On March 3, in this newspaper, we covered the unexpected resignation of Ghassan Salamé, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Libya. Salamé’s decision came three weeks after the Security Council had (almost) jointly called for a ceasefire and a few days after the new failure of the last Geneva negotiations. In some respects, it feels like a lifetime ago: the Coronavirus pandemic, which spread from one end of the globe to the other, has diverted attention from a war that continues to rage a few miles away from the Italian coasts, and that no virus—and to date, no negotiation— seems able to stop.
As of May 25, official figures reported 75 Coronavirus cases and three deaths in the North African country while, according to the Libyan Center for Disease Control, just over 4,000 tests were carried out (Libya has about 6,6 million inhabitants). While these relatively low numbers reflect Tripoli’s limited testing and contact tracing capacity, the war still appears to be the most deadly and dangerous threat. However, as hospitals are already collapsing due to the injured civilians and the country lacks quarantine and isolation plans, the spread of the pandemic is a scenario that should not be underestimated. According to the World Health Organization, the country has not reached the pandemic peak yet, and “the risk of an intensification of the outbreak remains very high.”
Last Tuesday, Stephanie Turco Williams, Acting Special Representative and Head of the UNSMIL mission after Salamé’s resignation, briefed the UN Security Council on the situation in the country. Among other things, she expressed her concerns about the condition of migrants and asylum seekers, including at least 1,400 who have been expelled from the eastern part of the country over the last year, in blatant violation of international law. The oil blockade, which has cost Libya $ 4 billion, and the never-ending fighting, have done the rest.
A year has passed since General Khalifa Haftar, the Cyrenaica strongman at the head of the Eastern Libyan National Army (LNA), launched an offensive to seize Tripoli from the UN-backed GNA chaired by Fayez al Sarraj. “I am no Cassandra, but the violence on the outskirts of Tripoli is just the start of a long and bloody war on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, imperiling the security of Libya’s immediate neighbors and the wider Mediterranean region,” Mr. Salamé predicted a year ago. Since the start of the offensive, more than 200,000 people have been displaced, while the latest report by the Secretary-General exposed once again the flow of weapons, military equipment, and foreign mercenaries into the country, a clear sign that the embargo is still virtually impossible to enforce.
At the end of March, the European Union announced its new naval mission in the central Mediterranean, called “Irini”, from the ancient Greek goddess of peace. The mission is supposed to oversee the UN arms embargo on Libya. The initiative, launched in replacement of the previous EU “Sophia” mission, started on May 4 amid controversy and difficulties. Only four days later, Malta decided to withdraw its support, in protest against Europe’s failure to cooperate on migration.
The mission has been harshly criticized by the Tripoli government itself. Fathi Bishaga, the Libyan Interior Minister, summarized the issue in these terms: “In its current form Irini has flaws because it lacks the mechanisms to stop the shipments of weapons and mercenaries that flow into Haftar militias by land and air, mainly from the United Arab Emirates,” he tweeted. According to Prime Minister al Sarraj, who addressed a formal letter to the UN Security Council, the mission “does not deal with controlling airspace and land borders,” thus allowing in practice the shipments of weapons and ammunition to his rival. “We confirm that the mission has not been dealt with by the National Accord Government as required by the Security Council resolutions,” he pointed out. The Libyan Prime Minister also criticized “Irini” because “it neglects the monitoring of Libya’s eastern air and land borders where, as reported in several articles, the flow of weapons and equipment in support of Haftar is confirmed.”
These are not the only reasons for criticism. The independent newspaper EUObserver pointed out that this initiative has been virtually the only concrete result of last January’s Berlin Conference on Libya, which succeeded in bringing together the main parties to the conflict for the first time in a long while and was unanimously considered a small but positive step. Instead of building on that step, the months of negotiations between the European countries before Irini’s launch were marked by controversy and divisions: the mission—the newspaper suggests—should have been more properly called “Eris,” the Greek goddess of discord.
Indeed, some Member States wanted to prevent the new operation from rescuing refugees in the future, causing a “pull effect” for the desperate crossing the Mediterranean sea. That’s why a particular control mechanism has been established: “Irini” must be reconfirmed unanimously every four months by the Political and Security Committee (PSC) of the Council of the EU, and without confirmation, the operation would be terminated. In addition to this, an individual Member State can arrange for the operation to leave a particular sea area immediately and for eight days. On May 8, as well as withdrawing from the operation, Malta also threatened to use its veto options to terminate the mission if the EU keeps failing to address the issue of sea rescue and disembarkment of rescued migrants. This circumstance clearly shows to what extent migration remains one of the main controversial and insoluble issues within the EU.
Meanwhile, the Libyan war has escalated again. On April 27, Haftar broke the Libyan Political Agreement negotiated in 2015 under the auspices of the United Nations, proclaiming himself head of Libya. Three days later, he declared a unilateral truce, rejected by Tripoli. On May 4, the Libyan government sent a letter to the UN Security Council, stating that past violations “make it impossible for us to trust the truce that Haftar announces.” In other words, al Sarraj was concerned that the Cyrenaica strongman could use the ceasefire to gather his men after his recent military losses. On May 18, the GNA reported that it had regained control over the Al-Watiya airbase, located southwest of the capital Tripoli and previously used by Haftar’s militias to launch their military operations.
According to the New York Times, Turkey, whose firepower prevailed over Russian air defense batteries, played a crucial role in the stunning reversal of fortune for the UN-backed Tripoli government. In this regard, UN experts are also investigating the suspected deployment of at least eight Russian-made fighter jets to Libya in support of Haftar. This circumstance would reflect Moscow’s increasing involvement in the conflict, which diplomats fear may lead to a confrontation with Ankara. It is no coincidence that, in light of the airbase’s recapture, the headline of an article published by the European Council on Foreign Relations reads, “It’s Turkey’s Libya now.”
The issue of foreign influences in Libya is perhaps one of the most controversial. At the beginning of May, a confidential report from the group of experts that assisted the UN Sanctions Committee was leaked to the press. According to the media, the document states that since 2018, the Russian private military company Wagner has deployed around 1,200 mercenaries to Libya in support of Haftar. The report also mentions ongoing investigations into the recruitment of Syrian fighters reportedly carried out by Turkey and Russia in support of al Sarraj and Haftar, respectively.
“Keep your hands off Libya,” former Special Envoy Ghassan Salamé, who throughout his mandate had highlighted the extent of foreign interests in the country, urged a few months ago. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres has repeatedly shared the same concerns. So did more recently the interim Special Representative, Stephanie Williams, who on April 24 told reporters, “What we have now is a perfect storm, an ongoing, in fact, escalating conflict that is directly being fueled by external parties – it is really now much more of a burgeoning proxy war.” Still, to date, the UN itself has failed to achieve any concrete result, other than showing those divisions and conflicting interests dramatically reflected in its own Security Council.