Looking in on Libya

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for emerging security challenges at NATO

In recent weeks, keeping an eye on the geopolitical ball has meant dealing with a number of conflicts, rising tensions and deteriorating political relationships. In the midst of a second wave of COVID-19, the daily tally of crises, hostile rhetoric and human tragedies make the current times seem particularly bleak. Yet occasionally a piece of good news breaks through the gloom that gives us hope that we may be able to move forward, at least a little, after all. 

One such example was the news from Geneva on Friday 23 October that the United Nations had brokered a peace agreement between the warring factions in Libya. This is, first and foremost, welcome news for the Libyan people who have suffered from the constant violence and political instability in the country since the toppling of the Gaddafi regime during the Arab Spring, in 2011. 

It is also good news for the European Union, which has borne the brunt of the illegal migration coming out of Libya and has had to face the prospect that jihadist groups and foreign powers establishing a foothold in a country just across the Mediterranean.

Perhaps the most welcome signal that this agreement has sent is to the United Nations. Expectations for the ability of the UN to resolve conflicts have never been very high. Indeed, it was a former UN secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, who famously said that “the purpose of the United Nations is not to take mankind to heaven but to save it from hell”. We have long been accustomed to the activism of the UN in peacekeeping – from its 16 current operations to the large number of special envoys and mediators dispatched to the world’s trouble spots, the organisation has certainly been busy. 

But in recent times, given the disunity in the Security Council, these efforts have not been met with much success. Conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Ukraine have dragged on for years with no resolution in sight, and the so-called frozen conflicts in places like Nagorno-Karabakh or Cyprus can quickly escalate politically or even militarily, as we have recently seen. Thus, the UN certainly needed a morale-boosting success for a change. 

This time it is the Libyans themselves who have agreed to their own peace process

The Libya peace agreement has the merit of being comprehensive. Previous agreements provided for only temporary ceasefires or an embargo on arms deliveries to the country. They were broken sooner than the ink was dry on the paper. Yet this time it is the Libyans themselves who have agreed to their own peace process and political way ahead. So, it will be harder for outside powers interfering in Libya to ignore the agreement in the safe knowledge that their Libyan clients will prefer to carry on fighting.

An agreement that offers something to both the UN-supported Government of National Accord in Tripoli and the rival forces of Benghazi-based General Haftar has more chances of sticking. In first place, the agreement provides for a permanent ceasefire and the return of all militia forces to their barracks. It also provides for a subsequent merger of these militias into a Libyan national force.

Moreover, the agreement obliges the large number of foreign fighters that the decade-long conflict has sucked in to leave Libya within 90 days. For instance, the Russian-owned Wagner group is estimated to have between 1000 and 1200 contractors on the ground in Libya supporting General Haftar’s Libyan National Army. Turkey has sent fighters from Syria, while there are also units from Chad and Sudan. In addition, a police monitoring centre will be set up to enhance standards in police units that have often been accused of human rights abuses. 

The peace agreement also covers the end of blockades of ports and oilfields by Libya’s various militias, which have significantly curtailed oil production and exports – the main source of revenue for the country. This week, for the first time in eight months, a tanker was able to load in Es Sider. The ‘force majeure’ clause that the Libyan National Oil Corporation had applied to the El Feel oilfield and Ras Lanuf loading terminal to justify production stops has been lifted. The UN hopes that oil production, Libya’s main export, can return to pre-conflict levels of 1.6 million barrels a day sometime next year, although with the COVID-19 recession and the move to renewables, the days of high oil prices are probably over for good.

The peace agreement also provides for the reopening of transportation links. Last week the first commercial flight in over a year took off from Tripoli to Benghazi. Finally, this essentially military agreement is due to be followed up soon in Tripoli with political talks that aim to look at the future shape of this highly decentralised and factious country, organising national elections within 18 months. 

This makes it all the more important for the EU to get firmly behind the Libya agreement

Of course, it will be easy for sceptics to say ‘wait and see’.  Ceasefires are notoriously fragile and initial peace agreements always have their flaws.  Implementation of commitments is vague and the details have to be worked out by ‘sub-committees’ to be formed between Tripoli and Benghazi. Careful attention will be needed to make sure that the belligerents do not use the ceasefire simply as a pause to restock their arsenals for the next round of fighting. Mutual disengagement from the contested city of Sirte would be an early signal of their good faith.

Moreover, many of the local militias were not involved in the Geneva negotiations and may refuse to abide by the agreement. The interfering outside powers are also numerous, with Turkey and Qatar supporting the GNA in Tripoli, while Russia, Egypt and the UAE are assisting Haftar. They will be reluctant to cede their expensively acquired positions and influence; President Erdogan wasted no time in pouring cold water on the UN-brokered deal. 

This makes it all the more important for the EU to get firmly behind the Libya agreement. An encouraging sign is the endorsement that it has received from the UN Security Council this week. The international community should not allow this opportunity for peace to slip away at a time when so many other ceasefire agreements – whether in Afghanistan, Syria or Nagorno-Karabakh – have stalled. If the Libya deal holds, it will be important for the UN to draw the lessons of success and see if it can apply them to other conflict zones. Four such lessons strike me as important. 

The first is the need for a military stalemate. General Haftar launched his military offensive against Tripoli last year, ironically on the very day that UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, arrived in Tripoli for peace talks. The failure of Haftar’s offensive – due to pro-government militias and Turkish drones and military equipment – has produced a stalemate whereby the forces loyal to Tripoli or Benghazi can defend their own territories, but not conquer the other half of the country. Prolonged stalemates tend to drive parties to the negotiating table.

We have seen this recently in Afghanistan, with the government opening peace talks with the Taliban in Doha. Conversely, when one side believes it can achieve total victory –  as Azerbaijan currently does in Nagorno-Karabakh – it tends to prolong the fight. We need to think harder at how we can create a stalemate situation conducive to eventual compromise. The lack of support for the anti-Assad opposition in Syria is a signal failure in this regard. 

Ceasefires can create a space for political negotiation, but this must be exploited quickly

Second is the involvement of a sponsoring power willing to take the diplomatic lead. It does not need to be a major power, as Norway demonstrated by guiding the Israelis and Palestinians towards the Oslo Peace Accords back in the 1990s, or the role of Canada in fostering a UN Convention banning anti-personnel mines.

It takes the long-term commitment of the sponsoring power to build the relationships of trust between the parties (often via ‘track two’ dialogues) and to rally the wider international community behind a peace plan. This often needs carrots (such as economic aid) and sticks (such as sanctions) to induce compliance. Germany has been usefully playing this role vis-a-vis Libya and forming a group of friendly nations for support.  It brought the parties together in Berlin late last year and established the basic parameters of a peace agreement and the channels of communication between the local actors that the UN has been able to build upon. 

Third is to link the cessation of hostilities to a political track that can address the underlying causes of conflict, such as resource and power-sharing. Ceasefires can create a space for political negotiation, but this must be exploited quickly. Pressure can bring the parties to the negotiating table, but they will stay there only if they perceive that they can achieve their political objectives better and faster than by fighting.

Thus, pressure needs to be matched by positive incentives especially when it comes to political representation, economic distribution and the recognition of cultural rights. Clearly, it is not a question of caving in to maximalist demands, but rather to convince the belligerents that their role and interests will be safeguarded in a future political construct. 

Finally, the UN has to stay the course with patience and perseverance. Peace-making is often not about being in the media spotlight or launching dramatic initiatives. It is rather about waiting for the right moment when exhausted belligerents are finally ready to bury the hatchet. The UN can spot and exploit those moments and lay the ground for the peace process by making connections and defining a workable stage-by-stage process for moving ahead. In this respect the acting UN special envoy for Libya, Stephanie Williams, deserves full credit for the tireless slog that she has put in to bring the parties to Geneva. 

Will the UN be able to reproduce its success elsewhere?  Who can tell? Certainly not with every conflict, but Libya reminds us that the task is not mission impossible and that multilateralism is the only viable route to building a lasting peace.

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