conflicts are not only power struggles between local forces, but also offer an arena to rival foreign powers.

This international dimension makes it more difficult to include all relevant local and external actors in the negotiations, because powerful states resist this. Furthermore, UN mediators are constrained by a Security Council (SC) that either disagrees about the right way to solve the conflict (as for Syria) or has associated itself with one party in the conflict (as in Yemen), which rules out the UN as an impartial mediator.

Finally, enforcing agreements through peacekeeping forces was never a realistic option in these three countries – not only because there was no unanimous support from the five permanent mem­bers of the SC, but also because the majority of local actors in these conflicts reject the presence of international peace-keepers.

Taken together, this meant that, from the outset, the UN’s efforts to bring about a negotiated settlement had only a very small chance of success – particularly in Syria.

However, alongside these adverse conditions, mis­takes and dilemmas in the mediation strategy itself as well as a lack of support from Western governments have also inhibited success. In Syria, the interests of regional and great powers thwarted negotiations that would have included all relevant parties, but in Libya and Yemen, UN mediators failed to involve important conflict parties in the talks.

In both cases, the (inevi­tably unsustainable) agreements were pushed through with excessive haste. Insufficient support from local actors was offset by international legitimacy, gained from Security Council resolutions.

At the time of signing, the agreements were seen as risky gambles, but during the unsuccessful attempts to implement them, it became clear that external actors either had little leverage over the conflicting parties, or failed to use the leverage they had. The use of targeted sanc­tions to deter potential spoilers in Libya and Yemen was particularly ineffective, if not counterproductive.

Insufficiently inclusive agreements, combined with the subsequent failure to enforce them, led the unity governments of Libya and Yemen to become mere parties to the conflict. The UN thus turned from mediator to supporter of one side.

In Syria, UN sanc­tions and other coercive measures to influence con­flict parties were out of the question anyway, due to the polarisation of the Security Council. Above all, however, Western governments were not prepared to exert serious pressure on the regional states that were key in preventing a negotiated solution or its imple­mentation in all three countries.

The conclusion obviously cannot be that it is futile to mediate in similarly complex future conflicts. Rather, the question is how mediation efforts can become more effective.

The cases addressed here offer three conclusions:

First, the mandate should not be limited to mediating between the local parties in a civil war. Instead, from the outset it should also pro­vide forums that allow for the reconciliation of the competing interests of relevant regional and great powers, or at least enable the UN to influence the rules of engagement in the conflict.

Second, power-sharing agreements should be sufficiently inclusive; the negotiations should bring together actors who are truly representative of the political forces and con­stituencies on the ground; and the agreements should give these parties sufficient incentives to abide by the deal.

Third, UN mediators should avoid taking sides in favour of unity governments if those governments them­selves become parties to the conflict and under­mine agreements.

Europeans often have little influence on the international power relations that constrain UN mediators. Nevertheless, they can help by refraining from doing anything that might undermine UN mediation ef­forts, such as circumventing sanctions or directly cooperating with conflict actors to pursue aims unrelated to a negotiated solution.

Furthermore, for as long as UN missions do not have the mandate to reconcile com­peting regional and international interests, they should use their channels of dialogue with regional and major powers towards avoiding further escalation, establishing rules of engagement and focusing on protecting civilians.

The civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen are extremely complex in terms of the configuration of local actors, the military involvement of regional and great pow­ers, and the dynamic formation of alliances. But the three cases also raise general questions:

when do negotiated settlements succeed in ending civil wars, and under what conditions can the UN successfully mediate peace agreements and guarantee their implementation?

Previous cases allow us to draw a number of lessons and outline points of contention with regard to the roles of conflict dynamics, the mediation strategy, and the UN Security Council.

continues in part 2


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






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