Can UN-led Talks Bring Together a Fractured Libya?

A man watches from the balcony of his heavily-damaged building in Zawiya, Libya, during a visit to the town by the head of UNSMIL (UN Photo/Iason Foounten)

A new round of peace talks between Libya’s competing factions is taking place this week in Geneva, hosted by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). This is the second round of talks in the Swiss city this month after an initial meeting on January 14, and the Geneva process follows largely unproductive talks in Libya’s northwestern border town of Ghadames in September 2014.

For now, representatives of one of the two competing parliaments in the country—the Islamist-dominated General National Congress (GNC)—have declined to join any talks outside of Libya. Nonetheless, UNSMIL has stated that a future round of negotiations is expected in Libya at some point, which would include the GNC. There are also indications that pressure from the European Union, a major trading partner of Libya and end destination of Libyan oil, and the GNC’s primary international supporters, Turkey and Qatar, could lead the GNC to send a delegation to talks abroad in the near future.

UNSMIL and Libya’s international partners have clear objectives for the talks. They are seeking a lasting peace for the Libyan people, a government representative of the Libyan polity, and a resumption of oil extraction and exports, which will fund domestic reconstruction and institution building. For Libya’s numerous competing factions, these goals are acceptable and will be agreed to; however, domestic actors will strive to position themselves to maximize influence and power and to safeguard gains made during the 2014 conflict. The path toward any future unification or peace deal is therefore likely to be fraught with difficulty.

The two most prominent and important local actors at present are the Misrata-supported GNC in Tripoli and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. These rival legislatures, in turn, support the two major armed coalitions in the country: Operation Dawn (or Libya Dawn), led by Misrata forces, and Operation Dignity, led by General Khalifa Haftar and supported by the Libyan National Army, respectively. If these two general groupings represented the majority of Libyans or local interests, the task of UNSMIL would be simpler; however, within each coalition and the wider Libyan arena there are several highly independent and well-resourced groups, which could threaten talks and any future deals.

The town of Zintan and its tribal allies in the northwest are nominally aligned to the Dignity force; however, its militia forces and political strategy are driven by local interests—namely, securing control of trade and access routes between Tripoli and Tunisia and territory in the Nafusa Mountains. In the east are Cyrenaica separatists led by Ibrahim Jadhran. Jadhran’s forces are centrally located and have previously laid siege to and stopped operations at Libya’s northcentral coastal oil export terminals to demand greater federal autonomy. Jadhran has openly criticized the Operation Dawn forces but is by no means an ally of Operation Dignity. Further south, highly independent Tebu and Tuareg ethnic armed factions control large swathes of desert territory. Subsuming these forces into a national compromise, while each is currently fighting the other for control of trade and smuggling routes, will be challenging.

Further north, the militia in the city of Misrata, which emerged as a dominant rebel faction in 2011, continues to strengthen and, through the GNC, has sought to secure control of its territory and to promote greater local control over national political structures. Further east meanwhile, groups affiliated with international Islamist extremist organizations, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, have also emerged to challenge secularists and moderate Muslims alike. These forces remain outside of any planned peace talks.

How then does UNSMIL approach the talks given the seemingly insurmountable obstacles facing the country? As a starting point, the UN mission will need to rely on the two prominent warring factions to cease battles against the other and to agree to continue talks should nominal or unaligned armed groupings attempt to undermine the peace process. The January 18 cease-fire agreement should be built on and will form an important base point from which to agree to further de-escalations. Both major fighting forces should also be encouraged to desist from attempting to control any further oil extraction sites, transport lanes, and export terminals, and to immediately seek to find neutral parties to manage the oil sector.

UNSMIL’s strong public denunciation of the Operation Dignity assault on the Central Bank of Libya in Benghazi, which houses 100 billion USD in foreign reserves, on January 22 was one critical initial confidence-building measure. Denouncing clear cease-fire violations or threatening wider ramifications for such acts, such as possible future international sanctions against transgressors, will bolster confidence in UNSMIL as an independent actor, particularly among the GNC, which is widely thought to be distrustful of the UN mission.

If these initial steps can be agreed to, UNSMIL will and should seek to secure the participation of the various independent political, ethnic, and city-based armed groups. It is likely that these parties will only agree to participate in the national negotiations if their interests are given due consideration and safeguarded over the long term. Numerous subregional reconciliation efforts will likely also need to be sought before any political agreements can be made.

Finally, and possibly most critically, the influence of regional powers in Libya remains contentious and potentially destabilizing. Qatar and Turkey are thought to support the GNC, particularly the Freedom and Construction Party—Libya’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the GNC. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have been implicated in attacks against Operation Dawn forces and sponsor the House of Representatives. In order for peace negotiations to succeed, these foreign powers should be encouraged to pressure their Libyan allies to end the conflict; however, this is only likely if a political structure emerges that is acceptable to all major foreign parties.

The post-Qaddafi Libyan environment is fractured, with numerous competing groups battling for control of territory and resources within a relative political and security vacuum. The UN-led talks are a positive start; however, the chances of success are currently slim in light of the security and political challenges. Unless the two main factions can be brought fully on board, other rival groups can be incentivized to participate in the process, and the regional powers play their part to facilitate peace, the Libyan polity is likely to face further fragmentation.

Andre Colling is the Chief Analyst on the Middle East and North Africa at red24.