By Mohammed Cherkaoui

This paper examines what seems to be the dynamo factor, or driving force, of the Libyan conflict: fluctuation and reconstruction of political legitimacy.


Bargaining with Bullets

Libya has endured bloody confrontations, foreign manipulation, uncompromising diplomacy, and an open-ended stalemate. These challenges seem to have exhausted the UN nine-year diplomatic maneuvering of the Libyan conflict.

The overall scene presents Libya as synonymous to violence, lawlessness and statelessness, while lurking at the border between a ‘fragile state’ and a ‘failed state’.

Libya represents a typical scenario of the gap between the normativity of the UN mediation and the realist strategic bet of foreign stakeholders on their armed proxies in the field.

The nine-year long UN mediation has been outperformed by cycles of diplomatic overtures in Tunis, Skhirat, Geneva, Paris, Palermo, Abu Dhabi, Moscow, and Berlin, followed by new rounds of fierce infighting on the ground between the Tripoli-versus-Tobruk camps.

In his book “International Mediation in Civil Wars”, Timothy Desk points to the transnational flow of weapons, resources, and ideas, which “means that when civil wars today end, they are more likely to do so at the negotiating table than on the battlefield.”

In the early 1990s, Edward Azar, one of the forefathers of Conflict Resolution, developed his nuanced theoretical framework of Protracted Social Conflict (PSC) as a culmination of four main clusters, which lead to violent conflict: ‘communal content’, ‘human needs’, ‘governance and state’s role’, and ‘international linkages’.

He expects these conflicts to occur “when communities are deprived of satisfaction of their basic needs on the basis of the communal identity. However, the deprivation is the result of a complex causal chain involving the role of the state and the pattern of international linkages.”

Consequently, the interests of foreign players tend to suppress the will to reconciliation among internal contenders. In most instances, those international linkages dictate the internal policy along two types of subordination: economic dependency and client relationships.

Prior to the UN General Assembly held in New York in September 2019, Haftar’s forces faced tough resistance in their attempt to capture the capital, Tripoli, from the Government of National Accord.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported the fighting between pro-GNA and pro-Haftar forces killed at least 1,093 people, wounded 5,752, and forced some 120,000 into displacement.

Former UN envoy Ghassan Salamé told the UN Human Rights Council the conflict had spread outside Tripoli with air and drone attacks against the port city of Misrata, Sirte, and Jufra in central Libya.

He expressed concern as “the conflict risks escalating to full-blown civil war… It is fanned by widespread violations of the UN arms embargo by all parties and external actors.”

Consequently, the philosophy of the UN Resolution 1973 (March 2011) which established the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), has gone astray.

UNSMIL emerged with the aim of “find(ing) a peaceful and sustainable solution” to the crisis; and, most recently, Resolution 2376 (2017), have extended the mission mandate for mediation and provision of good offices, including (since December 2015) supporting the implementation of the Libyan Political Agreement.

There have been recurring themes of “promising” dialogue and “imminent” reconciliation, proposed by six consecutive UN special envoys: Abdelilah Khatib (2011), Ian Martin (2011-2012), Tarek Mitri (2012-2014), Bernardino León (2014-2015), Martin Kobler (2015-2017), and Ghassan Salamé (June 2017- March 2020).

The struggle of the United Nations diplomacy in Libya represents one of several challenges of international mediation in contemporary Arab conflicts.

The protracted Libya conflict remains a snapshot of several deadlocks, which have undermined the United Nations mediation and desired political transition, in the North African oil-rich country after the fall of Qaddafi regime.

In his concluding chapter in the 2018 Davos edition “The Future of Politics”, politician-turned-Harvard scholar Nicholas Burns wrote: “nearly all of the Middle East’s twenty-two Arab countries are worse off, not better off… Stability and hope in the region are in very short supply.

Four important Arab countries – Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria – are essentially ‘failed states.’ Libya’s warring tribes continue to contest for power with the outcome in doubt.”

UNSMIL as a Wishful Platform of UN Mediation 

The most recent SC Resolution 2486 (2019), was adopted September 12, 2019, to keep UNSMIL operational until September 15, 2020; and recognized that “since 30 March 2016 UNSMIL has gradually established a consistent presence in Libya, and welcomes UNSMIL’s progress in re-establishing a presence in Tripoli, Benghazi and other parts of Libya, as security conditions allow.

This presence inside Libya was impossible for nearly eight years of UNSMIL’s existence. The United Nations peacemaking efforts between the two rival parliaments and governments gained some short-lived momentum after brokering, as mentioned earlier, a power-sharing agreement, the Libyan Political Agreement, in December 2015. Yet, the deal soon ran into difficulties and ushered in a new phase in the conflict.

The frequency of infighting between the western and eastern camps, not to ignore several rogue militias, has derailed both political and humanitarian progress if one considers the dilemma of slavery, detention, and abuse of sub-Saharan migrants.

So far, the UN diplomacy remains sandwiched between the interpretative legitimacy as a political construct, bestowed on the former by the international community under the Skhirat process, and the claimed military ‘determinism’ of the latter. 

In his briefing to the Security Council September 4, 2019, then-UN envoy Ghassan Salamé stated, “many Libyans feel abandoned by part of the international community and exploited by others.”

He also warned of two “highly unpalatable scenarios” if the Council and broader international community fail to support an immediate end to the conflict — either a persistent and low-intensity conflict with continued fratricide among Libyans, or a doubling down of military support to one side or the other by their external patrons, resulting in a sharp escalation and regional chaos.

UN chief António Guterres has publicly condemned “the descent of Libya into political uncertainty and armed hostilities during the reporting period as deeply alarming.”

He also remains concerned about the impact on civilians of the shelling of residential areas and about the reports of targeted attacks and the destruction of vital infrastructure.

By the end of 2019, Salamé was cynical of the external support, which was “instrumental in the intensification of airstrikes,” and “imported weaponry is being accompanied by foreign personnel working as pilots, trainers and technicians.”

In Europe, four well-publicized meetings were held; one in Paris and another in Palermo, for reaching a Libyan reconciliation in 2018, and a third in Moscow and a fourth in Berlin in early 2020. However, they failed to bring about any diplomatic breakthrough.


Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui Professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Washington D.C. and former member of the United Nations Panel of Experts.



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