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Another UN envoy to Libya resigns, betrayed by local politicians and international powers

UN Special Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame holds a joint press conference with Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano (not seen) following their meeting at the Farnesina Foreign Ministry headquarters in Rome, Italy on 8 August, 2017 [Riccardo de Luca/Anadolu Agency]
UN Special Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame in Rome, Italy on 8 August 2017 [Riccardo de Luca/Anadolu Agency]

The UN Envoy and head of its Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has resigned after two-and-a-half years in the job. A UN spokesperson confirmed that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has received Ghassan Salame's resignation. Guterres will be "discussing a smooth transition" so as not to lose the momentum that Salame has created.

The former Lebanese government minister and veteran UN advisor tweeted on 2 March that his health "no longer allows this rate of stress." He was referring to his hectic shuttle diplomacy within Libya and abroad as he sought to "reunite the Libyans, curb the interference of the outside, and preserve the unity of the country."

Ghassan Salame was the sixth UN envoy to Libya since the oil rich North African country was plunged into civil war in the aftermath of demonstrations against the late Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, as part of what became known as the "Arab Spring". A well-known Arab thinker, he took up his post in July 2017 after serving the UN in Iraq and other global hotspots. Libya's intelligentsia, already familiar with his academic work, welcomed him with optimism. He understood Libya's complex tribal society and, to a degree, knew how to navigate his way around it. Having witnessed his own country's bloody civil war, he saw similarities in the Libyan conflict. However, he once pointed out that whereas the Lebanese war (1975-1990) was financed by outsiders, the Libyans are destroying their country with their own money.

Salame had the courage to name those who would spoil the efforts to find peace, and not always in diplomatic language. Two days before his resignation, speaking at a press conference in Geneva he accused Libya's parliamentarians in Tobruk of being "shameless liars".

READ: Why has Libya's Interior Minister asked the US to establish a base there?

He took over the difficult task of bringing the Libyan factions together, not only to reconcile them, but also to put Libya on track for a democratic and prosperous future. His earlier strategy centred on amending the already dysfunctional Libyan Political Accord, signed in December 2015. He soon discovered that it was a worthless effort, and that whatever amendments he devised would be criticised and rejected by the warring factions.

In 2018 the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar, controlled most of Libya's territory, boosting the general's hopes of taking over the entire country by force. This further squeezed the already weak Government of National Accord (GNA), set up in Tripoli by the 2015 political deal. The same year saw increased regional interference by countries supporting one side or the other. This escalation turned the conflict into more of a proxy war, further complicating Ghassan Salame's already difficult mission. By this time, his strategy had shifted completely.

– Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Under his leadership, UNSMIL launched an inclusive national dialogue in which hundreds of thousands of Libyans took part through direct participation and social media platforms. The success of the discussions convinced the UN Envoy to tread along a different path which would peak in a Libyan-only conference in Ghadames on 4 April last year. However, Haftar had other ideas; he launched a surprise attack against Tripoli and his forces have been laying siege to the capital ever since, throwing Salame's plans into disarray.

Throughout all of this, the UN Security Council remained united behind the envoy, endorsing his plans by adopting Resolution 2486. The international mood changed dramatically, though, as Russia and the West started to disagree publicly about Libya. While Russia denied supporting the LNA, its Wagner group mercenaries were already on the front lines.

Turkey, meanwhile, "persuaded" the GNA into signing a controversial maritime deal in return for security and military assistance. This took the conflict onto a different level, whereby Syrian fighters and Turkish military advisors were deployed to defend Tripoli. The use of drones by Turkey, on the side of GNA, and the UAE on the LNA's side made the conflict more dangerous and destructive, frustrating Salame even further.

READ: Yet another Security Council resolution, but there's no change in Libya 

The envoy slowly lost the full support of the UN Security Council. By January this year, Salame managed to convene the Berlin conference on 19 January and again on 12 February, and the Council appeared united by adopting Resolution 2510, upon which Salame placed a great deal of hope. For the first time, a UN Resolution demanded that regional and international powers should stop sending arms and fighters to Libya; this was one of Salame's major goals.

Right on cue, he launched his third attempt to help Libya, based on a three-tier process: a military track to have a permanent ceasefire; an economic track to reunite Libya's institutions; and a political track to reach a workable political roadmap. However, as he concluded the opening session of the first round of the political track in Geneva on 28 February, Salame appeared to have had enough. On the following Monday he decided that it was time to go.

For many Libyans, Salame will be remembered as an honest and wise broker who tried sincerely to help them salvage their country. I first met him in January 2015, before he was appointed to the role of envoy to my country. He was the founding Dean of the School of International Relations at the prestigious Science Po University in Paris and chaired a symposium about restricting the use of the veto in the UN Security Council. He probably never imagined that one day he would be the victim of the power that he was hoping so much to curb.

Ghassan Salame left behind unfinished work with a clear and workable a plan to settle the 9-year old conflict. Guterres must now be frustrated as he searches for a replacement. Whoever accepts the job has most of the groundwork already in place, but unless the Libyans come to their senses and agree to solve their problems, the seventh UN Envoy will achieve very little.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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