The Italian-sponsored conference in Palermo could not solve Libya’s problems, but some parties came out on top while others lost the opportunity to gain.
For some experts, Italy is the ultimate winner of the recent Palermo Conference on Libya simply because it managed to score a diplomatic victory, taking over the Libya file from France.
The Italian government had organized the conference to counter the unsuccessful summit France hosted in May, which produced nothing but a verbal commitment by Libyan rivals to draft a constitution by mid-September and to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on December 10.
However, Libya’s House of Representatives did not work on a constitution, and the volatile security situation on the ground proved that December elections would be impossible.
“Whereas the French conference began with an intended outcome and ended with specific mandates and a timeline, the Italian approach had no specific goals for the Palermo conference nor did it bind the Libyan leaders to any dates.”
Karim Mezran, a senior fellow at Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, explains what Italy did differently. “Whereas the French conference began with an intended outcome and ended with specific mandates and a timeline, the Italian approach had no specific goals for the Palermo conference nor did it bind the Libyan leaders to any dates,” Mezran said.
So Italy realized that stability is the only path forward for Libya now, and that elections should come later.
Another winner out of the Palermo conference seemed to be the UN’s Ghassan Salame, Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya because he revived his roadmap for Libya. Just days before the conference, he told the UN Security Council he would call for a national Libyan conference to be held inside the country in early 2019 with a specific purpose:
“To provide a platform for Libyans to spell out their own vision for the future of their country.”
Salame and his American deputy Stephanie Williams got the approval of all Libyan sides to participate in the January conference, which would aim to pave the way for a long-term solution of the crisis.
Libyan military strongman Khalifa Haftar, commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army, also emerged from the conference with a victory. He succeeded in reinforcing his position as a key player in the Libyan crisis, ironically, by snubbing the conference sessions.
Jalel Harchaoui, a Paris-based Libya analyst, said Haftar was as difficult as he has been in the past. “This attitude cuts both ways because while it ups Haftar’s value, the rivals Haftar humiliated will always remember such attitude,” he said.
The French government took a hit as Italy delegitimized France’s approach to elections.
The French plan had called for a vote without stipulating how to deal with the security challenges. Italy also scored a diplomatic victory over France by having the Libyan parties to agree on an UN-sponsored national conference leading to gradual adoption of the UN roadmap for Libya.
However, some experts and former U.S. diplomats agree that the ultimate losers of the Palermo conference are the Libyan people because there were no concrete results to improve their daily lives and bring about some stability.
Ambassador David Mac, former deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East, described the conference as disappointing. “Libyans were hoping that it would be a venue in which Libyan factions could reach a consensus on the way forward,” said Mac.
Unfortunately, that did not happen simply because the Libyan rivals are not yet convinced that they will gain more than what they will lose by having a new constitution and elections.”
However, the veteran diplomat is cautiously optimistic that the UN-sponsored national Libyan conference in January would provide an opportunity for Libyans from all walks of life to be represented and would leave it up to the Libyans themselves to reach a solution without pressure from outside.
Regardless of the winners and losers in the Palermo conference, reaching a political solution is going to require a lot of effort.
Ambassador Jonathan Winer, former U.S. envoy for Libya, said there are three pillars for any solution in Libya: economic reform, disarmament of the militias, and national reconciliation.
“Libya needs a security solution, a political settlement and reconciliation among Libyan rivals. There needs to be revenue sharing at the local level, so people can see the benefits of having a government and a united Libya.”
Judging from his experience on the ground, Ambassador Winer believes national reconciliation remains the hardest goal, given Libya’s social, ethnic and tribal groups.
He said special attention should be given to Southern Libya, a region that has always been marginalized and over time has become a hub for all sorts of trafficking.
Ambassador Winer also said something needs to be done to prevent the Franco-Italian competition over Libya from impeding international efforts to stabilize the North African nation.
“The U.S. can play an important and constructive role by working with other countries to support the same set of proposed solutions.
Because if countries are going to criss-cross with one another, taking different positions, nothing will happen in Libya—and instability, terrorism, illegal migration and declining conditions for Libyans will continue,” Winer said.
Ambassador Mac agreed and said while the Trump administration has said that the U.S. should not play any role in Libya beyond counterterrorism, it should realize that reaching a political agreement in Libya is crucial to prevent the reentry of foreign terrorists.
Colonel Wolfgang Pusztai, a Libya security and policy analyst, argues that while the Trump administration does not see any vital interests in Libya except fighting ISIS, it should pay attention to the impact of Libyan instability on U.S. interests in Africa.
“It creates a threat to the American strategic interests in the entire Sahel region, so the U.S. should play a better role, including mediation, to persuade General Haftar to join the UN efforts to bring stability to Libya.”
Pusztai said Haftar is aware of the limits of his power and he knows that there is no way to enforce any final decisive victory on other rivals in Libya.
That is why Pusztai envisions a U.S. role in persuading its regional Arab allies, such as Egypt and the UAE, to support the UN-led roadmap instead of backing the military conquest of General Haftar.