With an area of almost 1.8 million square kilometers (700,000 sq. mi), Libya is the fourth largest country in Africa and the 16th largest country in the world, and it also owns the 10th-largest proven oil reserves. Despite being an unstable and divided nation, it plans to hold elections by June 2019. The UN’s Libya envoy, Ghassan Salame, believes Libyans should first hold a national conference in early 2019 to decide on the format of the poll. The international community is expected to help.
Italy, the former colonial power in Libya, hosted a multinational conference Nov. 12-13 in an effort to resurrect the United Nations (UN) efforts to achieve a peaceful settlement of the conflict there. The event was attended by the US as well as West European, UN, and League of Arab nations and African Union officials, in addition to the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents plus delegations from Qatar, Morocco, Algeria, Sudan, Niger, and Chad. UN Secretary General, António Guterres, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev were among the attendees. Despite all their divisive differences, Libya’s rival parties agreed to hold a UN-brokered election.
Since 2011, Libya has been split between two rival governments: the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) that is recognized by the UN as the official government and the House of Representatives that is based in the eastern city of Tobruk and supported by the forces loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army headquartered in eastern Libya. He is often called Libya’s strongman. Each of them is backed by an array of rival militia groups. Terrorists of all kinds, including ISIS factions, add to the instability.
To be honest, the outcome of the Palermo Conference was less than encouraging. It is true that the handshake with which GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Marshall Khalifa Hafter greeted each other looked like a step in the right direction, but the conspicuous exit from the hall by the delegation led by PM Serraj just as Marshall Haftar started to speak was hardly reassuring. That military leader was not even an official participant — his entourage had emphasized the fact that he wasn't taking part in the conference itself but was rather there for side meetings with the leaders of neighboring countries. The Turkish delegation headed by Vice President Fuat Oktay withdrew from the conference in “deep disappointment” when Turkey was excluded from a meeting of key players taking part in the event. But neither Libya’s rival fractions nor the other actors involved, such as France, Italy, or Russia, objected to the UN plan to organize the elections, and that’s a positive sign.
The problem is that neither of the rival factions exercises enough control over the country to ensure the law and order that would be needed for a national vote. The NATO intervention in 2011 did so much damage that the mission to get the country back on track now seems a tall order. The problems facing the country, such as rivalry between the two administrations in Tripoli and Tobruk, internal fighting between various armed factions, tribes, and city-states, the ruined economy, and the uncontrolled influx of weapons seem almost insurmountable. But letting the crisis continue to drag out is not an option, especially as the EU is facing waves of asylum-seekers arriving on European shores from Libya. The instability in Libya threatens the entire Maghreb. The best way to fight ISIS and other terror groups is to stabilize Libya. The country is a tumultuous place in need of rebuilding. It has been devastated, but there is enormous potential in the mining of oil and gas.
With Italy supporting PM Sarraj and France taking the side of Marshal Haftar, this makes Moscow the perfect mediator, as it is in dialog with both. Both sides have already approached Russia to ask for help, seeing that country as the most reliable partner. Moscow also enjoys good relations with other pertinent actors, such as Egypt and the UAE — active backers of Haftar. It took no part in the 2011 intervention and has managed to achieve something that would seem impossible — positive results in Syria. Unlike the US, Moscow seeks to prevent conflict between Iran and the Gulf countries, as well as between Israel and Iran. In Libya, Russia is ready to cooperate with the West, as both are interested in preventing that big, oil-rich country from becoming a safe haven for terrorists. Russia was a good friend of Libya, closely cooperating with Tripoli when Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was in power. The majority of Libya’s commissioned military officers speak Russian, which they learned during their military training in that country. They primarily use Russian-made weapons. The Russian-Libyan relationship goes way back, giving Moscow a special place and unique role in the peace process.