Many problems confront efforts towards a comprehensive settlement of the Libyan crisis, even though the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) announced it will restart the “Berlin Process” as soon as possible, and that with Germany it will sponsor a second summit on Libya in Berlin to reaffirm the process after it faltered since work began in January. The Libya crisis has entered a vortex of bilateral pairings that will impede progress on a political solution.
The hurdles facing the political process today are four in particular: namely, the undermining of the role of the UN; bilateral actions led by foreign players; unilateral actions taken by domestic actors; and the ambitions of regional and international powers.
UNDERMINING THE UN’S ROLE
On 15 September, the UN Security Council extended the mission of UNSMIL for one year after amending the leadership structure, based on Resolution 2542 in 2020 drafted by the UK, for the first time since it was created at the end of 2011. It included separating UNSMIL’s mediation role in the Libyan peace process from its support role, which is something the US wanted in order to improve UNSMIL’s political performance. Changing the leadership structure limits the role of UNSMIL.
The Security Council resolution replaced the term “special representative” of the UN secretary general to “special envoy” who will be at the helm of UNSMIL operations, with a focus on good offices and mediation with influential Libyan and international players to end the conflict. Also, UNSMIL’s “operations and daily administration” will be the responsibility of UNSMIL’s coordinator who will operate under the authority of the special envoy.
Although the resolution passed with a majority vote of 13, with Russia and China abstaining, that did not result in the appointment of a special envoy for the peace process in Libya or a UNSMIL coordinator. This indicates disagreement continues among major powers on the mission of UNSMIL and who should lead it. Security Council members had previously supported the appointment of the UN’s current special representative to the African Union, Hanna Tetteh of Ghana, as chief of UNSMIL. However, the US objected in the beginning, then later stipulated restructuring UNSMIL and appointing a special envoy to the peace process and mediation in Libya, before agreeing to Tetteh’s appointment.
The decision to extend UNSMIL’s mission for one year was supported by European countries in the Security Council. Germany’s mission to the UN tweeted that the decision confirms the Security Council’s commitment to guarantee a permanent ceasefire and bring peace to Libya. Belgium saw it as paving the way for a quick appointment of a UNSMIL special envoy who would lead mediation with the participation of influential regional players, as part of the Berlin Process. Meanwhile, Russia and China justified their abstention by saying their comments on the draft resolution were not included.
The tenure of the current UNSMIL chief, Stephanie Williams, ends in October and it is yet unclear if the Security Council resolution will be promptly implemented since it includes appointing new mission leadership. This means postponing the Berlin Process which is planning another summit on 5 October to renew support for and relaunch the stalled process.
The resolution disrupted the work of UNSMIL which recently sponsored two meetings in Bouznika, Morocco and Montreux, Switzerland, for various Libyan players. The first was to entice the parliament in Tobruk and the Supreme State Council (SSC) to implement the political agreement; the second paved the way for relaunching the Berlin Process. If the Morocco meeting broke the ice between the two sides then there is no need for another, and the opposite is true of the meetings in Switzerland.
In recent weeks, there were bilateral actions between local players and international or regional powers under the pretext of pursuit of a political solution. More strangely, the UN, itself, which since 2014 has led the settlement process in Libya, has also become involved in these bilateral pairings when it sponsored talks in Bouznika and Montreux to jumpstart the stalemate in the political process.
Meanwhile, there are talks on Libya between Moscow and Ankara, Moscow and Cairo, Cairo and Paris, as well as Ankara and Algiers. All sides claim their efforts supplement and support the UN-led mission, but that may not be true. These bilateral efforts on Libya gained momentum due to UNSMIL’s poor performance, and amid obstruction of appointing a new UN envoy to Libya. It also indicates limiting the role of the UN in Libya in the future, because bilateral tracks on the regional and international stage have more momentum.
UNILATERAL ACTIONS BY LOCAL ACTORS
The retreat in UNSMIL’s role and the steps taken by foreign supporters in recent weeks resulted in local players attempting to undermine these efforts by holding unilateral talks to block any attempt to harm them in the future. Most recently, an agreement on 18 September between the Libyan National Army (LNA) and Vice-Chairman of the Presidential Council of the Government of National Accord (GNA) Ahmed Maiteeq in Sochi, to re-open oil facilities and restart oil production and exports. Also, to form a committee that will draft a budget and oversee distribution of oil revenues among the leaders of the LNA and GNA. The deal will be in place until January 2021 when a new government is formed.
Earlier, the chairman of the Presidential Council said he intends to hand over power at the end of October after the National Dialogue Committee agrees to form a new government. This is unlikely due to continued bickering, local dialogue committees that will be formed to participate in the UN process, and delays in appointing UNSMIL’s leadership. In the end, this means the status quo will continue at least into the near future.
There are also attempts led by Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh and SCC Chairman Khaled Al-Mishri to reform the Presidential Council because they both want to become members, although their efforts are doubtful.
AMBITIONS OF FOREIGN PLAYERS
Libya has become an experiment in international policies and is wide open for frequent foreign interference, which means all involved parties have started to coordinate with close partners on the regional or global stage to establish their presence in Libya. Russia and Turkey are primary examples, especially since both profited the most from the battle over Tripoli that lasted for 14 months. The battle for the capital gave these two countries great and direct influence on the ground. Turkey won its biggest overseas military base at Al-Watiya in northwest Libya, and Russia established a foothold at Al-Jufra military base in central Libya. Moscow and Ankara are also holding joint talks and consultations with regional allies to bolster their influence and guarantee a stronger hand in international bartering.
France is also working on a breakthrough in the Libyan crisis after the battle for Tripoli undermined its gains and influence, and the entry of Russia and Turkey into the fray. Especially since Paris has relations with both the GNA and LNA, which it is trying to manipulate so it can once again benefit from the stark contradictions within fragile and hybrid Libyan alliances.
These are the four parallel dilemmas facing the settlement process, but there are two main paths that can be pursued.
First, a fundamental change in domestic actors in Libya to build a new authority with new players. But this would require an extraordinary event such as renewing the revolution, which is evident in growing protests against corruption. However, supporting these protests will not guarantee the outcome due to deep political rifts.
The second path would be confidence building between the Tobruk parliament and SSC in Tripoli so they can both pass the necessary amendments on key appointments. If this succeeds, it will need to be supported so it can continue the reform process and produce a political agreement without another revolt. However, this option is precarious because local actors are not serious and are only manoeuvring to survive.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly