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Is Libya heading in the wrong direction, with potential for another war?

UN acting envoy to Libya Stephanie Williams listens during a press conference in the Tunisian capital Tunis on 11 November 2020, following 2 days of talks, hosted by the UN on the Libyan conflict. [FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images]
UN acting envoy to Libya Stephanie Williams listens during a press conference in the Tunisian capital Tunis on 11 November 2020, following 2 days of talks, hosted by the UN on the Libyan conflict. [FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images]

Acting United Nations (UN) Envoy to Libya Stephanie Williams announced on 23 October: "[It is] a crucial sign of hope for the Libyan people." Williams was enthusiastically describing a permanent ceasefire just signed in Geneva between Libya's two competing authorities. The document called for several requirements to be met for a ceasefire to become permanent. One crucial requirement was the departure of all foreign fighters and forces from Libya within three months of the ceasefire agreement. Three months have passed, and no one has left so far.

In fact, more arms, fighters and equipment have been arriving into the chaotic country.

This is a serious threat to the de facto ceasefire in place, despite all the goodwill among the military leaders attempting to prevent another round of fighting.

On 22 December, Turkey's parliament approved a motion to extend the country's troop deployment in Libya by another 18 months, when troops should in fact be vacating as a condition of the ceasefire agreement. The parliamentary decision cited "threats from Libya to Turkey and the entire region" if fighting breaks out. The motion was made possible by a security memorandum of understanding signed between Turkey and Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) on 27 November, 2019.

Indeed, since last June, guns in Libya have fallen almost entirely silent. The Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar was defeated at the gates of Tripoli after a 13- month siege of the capital. GNA forces, heavily back by Turkey, Syrian mercenaries and a coalition of local militias, advanced to the Sirte-Jufra line in the middle of Libya, forcing the LNA into defensive positions. This situation is hard to maintain without a political breakthrough.

For the first time, UN Envoy Williams acknowledged the existence of "ten military bases" and about "twenty thousand foreign forces/mercenaries" all over Libya – a clear obstacle to any political agreement among Libyans.

At the same time, the 75-strong group of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) that has been meeting in Tunis since October, and tasked with charting a roadmap for a political interim settlement prior to the proposed elections next December, has stalled. The LPDF did produce a reasonable roadmap on choosing a new interim government, agreement on elections next year and criteria for filling top interim posts. However, it failed to agree on implementing the roadmap itself. The biggest stumbling block has been the nomination process for prime minister, cabinet members and top national jobs like the national audit bureau overseeing the executive's expenditure.

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October and November saw a surge in political activities led by the UN mission to Libya, among rival Libyan administrations, creating hope that a settlement is possible after nearly a decade of conflict. Come December, and everything is coming to a halt. The divided parliament met for the first time with the majority of MPs present, first in Tangier, Morocco, before moving its discussions to Libya's southern town of Ghadames on 8 December. But no more meetings have been scheduled. While the parliamentarians attempted to overcome procedural issues, their eyes were focussed on what is happening with the LPDF discussions.

Since the LPDF failed to secure a practical breakthrough, the parliamentary meetings stopped as well, giving way to a new blame game where both sides still want to talk, but neither is giving in for talks to succeed.

The reality, though, is that the failure to fully implement the Geneva ceasefire as a basis for political dialogue means trust among the parties and their foreign backers is still lacking. Russia, Egypt and the Emirates, supporting the LNA just like Turkey, do not yet accept any political settlement in Libya.

Turkey's extensions of its military mission in Libya, along with the presence of Syrian mercenaries, are clear examples. Ankara fears that any political solution in Libya will jeopardise its current security and maritime agreements with the UN-recognised GNA government in Tripoli.

The overall picture does not look encouraging for Libya, and another round of violence looks more likely than a political agreement, at least for now.

Many nations are trying to interfere in Libya's affairs- Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Many nations are interfering in Libya's affairs – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The UN Security Council, after months of delay, approved new Envoy to Libya Nickolay Mladenov to head the newly-restructured UN mission to Libya. Mladenov, with a track record of failure in his former UN post as envoy to the Middle East, is unlikely to bring anything new to the Libyan mess.

After the UN's former Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame resigned last March, UN mediation in the Libyan conflict almost froze. However, Salame's deputy, Williams, managed to achieve a lot in very little time. Any failure is blamed on the international community failing to restrict foreign meddling in Libya's affairs, honouring its pledge to do so in the Berlin Conference last January. The recommendations of the conference made termination of all foreign meddling in Libya a prerequisite for political settlement. But countries supporting different sides never really stopped their rivalries for influence and potential economic gains in the oil and gas-rich Libya. Furthermore, at least Turkey and Russia are already building a long-term military presence in Libya, according to Williams.

Whether 2021 will bring any hope for settlement in Libya – once one of the safest countries in Africa – is doubtful.

It is not yet clear what, if any, new initiatives the incoming democratic US administration will bring to tackle the Libyan file. Remember that Libya fell apart after the 2011 war launched by former US President Barak Obama and his vice president Joe Biden, who toppled Muammar Gaddafi's government and handed over the country to a bunch of fighting militias including terror groups.

Any political process in Libya which is not fully owned by the Libyans themselves is doomed to fail. But for Libyans to decide their own future, all foreign meddling in their affairs must stop now.

READ: What can Libya expect with Biden in the White House? 

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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