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.


Conditions for Successful Mediation

There is no agreement on whether or not conflict dynamics can make a civil war ripe for resolution or ensure that all negotiations will fail in the absence of ripeness.

According to an influential thesis, success­ful conflict resolution requires a stalemate between the conflicting parties in which the costs of continuing con­flict exceed those of making concessions for a peace agreement. But whether a conflict had reached this stage often only becomes clear in retrospect.

The expectation that a civil war will be ripe for resolution at some future point is not only questionable because it can serve as a convenient pretext for insufficient efforts at mediation, but also because many civil wars come no closer to a solution as they grind on; rather, they produce ever new conflicts, as well as new actors and war profiteers with a strong interest in continu­ing conflict.

Clearly, however, a negotiated settlement will re­main out of reach as long as the military balance of power changes rapidly or conflict parties can count on sustained foreign backing – in other words, as long as one or more conflict parties expects to make military gains.

Mediation efforts themselves can con­tribute to the formation of new alliances among those who oppose an agreement, thereby provoking escala­tion.

The decisive role of external support, in turn, explains why, during the Cold War, civil wars – most of which were then also proxy wars – rarely ended through negotiated settlements, and why the “uni­polar moment” of the 1990s set in motion a series of peace agreements for old and new conflicts.

How­ever, even during this heyday for conflict settlements, only a quarter of mediation attempts produced an agreement, and only a fraction of these agreements saw implementation.

By contrast, the growing multi­polar disorder of recent years offers far more difficult conditions for conflict resolution.

It drives a growing internationalisation of civil wars – an increasing number of great and regional powers are now in­volved – and a trend towards fragmented conflict landscapes: instead of binary struggles between a government and a rebel movement, we increasingly see multi-party conflicts in which continuously changing alliances prevent the emergence of a stale­mate.

The three conflicts this study focuses on are prime examples for this development.

Which mediation strategy is successful depends not only on the configuration of the conflict, but also on the characteristics of the mediator. Mediators with little leverage – such as representatives of small states or non-governmental organisations – have to convince conflict parties that they are absolutely impartial. Their strategy will necessarily focus on creating trust between the conflicting parties.

By con­trast, a mediator who represents world powers and can bring their influence to bear will rely more on international pressure to prod the conflict parties towards compromise, and on third-state guarantees to ensure the implementation of an agreement.

Media­tion based on such “manipulation” of the bal­ance of power aims either to bring about a stalemate or to demonstrate to the conflict parties that they have already reached a stalemate.

Either way, the minimum requirement is that the conflict parties agree to mediation. It is also impor­tant that all relevant conflict actors and their external supporters are directly or indirectly involved in the talks.

There are two reasons why this has also become more challenging in recent years. First, the growing internationalisation of conflicts increases the number of external actors who need to sit at the negotiating table – and who will try to exclude other local or external actors. Second, jihadi groups have played an ever greater role in recent civil wars. They show little willingness to engage in talks, and their participation in negotiations remains an international taboo.

Wherever the UN mediates, the approach pursued by mediators and its efficacy depend greatly on the Security Council. For UN mediation to be successful, a whole series of conditions have to be met.

The Secu­rity Council has to provide the mediator with a clear mandate, but above all it has to be united in its sup­port for the mediation efforts and its interest in solving the conflict.

The mediator also depends on the permanent members to back an agreement with guarantees – such as the UN or third states deploying troops – and threaten transgressors with sanctions.

When these conditions are not met, even experienced UN mediators find it difficult to negotiate viable agree­ments.

Finally, the UN Security Council’s posi­tion on a conflict determines whether the mediator can gain a reputation for impartiality, or is seen as biased towards one party in the conflict.

Peace through Power-Sharing?

Negotiated solutions to civil wars are notoriously fragile. It is well-established that when a civil war has ended with a negotiated settlement, a resumption of conflict is much more likely than if it has ended with a military victory by one side. It is the subject of lively debate under what conditions peace agree­ments survive or collapse.

The debate particularly revolves around the issue of whether certain types of power-sharing agreement are more robust than others, or whether it is the conditions under which the power-sharing agreement was concluded that are crucial.

Clearly, however, there is no straightforward formula for successful peace agreements. Only detailed analysis of individual cases allows an in­formed guess as to whether an agreement has a realis­tic chance of implementation or is likely to founder. Even in the best case, power-sharing agreements re­main a gamble for the local and international actors involved.

Power-sharing arrangements – whether political, military, economic or territorial – have been a com­ponent of most peace agreements since the 1990s.

Even when implementation is relatively successful, critics question the sustainability of power-sharing agreements. They point out that power-sharing agree­ments signal to political actors that violence pays; that they are more of an obstacle to sustainable con­flict resolution, since power-sharing usually only comes about through massive international commitment, which often declines during implementation; and finally, that they primarily serve the interests of power-hungry politicians and warlords without addressing the actual causes of conflicts.

On the last point, proponents counter that peace negotiations cannot succeed unless they bring together only those actors who can cause an agreement to fail. Include­ing a broader range of negotiating parties would dilute the influence of such veto players, who would therefore also lose interest in a solution.

As it stands, however, the interests of regional and great powers and the exclusion of some groups as ter­rorists often makes it difficult or even impossible to bring all relevant actors to the negotiating table. The case studies in this analysis underline this point.

They also show that the prominent role of external powers in these conflicts necessitates a negotiating framework that involves both local and international actors. It is hardly surprising that such a complex under­taking rarely succeeds.

Nevertheless, it is worth asking whether the configuration of a conflict made the failure of UN efforts all but inevitable, or whether the mediator’s miscalculations or bias contributed to failure. Answering this question will help in devising more successful mediation efforts for similarly com­plex future conflicts.

With this objective in mind, the following con­tributions analyse the UN’s mediation strategies in Libya, Syria and Yemen against the background of these conflicts’ trajectories, and the competing inter­ests of local, regional and international actors in­volved in them.

The focus is on the following ques­tions:

How do UN mediators deal with the structures and dynamics of these conflicts?

What are the main obstacles to success for the UN’s efforts?

What can European policymakers do to support UN mediation and make it more effective?


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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