US supports UN mediation in Libya
Washington - Efforts by UN Special Envoy to Libya Bernardino Leon to broker a unity agreement between Libyan factions represent the best hope of political reconciliation in the troubled country. But the Islamist government faction in the capital Tripoli, the General National Congress, has refused to sign up to it and it is not clear how the problem of Libya’s militias will be dealt with.
Washington is supporting the UN effort largely because it sees no viable alternative and is hoping that Italy or another EU country will take the lead in forming a peacekeeping force.
Libya has been plagued by violence, rival governments (an Islamist one in Tripoli and a secular one in eastern city of Tobruk), low oil exports because of the violence and the presence of an Islamic State (ISIS) group, which has committed atrocities against Libyans and foreigners (including Egyptians and Ethiopians) and has been linked to terrorist attacks in neighbouring Tunisia.
If all this were not bad enough, there are an estimated 1,500 militias in Libya, some of which are allied to the rival governments but many others are essentially neighbourhood gangs running extortion rackets. In addition, the country is awash in weapons, most of which were looted during the 2011 revolution that ousted dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
Leon’s strategy has been to obtain a unity agreement first and then deal with Libya’s other problems. His efforts partially paid off in July when most Libyan political factions initialled an agreement. The essence of the deal is that the House of Representatives, currently in Tobruk, would serve as the legislative body, while the executive branch would be a government of national unity that would include members from both rival governments. But the Tripoli government of the General National Congress objected, believing the agreement was tilted too heavily in favour of the Tobruk faction.
Leon is hoping that enough pressure builds up inside Libya that the Tripoli faction will eventually agree, but that scenario has not materialised. Without the Tripoli faction, it is hard to imagine a true unity government can be formed. Nonetheless, the Tobruk faction is moving ahead with political plans that it believes are in sync with the accord. It is planning to vote to extend the life of the House of Representatives, whose mandate is to expire on October 21st.
Meanwhile, the European Union is trying to fashion a response to the Libyan crisis, in large part to stem the number of migrants travelling through Libya to Europe. It wants the UN effort to succeed and, in late July, EU foreign ministers reportedly were exploring asset freezes and travel bans on Libyans, including General Khalifa Haftar, from both major factions who were actively opposing the unity accord.
Although Haftar has put his forces at the disposal of the Tobruk government, he has said he will not respect the accord, probably because he views all Islamists as part of Libya’s problem.
If a unity government is formed, the international community will support it, even to the point of sending in a peacekeeping force. Italy has taken the lead in proposing such a force but many questions remain. As Libya’s former colonial power, Italy has some political baggage associated with its former rule despite extensive economic ties. It is not clear who would make up such a force and whether the Italians would be best suited to lead it. Additionally, ISIS would regard a Western force in Libya as an opportunity to entice extremists to come to the country and fight “non-believers”.
According to sources in Washington, the United States, after initial hesitation, has embraced the UN effort. On August 2nd, US Secretary of State John Kerry, at a news conference in Cairo, underscored this support by stating: “We cannot allow” a few spoiler groups in Libya to “destroy the entire [UN] process” because they have not achieved all of their goals, adding that the United States was going to explore “how we might get greater support to the UN initiative right now”.
If the UN accord were to be accepted by the Tripoli faction, the United States would probably support a peacekeeping force with intelligence as well as drones aimed at ISIS targets in Libya but it is highly doubtful that the US would contribute to such a force with personnel on the ground.
While the United States will likely use its diplomatic clout in the UN Security Council to support the extension of the UN Support Mission in Libya mandate in September, Washington will continue to look to the Europeans to take the lead on Libya.