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Libyans fear regional war as rival powers vie for control, says envoy

UN representative has two months to secure ceasefire but warns that risks are rising

Williams at press conference in front of map of Libya

Stephanie Williams’ term as acting UN envoy to Libya ends in October. Photograph: Thomas Kienzle/AFP via Getty Images

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor, The Guardian (UK), Published on Sat 1 Aug 2020

The Libyan people are increasingly scared that their future is being taken out of their hands by external actors, and that the risk of a regional war is rising, Stephanie Williams, the acting UN special envoy for Libya, said on Saturday.

Williams said on a visit to London: “The Libyan people are exhausted and scared in equal measure. They are tired of war, and want peace, but they fear this is not in their hands now. They want a solution and a ceasefire. The alternative to a ceasefire and an inclusive political solution is essentially the destruction of their country.

“With so many external actors with their own agendas, the risk of miscalculation and a regional confrontation is high.

“This is as much a battle between external rivals, as a civil war now, in which the Libyans are losing their sovereignty.”

Williams, a former US State Department diplomat, is working hard to secure a ceasefire and demilitarised zone, as well as the departure of all foreign mercenaries on a timetable agreed before she quits her post in October.

Her successor has not been named, and the US is holding out for the post to be split between two envoys, one working inside and another outside Libya, a division opposed in European capitals and inside the UN itself.

Williams’ own boss, Ghassan Salame, quit his post in March saying that he had been stabbed in the back by UN Security Council members who pretended to support him.

Williams’ departure without a named successor would only underline the diplomatic chaos, as countries rival each other to influence the outcome of a civil war that is now as much about their military and economic stake in Libya, as the political balance between Libyans themselves.

The UN is urging the key actors in the country itself not to rely on external forces to settle their differences, but knows both sides are using a ceasefire to strengthen their military positions, including by importing weapons in breach of a UN embargo.

Williams is working specifically to create a demilitarised zone in Libya’s central region, with a separation of forces around the coastal city of Sirte, seen as the front line in the battle between the UN-recognised and Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and on the other side the forces aligned to General Khalifa Haftar in the east of the country.

Haftar, after getting the green light in a phone call from the former national security adviser John Bolton, launched an assault on Tripoli on 4 April last year, so killing a peace initiative prepared for a year by Salame.

Since the start of the year, the arrival of Turkish-funded mercenaries has decisively pushed Haftar back. The UN senses that Turkey now wants the reward of a naval base in Misrata and an air base in Al-Watiya, indicating that Turkey intends to stay and cement its power.

Egypt has warned that any attempt by the Turkish backed GNA to capture the coastal town of Sirte would be a red line for Cairo leading to an Egyptian military response. Sirte, seen as the gateway to oilfields that Haftar controls, is more than 1,000 kilometres from the Egyptian border, so the threat is treated with both scepticism as well as concern.

Haftar is supported by as many as 2,000 mercenaries from the Russian Wagner group with 2,000 Syrians. As many as 8,000 Syrian mercenaries are backing the GNA. However, Haftar also has the active military support of the United Arab Emirates, which stands accused of committing some of the worst air atrocities of the civil war. The UN insists it has called the UAE out for these actions. But the pressure to rein in the UAE has to come from France, its chief European ally, some officials say.

Williams managed this week to secure an external audit of the Central Bank of Libya by Deloitte, as well as an audit of the rival central bank – audits that have been under discussion for two years. Eastern forces have often complained that oil revenues sent to the Central Bank by the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) are not dispersed fairly across the country, or that they are used to prop up militias and fuel corruption.

Libyan oil revenue is largely used by the central bank to pay the salaries of 2.9 million public sector workers, or to subsidise fuel.

In a bid to park the issue of the distribution of oil revenues, Mustafa Sanalla, the NOC chairman, proposed that the NOC temporarily keep the revenues until the distribution issue is settled. The plan agreed by the parties in talks in early July was scuppered partly due to UAE objections.

The oil fields remain shut, depriving the NOC of $6.5bn (£5bn) in revenue. The NOC said this week that the presence of foreign mercenaries – believed to be Russian – is increasing especially in Ras Lanuf petrochemical complex. The NOC complains the mercenaries “work for governments who have an active interest in blockading Libyan production and damaging Libyan infrastructure” because this translates into millions of dollars of additional revenue for their own oil industries. Neither Russia nor the Gulf States have any interest in seeing an increase in Libyan oil on saturated international markets.

Faced by Turkey and Russia’s exploitation of the UN’s divisions, the UN mission has been watching the slow rise in US interest in the Libyan crisis. US support for Haftar has faltered since Bolton’s departure, with the Pentagon and State Department using the threat of a Russian base in Libya on Nato’s southern flank as leverage to gain interest in the White House. On Monday the US charge d’affaires met leaders in the east to urge a ceasefire, but there is scepticism that Trump will see Libya as worth a row with either Russia or Egypt.

But in a sign of the struggle the UN faces to remain the chief diplomatic conduit, Turkish and Russian negotiators are also due to meet in Moscow to discuss Libya’s future. Turkey does not look in the mood to pull back saying it will hold the UAE to account for what it calls its “malicious” acts.

“There is a civil war and then there is a proxy war going on in Libya. It will be very difficult to end the first if the second is still going on. Nothing like enough has been done to stop the mercenaries and weapons coming into the country. We not only have mercenaries on the ground, and not just drones, but warplanes as well,” said Williams.

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