The members of the United Nations are divided over the mandate for the UN aid mission in Libya, as it is still uncertain whether the expected December elections will take place to get the country on the road to normalcy.
The dispute, expressed by the United States and Russia, led the Council to adopt an extension of the current mandate, which would expire on Wednesday, until 30 September to try to resolve the differences.
This is a dispute over recommendations in a strategic review of the mission, known as UNSMIL, including getting its boss to move from Geneva to Libya’s capital Tripoli.
Diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity because discussions have been private, said Russia was also concerned about proposed languages requiring the withdrawal of mercenaries, foreign fighters and foreign forces required by the October 2020 ceasefire agreement between rival Libyan governments in the country’s east and west.
Russia has been one of the biggest supporters of putsch general Khalifa Haftar along with France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who also supported Haftar’s offensive against the capital Tripoli in 2019.
Moscow has supported Haftar in his fight to seize power from the UN-recognized National Accord Government (GNA), which preceded the newly elected interim government under Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah.
The US African Command (AFRICOM) on July 24, 2020, accused Russia of “playing an unpleasant role in Libya by supplying supplies and equipment to the Wagner Group.”
The Wagner group has 2,000 personnel in Libya, according to the command. The group currently has bases in the cities of Sirte and Jufra.
The deadline for the departure of foreign mercenaries from Libya during the ceasefire in October passed in January but demands that the process be accelerated as no movement has been announced or observed on the ground.
Libya has been plagued by chaos since a NATO-backed uprising overthrew longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 and divided the country between a UN-backed government in the capital Tripoli and rival authorities loyal to warlord Haftar in the east.
Haftar launched a military offensive in 2019 to conquer the capital, a campaign supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and France. But his march on Tripoli finally failed in June 2020, after Turkey increased its support for the Libyan government, which also received support from Qatar and Italy. This paved the way for the ceasefire agreement in October and a transitional government responsible for leading the country to elections on 24 December.
At the same time, forces loyal to Haftar were hit by Chadian rebel forces in southern Libya on Tuesday and Wednesday, both sides said.
The fighting underscores the risk of further instability in the Sahel region, where a number of groups are working across borders and where fighting has created space for militant organizations.
Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), which occupies most of eastern and southern Libya, said it was engaged in military operations against what it called terrorist groups and the Chadian opposition.
The rebel group Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) said via social media that its positions at the border had been attacked by Haftar’s forces and fought alongside what it said were Sudanese mercenaries and French troops.
The LNA, along with support from some countries, also used fighters from Sudan and Syria, as well as those provided by the Russian Wagner group, a UN panel of experts has said.
Uncertainty creates conflicts
Last week, the UN Special Representative for Libya, Jan Kubis, warned that if the vote was not held in December, it could renew divisions and conflict and discourage efforts to unite the country. “Interrupting the election is for many a signal that violence is the only way to power in the country,” he said.
“The country and its people need complete clarity that the election will take place on December 24,” Kubis said. “The existing uncertainty creates a breeding ground for spoilers and skeptics to manipulate the situation towards the political transition, which feeds the existing tensions in relations between various Libyan institutions and authorities.”
Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told the Council after the vote that Moscow supports the UN’s central role in restoring peace in Libya and “we are focused on finding mutually acceptable solutions to the remaining outstanding issues for the future functioning of the mission.”
He said the resolution gave the 15-member council the opportunity to find a “common denominator” for work on the UN mission in Libya and said its main purpose now must be “to help the Libyan people” stick to the election timetable.
Richard Mills, the US Deputy Ambassador, expressed disappointment at the Council’s inability to agree on a new mandate for the mission, which he said “has a very important role to play in helping Libya achieve peace and stability.”
On the other hand, a US diplomat said on Wednesday that Libya has its best chance for peace since the fall of Gaddafi and called on rival sides to work together ahead of the election.
“Libya is now facing the best opportunity it has had in a decade, to bring the conflict to a close, to move the economy forward and to lay the foundations for a stable democratic society,” said Prime Minister Derek Chollet during a visit to Tripoli.
“The United States will continue to support this important process,” he told reporters.
But after meeting with top figures in the country’s transitional government, including Dbeibah, he warned that “the moment is urgent”.
Chollet’s visit came days after Parliamentary Speaker Aguila Saleh, one of Haftar’s key supporters, ratified a law governing the upcoming presidential election, which angered lawmakers and politicians who say he failed to follow the right process.
Saleh has long been accused of trying to favor Haftar, a likely candidate for the presidency that controls the country’s eastern province and part of the south.
“We ask only one thing for the Libyan leaders: that they contribute constructively to what is offered rather than tear it down while offering nothing in return.”
The United States led the 2011 invasion of Libya but has had a fairly practical approach since 2012, when an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi killed four Americans, including US Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Libyan premiere in Cairo
Libya’s interim prime minister arrived in Cairo on Wednesday for talks on future ties between the two African neighbors, an Egyptian official said.
Dbeibah was greeted at Cairo airport by his Egyptian counterpart, Mustafa Madbouly, according to Nader Saad, an Egyptian government spokesman.
Egypt sees the chaos in neighboring Libya as a threat to its stability, with militants using the Libyan desert as a safe haven to launch attacks on Egypt. Tens of thousands of Egyptians have sought work in Libya over the years, although the number has decreased since 2011.
Dbeibah’s visit comes a day after Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi received Saleh and Haftar in Cairo.
El-Sissi said his government would continue its efforts “with all the Libyan brothers … to hold the significant presidential and parliamentary vote by the end of this year.”
He also reiterated demands that foreign forces and mercenaries be withdrawn from the oil-rich country.
It was often reported that Egypt supported Haftar, which led to the conflict remaining in the country. In April, the Libyan army stated that two Egyptian planes landing at Libya’s southern Sabha International Airport had brought weapons and ammunition to Haftar.
Furthermore, Cairo had declared its intention to intervene militarily in neighboring Libya if GNA advances in the strategic Sirte province or Jufra air base, which would have left Egypt-backed Haftar in a weak position last year.