Libya slid back into civil war in 2019. On 4 April, almost as the country seemed within reach of a breakthrough in efforts to resolve its five-year-old political crisis, the commander of the eastern based Libyan National Army, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, launched a military campaign to seize the capital, Tripoli, pre-empting a National Conference that the UN Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame, had hoped to hold in mid-April after a year and a half of intensive rounds of preparatory talks and meetings.
Since the UN brokered agreement between Libyan factions in Skhirat, Morocco, in December 2015, the chief landmarks in the peace-making efforts were the Paris summits in July 2017 and May 2018, the Palermo summit in November 2018 and the Abu Dhabi summit in February 2019. Salame had seen the National Conference as the key to producing a new political agreement that would lead to the reunification of bifurcated government institutions and a broad-based consensus on a roadmap for managing the remainder of the transitional phase and organising general elections before the end of 2019.
The fighting in the vicinity of Tripoli is now in its ninth month with no end in sight. Over 1,200 people have been killed, over 7,000, mostly civilians, have been wounded and more than 120,000 have been driven from their homes since the war over Tripoli began.
Some 400,000 people are still stranded in areas affected by skirmishes between armed groups, according to figures released by local authorities and the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). Humanitarian and rights agencies that have been observing developments in the capital stress that most of those affected by the displacement are women and children. What had once been seen as an “opportunity worth the risk” has become a humanitarian crisis and threatens to divide the country more than ever.
As the fighting escalated and spread, many political analysts came to believe that any new negotiation process would be different to earlier rounds during the past five years because of the new balances of power and patterns of local alliances that are emerging as the result of the fighting, especially in view of the more numerous and more intensive regional and international interventions.
But, can military hostilities right the structural imbalance that had characterised the UN-sponsored negotiating process since September 2014? Will regional and international powers agree to mend the design flaws in the UN-steered political process? As a first step towards answering these questions, the UN will have to acknowledge the deliberate and premeditated error that was committed in the Skhirat process and afterwards, and that ultimately worked to weaken UNSMIL’s role, undermine the value of its political and diplomatic efforts, and sap its influence and credibility among the stakeholders in the Libyan crisis.
What UNSMIL failed to do since 2015 was to hold a direct dialogue between the real players on the ground. When former UNSMIL chief Bernardino Leon announced the agenda of the proposed National Libyan Dialogue in 2014, he outlined four tracks, one of which was the security/military track, involving military leaders and militia commanders. UNSMIL did not pursue this track because of reservations asserted by regional and international parties concerning the inclusion of certain influential Libyan parties in the negotiating process and ensuing political and security arrangements. This failure afforded the parties excluded for ideological or other reasons the opportunity to sabotage progress, however feeble, in peace-making efforts, and this in turn gave regional and international powers an opening to invest in Libyan factions and complicate the settlement process.
The deliberate exclusion of major local players and growing outside influences were the two chief factors that propelled Libya back to civil war. It was an anticipatable outcome given the secrecy surrounding the meetings that took place in Paris, Palermo and Abu Dhabi, all of which not only failed to produce progress but also directly or indirectly entrenched the Libyan rift that occurred in 2014. It also appears that these activities have worked to perpetuate the sway of conflicting and obscure international, regional and UN agendas in Libya.
Field Marshal Haftar had counted on a swift and decisive victory when he launched the LNA’s advance on Tripoli in April. Although this goal continues to elude him, he remains confident that his outside supporters will not abandon him or accept his defeat. Although the Tripoli based Government of National Accord (GNA) has managed to repel the offensive and even seized control over the strategic town of Gharian, it has not been able to build on that crucial turn in the fighting that occurred two months after hostilities erupted. The GNA has also failed to remedy the crisis in the provision of public services that has grown more severe as a result of the warfare.
The war over Tripoli is playing out against a curious balance of forces. Haftar has considerable outside support which contributed to bolstering his military strength as well as his image among international and regional stakeholders. The GNA has won international recognition on the strength of the UN-backed political agreement signed Skhirat in 2015. As for the High Council of State, it has remained divided since its founding, which has sapped its legitimacy, but the outbreak of war has ironically worked to sustain this political body which also derived from the Skhirat Agreement.
Meanwhile, local hybrid alliances and patterns of foreign support are largely informed by ideology rather than pragmatism. This is the landscape that UNSMIL has to navigate as it searches for a means to relaunch the political process that ground to a halt due to the war.
In his 29 July briefing to the UN Security Council, Salame laid out a three-stage plan for remedying the flareup of hostilities and reviving the political process. It called for an international summit on Libya, which he suggested should be hosted by Berlin, followed by a National Conference in which Libyans would reach a new political agreement that would then be backed by the Security Council.
While Berlin agreed to host the international summit and has since held a number of preparatory meetings, the actual event has yet to take place, whether because key regional and international players prefer to await the outcome of fighting on the ground or because they remain divided over their visions for how to return to a political process. In the four months since Salame presented his plan, Berlin has been unable to bridge gaps between the various parties invited to the summit: the five permanent members of the Security Council (the US, France, Russia, UK and China) and Egypt, the UAE, Italy and Turkey. As a result, as 2019 ends, no date has been set for the event.
Salame has strenuously urged the abovementioned parties, known as the 5+5 group, to support a UN ceasefire resolution for Libya and to abide by the UN Security Council’s ban on arms transfers to Libya. However, the parties have complicated the UN’s agenda. Participants in the preparatory meetings organised by Berlin had been scheduled to discuss ways to promote and support a ceasefire in Tripoli. However, they filled the discussion agenda with other items concerning purely domestic Libyan affairs, such as the distribution of wealth and economic reform.
As preparations for the summit got bogged down in details, the Berlin process appears to have reached a crossroads. Germany has indicated that it will not hold the summit until it can guarantee that the participants will commit to the outcomes, which entails an agreement in advance. It is a goal that appears increasingly difficult to attain in light of the sharp polarisation in Libya and a tense and fluid international political climate including mounting international and regional competition for influence and control over Libya and growing and increasingly flagrant violations of the UN ban on arms transfers.
All such factors are further aggravating the extremely complex political, security and strategic situations in Libya where some foreign powers have begun to intervene directly on various pretexts, from the fight against terrorism to protecting their own strategic interests in a Libyan terrain that shifts like sand dunes.
Clearly, the first step to remedying the Libyan conflict is for outside powers to cease their meddling which has only worked to aggravate the crisis.
The second step is for local stakeholders to take stock of the concrete repercussions of the nine-year-old civil war at all political, security and social levels, because propagandistic attempts to mould the image of the conflict for the sake of domestic and foreign consumption only blurs the vision of political leaders whose responsibility it is to formulate a national unity project and set priorities for a comprehensive reconciliation and political process the will mend Libyan society’s wounds and put the country on the path to reconstruction.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title Libya sinks backwards