Stephanie Williams and Ghassan Salamé
Two former top U.N. envoys to Libya recount for the first time how the unraveling of the international order helped devastate an already fractured country and how a renewed international consensus can help Libya’s restoration.
For the first time in many years, Libyans are marking the holy month of Ramadan in relative peace. The guns, for now, have fallen silent.
There is a unified national government that resulted from a peaceful transition of power and handover by the two rival governments that had ruled the country since 2015. National elections are planned for December.
The challenges ahead are many, but we could have hardly imagined such developments back in the dark days between April 2019 and June 2020 when we were serving in the United Nations.
One important date is worth recalling as it captured the mood of that tumultuous period.
It was late in the afternoon in Berlin on Jan. 19, 2020, following a long day of solemn speeches at the German Chancellery.
After five months of meetings at the Senior Officials level of the countries and organizations participating, we and our German hosts had produced the Berlin conference, attended by a constellation of world leaders, including from the countries that had intervened directly in the Libyan conflict.
We were ready to review and approve — in the presence of the two Libyan sides invited to attend at the last minute — the 55-point communiqué painstakingly crafted in the many preparatory meetings.
But where was he?
Where was Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who had time and again acted as the prima donna in international meetings, including earlier in the same month when he rebuffed a Turkish-Russian gambit to sign a cease-fire agreement in Moscow?
It was Haftar, after all, whose attack on Tripoli in April 2019 had been the impetus for this August gathering in the German capital.
The world leaders were huddled — German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, with a clearly disinterested U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo circling in the background — trying to figure out what to do, how to lure the septuagenarian warlord from his hotel to the conference venue.
By contrast, the genial and compliant Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, was politely standing by, ready to attend the concluding session.
Haftar was a no-show.
This jarring spectacle in Berlin seemed at that moment to capture the global disorder of the latter years of the Trump presidency.
The world leaders, including the majority of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, were clearly nonplussed that the renegade leader of a coup d’etat against a U.N.-recognized government had dissed them.
Haftar’s foreign supporters, however, while clearly miffed, were not irritated to the point that they were ready to reconsider their strategic investment in his authoritarian project.
At the end of day, their single-issue agendas outweighed their interest in upholding international norms and the international order. And Haftar knew it as well.
Haftar’s behavior was based on the assumption that he would prevail militarily in his quest to rule Libya by force.
The previous year, he had gathered impressive international material and political support for his attack, the final feather in his cap being a “green light” phone call from U.S. national security adviser John Bolton just days prior to the attack.
That call seemed to seal the deal for the Libyan general who nearly 50 years prior had joined the young Moammar Gadhafi in his 1969 coup that toppled the monarchy, which had run Libya since its independence in 1951, and ushered in a four-decade-long dictatorship.
Haftar had launched the attack on April 4, 2019, while our boss, Guterres, was in Libya to support a U.N.-facilitated, inclusive national conference, not coincidentally set to commence on April 14.
Guterres promptly flew from Tripoli to Haftar’s redoubt in eastern Libya to request that he call the attack off and pull back his forces. But the U.N. secretary-general’s warnings were summarily rejected.
That Haftar would launch such a bold attack while Guterres was still in the country and would so bluntly reject the U.N. leader’s call for restraint were further manifestations of the global disorder.
Haftar’s attack would lead to thousands of Libyans maimed and killed, and hundreds of thousands displaced. Grisly human rights abuses would be committed, including mass killings in the city of Tarhouna.
The attack would herald an uptick in the already unprecedented and illegal foreign intervention in the Libyan conflict. Today there are at least 20,000 mercenaries and foreign forces in Libya partially or fully occupying Libyan military installations.
Not surprisingly, Haftar’s attack also killed the U.N. political process that we had spent over a year building. We had known of Haftar’s ambitions and his threats to rule the country by force, to purge Tripoli of the militias, and to eradicate “political Islam.”
His threat to use force had hung over our necks like the sword of Damocles and made urgent our efforts to pursue a peaceful solution.
The April 4, 2019, attack changed all that. It laid bare the sharp differences on Libya policy in the U.N. Security Council that had heretofore been papered over with reflexively hollow statements of support for the special representative of the secretary-general and the U.N. political process.
Over the next weeks and months, the Security Council became entirely sterile, unable to produce a simple statement to condemn this stunning breach of the international order.
The greatest shock was the silence from the U.S., a stunning reversal of longstanding U.S. policy toward Libya.
We will never know what would have happened had senior U.S. leaders instead chosen to warn Haftar against his attack, admonished his regional supporters — among them close U.S. allies — or even gone so far as to threaten him with the use of air power.
We were grateful for the principled stance taken by career U.S. diplomats in Washington and in the field to correct the policy and their strong support for the work of the U.N. Support Mission in Libya over the past year.
Initially jolted by Haftar’s attack, we could have thrown in the towel, or we could have groused loudly, and likely ineffectively, about the perfidy of the so-called international community. But we lived in Tripoli.
We saw firsthand the suffering, the targeting of ambulances and health clinics, the strikes on civilian infrastructure, the heartless targeting of a detention center housing helpless migrants, the hundreds of thousands forced to flee their homes in Tripoli’s southern suburbs. We had to do what we could to stop the bloodshed.
We decided that a new strategy was needed, a strategy that would end the war and reopen the way to political talks. Whereas our previous plan had been an inside-out one, with the primary emphasis put on gathering the Libyans on Libyan soil, away from the interfering foreigners, the new plan was outside-in.
We needed to try to rebuild even a fragile consensus and commitment to end the conflict before we could return our focus to the Libyans.
And we needed to build a process that went beyond the broken and divided Security Council; the regional countries intervening directly in the conflict had to be invited.
Thus was born what has come to be known as the Berlin Process. Ghassan spent two hours with Merkel in mid-August 2019, flying to Berlin on the heels of a gruesome terrorist attack that had taken the lives of three of our U.N. colleagues in Benghazi in yet another sign of Libya’s continuing unraveling.
Germany was a logical choice to lead the process.
It was viewed as a neutral actor by the Libyans and had abstained on the U.N. Security Council resolution (1973) that was adopted in March 2011 and formed the legal basis for the subsequent international military intervention.
Williams and Salamé are documenting their experience about Libya in a forthcoming book
Stephanie Williams served as United Nations deputy special representative for political affairs (2018-20) and acting special representative of the secretary-general (2020-21), at the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).
Ghassan Salamé was United Nations special representative of the secretary-general in Libya (2017-20) and the U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s special adviser (2003-07)