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 Mediators: Facing Time Pressure and Conflicts of Interest

The time pressure Special Representatives León and Kobler applied while attempting to conclude the ne­go­tiations was seriously detrimental to the viability of the agreement.

The rush was due to both León’s per­sonal ambitions and pressure from Western gov­ern­ments for a rapid conclusion in the autumn of 2015.

In mid-2015, León informed Western diplomats that he intended to leave his post within months and was determined to reach a deal before he handed over.

In September and October, León tried to force an agreement to be able to take up his next post – director of the Emirates Diplomatic Academy – as soon as possible and with a success under his belt. This meant that León secretly negotiated his conditions with high-ranking Emiratis while at the same time mediating in Libya, where the UAE was blatantly intervening on one side of the conflict.

When this came to light, León had to bring forward the planned handover to Kobler without having obtained a result in Libya.

Upon taking office, Kobler faced the choice of re­opening the draft agreement, which had been called into doubt by the León scandal, or bringing it to a quick conclusion.

Libyan proponents of the agreement advocated the latter, not least due to self-inter­est. However, pressure from Western governments for an imminent conclusion proved decisive. The main reason was the steady expansion of IS, espe­cially in the region around Sirte.

The Obama adminis­tration and Italy, in particular, saw an urgent need to act, but wanted a “legitimate” Libyan gov­ern­ment to request international support for action against IS.

If the negotiations dragged on, however, military inter­vention against IS would happen without a unity gov­ernment – which, in turn, would negatively affect the talks. European governments also needed a legiti­mate counterpart so as to take military action against human smugglers in Libyan waters, since Russia was blocking the mandate for this in the Security Coun­cil.

In late November 2015, Italy and USA set the pace by calling for a ministerial-level conference for mid-December to express its support for the agreement – when no agreement yet existed.

The time pressure induced UNSMIL to try a risky manoeuvre. The negotiating parties, the HoR and GNC, were internally divided.

According to the text of the agreement, the two parliaments were the parties to the deal, the institutional pillars of the agreement, and key to its implementation. However, neither par­lia­ment had a formal majority in favour of the agree­ment; the presidents of both parliaments had even with­drawn their delegations’ mandates.

UNSMIL there­fore decided to let the negotiators sign the agree­ment in a personal capacity. To emphasise the sup­pos­edly broad support in Libya – as Kobler and West­ern diplomats asserted – UNSMIL flew dozens of parlia­mentarians, mayors and other political actors to Skhirat for the signing ceremony.

Of the 21 figures who initialled the agreement on 17 December 2015, only 11 were elected members of one or the other par­liament; the other ten were handpicked by UNSMIL and mostly had no political base to speak of.

After negotiations that within this framework had lasted less than a year, the time pressure exerted by Western governments caused defects in the agree­ment that would prove fatal.

The consent of the HoR, which was imperative for implementing the agreement and forming a government, failed to materialise after the signing, and the tug-of-war over that ques­tion opened up rifts that permanently paralysed the parliament.

In November, to appease as many clienteles as possible, Kobler increased the soon-to-be Presidency Council from six to nine members whilst maintaining the requirement for unanimous Council decisions.

This practically ensured that the Presidency Council would be unable to act. Moreover, at the time that the negotiations were hurriedly concluded, talks with armed actors over security arrangements had not even begun.

This excluded key issues from the agreement – issues that would remain unresolved thereafter. All of these problems were already appar­ent in December 2015, but experts’ warnings against excessive haste went unheeded. That haste largely rested on assumptions that subsequently turned out to be erroneous.


During the negotiations, the UN mediators closely coordinated with Western governments that intended to support the agreement’s implementation. They thus shared the miscalculations that prevailed in West­ern capitals, regarding both their own influence on Libyan conflict actors and the GNA’s room for manoeuvre.

Even at the time of signing, Europeans were still planning a Libya International Assistance Mission (LIAM), for which Italy wanted to provide as many as 5,000 soldiers – ostensibly to train Libyan forces, but in reality to protect the GNA and the international presence in Tripoli.

These plans were key to West­ern designs for the agreement’s implementation – but they were divorced from Libyan realities. It was clear that no Libyan government would agree to such a foreign presence. When the Italian government finally realised this, the plans were shelved.

In addition, both the UN Special Representative and Western governments overestimated the effect of the punitive measures at their disposal. León and Kobler repeatedly threatened sanctions against spoilers, but differences within the Security Council prevented UN sanctions against leading GNA oppo­nents, including Haftar.

The EU and US therefore imposed separate sanctions against three politicians, including the presidents of the two parliaments. All three were figureheads rather than heavyweights, and it is debatable whether the term “spoilers” really ap­plied to them.

After all, there were justified objections to the legitimacy of the accord and the government formed by it. Their opposition to an agreement that would lead to the dominance of their political rivals was also understandable. Besides, the sanctions had no significant impact, except for reinforcing the defiance of those opposing the agreement.

Western diplomats also based their calculations on the expectation that the Presidency Council and its government would overcome their initial legitimacy deficit by creating new facts on the ground. Since the GNA alone would have access to state funds, they argued, it would gradually buy off fence-sitters and opponents of the agreement.

In March 2016, Western governments and the UN urged the Presidency Coun­cil to take office in Tripoli despite the fact that the par­liament in Tobruk had approved neither the agree­ment nor the government.

Since there was no pro­gress on negotiating security arrangements, the Presi­dency Council depended for its security in Tripoli on local militias whom several GNA members viewed as enemy forces.

The move to Tripoli contributed to reinforcing the initial divergences between the parties to the agree­ment. Several members of the Presidency Council and government refused to work in Tripoli under these conditions, which essentially meant that the Presidency Council had already lost its claim to spear­head a government of national unity.

Nor was it able to create the expected facts on the ground. The gov­er­nor of the Central Bank did not allow the Presidency Council access to regular budgets, as long as the par­lia­ment had neither approved the government nor a budget, let alone monitored state expenditure.

Final­ly, members of the Presidency Council worked against rather than with each other, meaning that the cli­entelist networks of individual members did not amount to a power structure for the government as a whole.

Consequently, the Presidency Council had no control over the various forces that were loosely associated with it.

The UN: From Mediator to Party in the Conflict

With the conclusion of the agreement in December 2015, the Security Council tasked UNSMIL with sup­porting the implementation of the agreement and coordinating capacity-building measures for the GNA.

If the agreement had in fact been a power-sharing arrangement between the conflicting parties, this task would have been compatible with the role of impar­tial mediator. However, since the agreement was con­cluded between certain actors against the resistance of many others, the UN role was now to support the Presidency Council in asserting itself against its adver­saries.

In Tripoli, this amounted to a tacitly acquiescent attitude toward the militias allied with the Presi­dency Council, who drove their rivals out of the capital in several rounds of fighting starting in mid-2016.

The actors in Tripoli themselves even viewed this evolution as driven by UNSMIL’s senior security advisor, the Italian General Paolo Serra – an impres­sion the UN mission did nothing to dispel – and the Italian government.

In eastern Libya, this meant that UNSMIL backed a group of controversial militia leaders, simply because they viewed the GNA as an opportunity to expand their influence at Haftar’s expense.

Soon after the Presidency Council arrived in Tripoli, it became clear that the agreement would not see implementation and that the country remained politically divided.

Soon after the Presidency Council arrived in Tripoli, it became clear that the agreement would not see implementation and that the country remained po­liti­cally divided.

As a result, Western officials empha­sised that a modified agreement would have to make room for Haftar. However, UNSMIL, being so closely associated with the GNA, could hardly mediate between the government and its opponents.

In fact, Haftar refused to meet Kobler for more than a year after the agreement was reached – declaring it would be “a waste of time”.

Only when Ghassan Salamé assumed office in July 2017 did UNSMIL begin to dis­tance itself from the GNA and once again seek a role as impartial mediator.


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


Source: Mission Impossible? UN Mediation in Libya, Syria and Yemen

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