Seven months after the military offensive began to gain control of Tripoli, launched on April 4 2019 by General Khalifa Haftar, the situation in Libya is desperate. The World Health Organization has stopped keeping track of fatalities, which are at more than a thousand (including dozens of civilians) according to the latest update available in mid-July. The Government of National Accord (GNA) of Prime Minister Fayez al Sarraj is cut off, without an airport and with closed land borders, but it does not want to surrender to the Libyan National Army (LNA), which has neither the strength nor the capacity to conquer a vast urban area like that of Tripoli, not to mention Misrata, home to the country’s most aggressive militias and also known as the ‘Libyan Sparta’. The military stalemate has generated a situation of permanent chaos just a few kilometres from the European coast. We now risk the Libyan outpost of the former Islamic State, now bereft of its leader Abu Bakri al Baghdadi, coming back to life in the shadow of a Syrian-style proxy war, on a small scale and with low intensity, fought with a few thousand men on the ground, but a large amount of foreign aid.
Meanwhile, the Libyan economy, instead of flourishing thanks to oil, risks collapse. The region of Cyrenaica uses money printed in Russia, generating huge debt that will weigh on future generations of Libyans for decades. The Tripolitania government has cut fuel subsidies and introduced a significant tax on money changers to limit smuggling, but the black market continues to prosper. The process to approve the Libyan budget, the result of long negotiations between east, west and the international community, this year promises to be even more complicated – it is difficult to sit at the negotiating table while shots are being fired. The UN envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé, has announced a new four-step plan to get out of this hellish situation.
Ceasefire and observers on the ground
The route recommended by the Lebanese UN diplomat goes almost entirely via Berlin, where an international conference should be held on Libya (but without the Libyans) at a date yet to be defined. Those in the know talk of the end of the year, but the most cautious reports indicate the spring of 2020. The format of the meeting will be ‘P5 + 5’, that is the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, United Kingdom, Russia and United States) plus the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Turkey (the three non-western countries most heavily involved in the conflict) as well as Italy and Germany (the latter currently a non-permanent member of the Security Council). The absence of Tunisia and Algeria, two neighbouring North African countries very much interested in the stability of Libya, is notable, as is that of the three countries of the Sahel belt, south of the Sahara, namely Niger, Chad and Sudan. The proposal of Mr Salamé is as simple as it is direct: those who count are at the table, that is, those who have the power of veto within the Security Council, and those present on the ground in the Libyan conflict. The first step indicated by the UN is a resolution of the Security Council to impose a ceasefire. The premise is clear: before we can start any negotiations, the war must stop. Easier said than done, since the Security Council continues to be divided; after all, if it were not, it would have already stopped General Haftar’s offensive some time ago.
The second stage of the road delineated by the United Nations, as reported in Italy by Agenzia Nova, foresees a mission of international observers in Libya to monitor the ceasefire. Here too the Security Council is involved, in having to form another resolution even more tricky than the first. How and when will “neutral” observers be chosen? Who will guarantee their protection? How long will it last and what limits will the mission’s mandate have? Is there really at this point a country willing to risk the lives of its soldiers within a state under full civil war, where the only Western embassy on the ground is that of Italy (which rightly has its own interest in staying)? The third step proposed by Salamé consists of bringing closer together the positions of the parties involved in the conflict, namely the Government of National Accord on one hand and the Libyan National Army on the other, obviously without forgetting the southern Arab, Berber and Tebu tribes. However, to do that you have to get to the heart of the conflict: distribution of oil revenues, control of the Central Bank and, above all, control of the Libyan Investment Authority, the sovereign wealth fund with an estimated value of about $70bn still “frozen” by the United Nations.
Federalism or partition?
For some time, international diplomats have worked under the radar on a new “federal” Libya, where the three historical regions (Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica) can enjoy greater autonomy than the current structure centred on Tripoli. Notably, the Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI), an Italian think tank, has published an interesting article in which it proposes an alternative solution of a “Kurdish type” be applied to Libya. In a nutshell, Cyrenaica would receive about 30 per cent of the proceeds of oil resources, in exchange for peace. This proposal has the advantage of going to straight to the crux of the matter: the unclear distribution of oil revenues – extracted by the National Oil Corporation, but distributed by the Libyan Central Bank of Tripoli – is one of the main causes that have led de facto to the tragic situation of civil war. However, several obstacles are still to be overcome, some of them of a practical nature. How many Libyans are there, and where are they? It is important to know this accurately if the proceeds of oil and gas are to be distributed based on population (or rather, to the autonomous governments theoretically elected by voters or by the tribes at local level). The last population census dates back to 2006: new impartial statistical surveys should be carried out, the results of which to be universally recognised.
This is where the fourth and final “step” outlined by the United Nations envoy comes into play – the creation of trust, a feeling that at present, according to Salamé, is absent in Libya. The Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General stated that the building of trust starts with simple gestures, such as the exchange of the bodies of combatants killed in battle from both sides. The displaced population (over 120,000 in Tripoli alone) should be able to return to their homes, civil infrastructures should be reopened, as well as schools and universities. All these seemingly normal things currently seem almost utopian in some parts of the country. The problem is that Libya is already divided: Cyrenaica is the preserve of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France and Russia; Tripolitania is supported by Qatar, Turkey and Italy; Fezzan, with its oil fields, remains a territory vulnerable to raids by armed groups and traffickers. Until these powers agree on the future of what remains of Gaddafi’s ‘Jamahiriya’, every UN plan is doomed to failure.