Forging lasting peace
Taking lessons from the Syrian intervention fiasco, the mediation process for peace in war-torn Libya must be carried out free of foreign interests by a joint Arab-Libyan initiative
Libya has been ripped apart by an increasingly complicated civil war since the 2011 ousting and killing of long-time dictator Mummar Gaddafi in a NATO-backed uprising. Attempts by European and Middle Eastern actors to stabilise the situation in the country, virtually divided into two rival governments in the east and the west with streets controlled by armed groups, have not yielded any result so far.
One is not surprised by their failure as many of those who are trying to end the conflict have repeatedly violated the UN embargo on arms supply to the warring factions. Since January this year, stepping up their efforts, foreign powers made several unsuccessful attempts to bring rival leaders Fayaz al Sarraj, who heads the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and renegade eastern-based military commander Khalifa Haftar together and broker a ceasefire in the country.
The UN-recognised Tripoli government has been fighting back against an offensive by fighters loyal to Haftar, who is supported by several countries including Russia, Egypt, the UAE and France, since April last year. Clashes between warring factions have killed more than 280 civilians, 2,000 fighters and displaced tens of thousands until a fragile ceasefire baked by both Turkey and Russia was put in place on January 12.
Escalating the conflict, forces loyal to Haftar have shut off production at all Libya's major oil fields, an escalation that threatened to strangle the country's finances ahead of an international peace summit in Berlin last week of January. The move to cripple the country's primary income source was to protest Turkey's decision to send troops to shore up Haftar's rival.
Haftar, whose self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) is bearing down on the capital Tripoli with the backing of Egypt, the UAE, Russian mercenaries and African troops, attended the Berlin meeting having walked out of Turkey-Russia summit the previous week in Moscow. Prior to this, Sarraj had declined to travel to Rome when he learned that his adversary Haftar would be present at a meeting convened by Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte.
The Leaders of Germany, France, Russia, Turkey, Egypt and several other countries attended the Berlin meet that was committed to ending all foreign meddling in the civil war and to uphold the nearly decade-old UN arms embargo on Libya while reaffirming the need for a political, rather than a military, solution to the conflict. Sarraj and Haftar were also there but they refused to meet and the conference failed to get the two leaders to commit to a permanent truce.
The call to respect the arms embargo is sensible but it lacks a plan for sanctioning those countries that continue to violate it. At the Moscow meet, Sarraj signed a Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement but Haftar walked out without signing.
The UN Security Council also asked Libya's warring sides to quickly reach a ceasefire that would pave the way for a political process aimed at ending conflict in the oil-rich state. It has also formed a military commission to define ways of consolidating a cessation of hostilities.
The five senior officers appointed by the US-recognised GNA and five appointed by Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) took part in the military commission meeting in Geneva last Saturday but failed to arrive at an understanding on a ceasefire. The UN has proposed a second round of negotiations on February 18.
"As both sides agreed to the need to continue the negotiations in order to reach a comprehensive ceasefire agreement, the UN has proposed February 18, 2020, as the date for a new round of talks", the UN said in a statement in Geneva.
Turkey has announced deployment of its troops to Libya to back GNA. The country has already seen the presence of mercenaries from a number of countries including Chad, Sudan and Syria. This is further complicating the already complex situation on the ground and making it difficult for the UN and other peace-brokers to navigate.
Russia has been accused of sending in mercenaries to help Haftar as Moscow seeks to extend its influence in the region, an allegation it denies.
Turkey is helping Sarraj's GNA as its fall could jeopardise a maritime boundary agreement they signed. It gives Ankara extensive rights over the eastern Mediterranean where the recent discovery of undersea gas reserves has triggered a scramble by littoral states. Turkey has repeatedly urged Europe to stand united behind Sarraj's government, warning that Tripoli's fall could allow Jihadist groups like the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda to regroup.
The conflict raging in Libya needs urgent attention, most importantly by the Arabs as well as the Libyans themselves to avoid any foreign intervention as was the case in Syria. Foreign actors have their own interests. The Europeans have intervened hoping to secure economic gains in Libya and its assistance in keeping migrants from European borders. Involvement of foreign actors will only complicate the situation. Libyans can take the peace process into their own hands in the existing framework, known as the National Conference Process, (NCP) with or without a ceasefire.
The NCP was a consultative process launched in 2018 and led by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue with the support of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). Its final report provided a critical opportunity to build a Libya by Libyans, for Libyans, even during the protracted conflict.
As Libya's political leadership is fragmented now, domestic civil society, security and military figures, community leaders and other like-minded people should take the initiative in this direction.
The current infighting seems to be over resource distribution and power, a main reason why several foreign governments in Europe and the Middle East are scrambling to retain influence and control in Libya.
Distribution of power and resources is one of the five policy areas identified in the NCP report alongside national and government priorities, security and defence, constitutional and electoral processes and national reconciliation.
An Arab-led initiative is also required to bring the parties back to the negotiating table to spare the country and its people from unnecessary bloodshed and the involvement of foreign actors in settling the situation. If Arabs had taken the lead in Syria, instead of foreign powers, perhaps the situation would have been different. They should take a lesson from the Syrian conflict.
M Shakeel Ahmed is a former Editor of PTI and served as West Asia correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. Views expressed are strictly personal