Ghassan Salamé is the head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya. He took over this job in 2017, six years after the catastrophic NATO war on Libya. What Salamé inherited was a country torn into shreds, two governments in place—one in Tripoli and one in Tobruk—and one civil war that had too many factions to name. For Salamé, who is from Lebanon, this kind of multidimensional conflict is not unfamiliar; nor is it peculiar to have several foreign countries intervene for their own narrow ends and thereby make peace impossible.
Last year, it became clear that the already chaotic Libya would slip into disaster. The UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) lost control of the eastern half of the country, which had been seized by the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar. Backed by Turkey and Qatar, the GNA held on by a hair, while the LNA—backed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt—swept through the south of the country and threatened the capital of Tripoli. Salamé came to the United Nations on May 21, 2019, to beg for the UN to sanction countries that continued to deliver arms into Libya. “Without a robust enforcement mechanism, the arms embargo into Libya will become a cynical joke,” he said. “Some nations are fueling this bloody conflict.”
No one paid heed.
This year, on January 30, Salamé spoke to the UN to repeat his very strong remarks. “There are unscrupulous actors inside and outside Libya who cynically nod and wink towards efforts to promote peace and piously affirm their support for the UN,” he said. “Meanwhile, they continue to double down on a military solution, raising the frightening specter of a full-scale conflict and further misery for the Libyan people, more refugees, the creation of a security vacuum, and further interruptions to global energy supplies.”
All this has already happened. Salamé did not name who was arming whom, but everything is obvious. At the January 19 Berlin summit, the main countries who have a stake in Libya pledged to stop arms deliveries. But then, everything seemed to escalate. Turkish ships arrived in Libya with arms and men for the GNA. The Gabya or G-Class frigates—named Göksü and Gökova—of the Turkish navy came in broad daylight; Turkish tanks rolled into the streets of Tripoli. The number two man in Turkish intelligence—Sadık Üstün—has taken over Turkish operations in Libya.
Meanwhile, French intelligence—who appears to be backing the GNA—leaked information that the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed sent his own private Antonov An-124 to rearm Khalifa Haftar’s LNA. Emirati and Saudi support has increased, say Libyan government sources. French intelligence also says that Haftar has put in an order for Jordanian drones.
No wonder Salamé is frustrated.
During the Berlin summit, one concern was that no ceasefire could hold unless the two sides—the LNA and the GNA—would form a military commission. On February 3, in Geneva, the delayed 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission had its first meeting. Five senior officers from the GNA army and five senior officers of the LNA met with Salamé. Just a few days ago, Salamé went personally to al-Rajma to meet with Khalifa Haftar at his headquarters; a consequence of this meeting was that Haftar sent his five officers to Geneva.
This Geneva meeting is significant even amid the desolation because it is the first time such a senior-level meeting is being held since a meeting in Cairo in October 2018. That earlier meeting was a hallucination: the LNA’s team left the meeting to announce that from now on only the LNA would be Libya’s army, the militias—the backbone of the GNA support—would be disbanded, and the rump GNA forces would merge with the LNA. The talks broke down, began again, and then broke off. Egypt, which has supported Haftar since 2014, is being egged on by the Saudis and the Emiratis to subordinate the Muslim Brotherhood politicians in Tripoli. Nothing was going to come out of the Cairo process.
Nothing will come out of Geneva. Haftar says that the Libyan Political Agreement, which was signed in December 2015, expired in December 2017. He does not, therefore, accept the GNA’s Fayez Serraj as the head of the military. This means that they will remain at loggerheads. Neither will bend to the authority of the other.
It’s hard to say if the West is actually behind the GNA government in Tripoli. France has said that it supports the UN process, but then in April last year the French government prevented the European Union from condemning Haftar’s dash toward Tripoli. France’s oil holdings in eastern Libya have made it play both sides in the conflict (a Libyan military officer in the GNA tells me that France is assisting both the LNA and the GNA).
On the surface, the U.S. government has backed the UN process and agrees that the GNA government in Tripoli is the official Libyan government. The U.S. was ready to join a UN resolution condemning Haftar’s war in April, when U.S. President Donald Trump spoke to Egypt’s president and the UAE crown prince—both of whom convinced him that Haftar is a bulwark against terrorism. Trump then called Haftar and congratulated him for his “significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources.” They discussed—as the White House put it—their “shared vision for Libya’s transition.”
It is impossible for the UN to move an agenda if two important Western states who drove the NATO war against Libya in 2011 end up backing both sides; in fact, it is wrong to say that they back both sides, because by blocking condemnation of Haftar’s war, they back Haftar.
Before NATO began to bomb Libya in 2011, an African Union (AU) delegation sat on an aircraft in Addis Ababa, prepared to go to Tripoli and start negotiations to end the conflict there. But the French informed the AU that any peace mission was out of the question. French aircraft were on their way to bomb Tripoli. The AU and Libya lost their opportunity for another road. The NATO bombardment put paid to that, destroyed the country’s remaining institutions, and left it to slink into civil war.
Ten days after the Berlin meeting, the AU met in Brazzaville for a high-level meeting on Libya. The AU had not been initially invited to Berlin, but at the last minute, President Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville was invited, but he had no real role there.
Pressure on the AU has not come from within Libya but from some of its neighbors. These neighbors—Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—have suffered from the spillover of this war, with al-Qaeda and ISIS growing in strength from southern Libya into these countries. Estimates suggest that more than 4,000 people were killed by these groups in the past year. The Sahel has become a membrane for arms, drugs, terrorists, and migrants—a zone of instability and danger.
The AU could not move an agenda. But at the AU meeting, the Algerians said that they would host a platform to continue to pressure for peace in Libya. Algeria and Tunisia are trying to develop their own outreach to the Libyan sides. Leaders from Turkey, Italy, and the various Libyan groups have come to Algiers to meet the new president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune. Tebboune likes the attention; protests in Algeria can be quelled by the warning that it should not be allowed to slip into the Libyan state. The more he talks about Libya, the more he justifies his own rule.
Tebboune’s view is to ignore Serraj and Haftar, to ignore the UN and the AU, and to turn to older institutions. He wants to convene a conference of Libyan tribal chiefs in Algiers. It is a sign of hopelessness that such a bizarre idea can be floated and taken seriously.