It is notable that, in Libya’s current violence, there is an absence of serious local peace initiatives. In previous conflicts across the war-ravaged country, local tribal leaders and dignitaries would appeal for peace and launch their own conciliation efforts to bring about, at the very least, a ceasefire.
In January, for example, the Social Council of Warfalla Tribes (SCWT), the largest Libyan tribal grouping, succeeded where UN envoy Ghassan Salame failed; they brokered a ceasefire between Tripoli-based militias and their adversaries from Tarhouna, known as the Seventh Brigade, who were laying siege to the capital. Salame tried unsuccessfully to bring about a ceasefire; in the end, he had to join the SCWT’s efforts which were already underway. The Council succeeded not only in bringing about peace but also had a special committee observing the compliance of agreed ceasefire terms.
Despite being considered as pro-Gaddafi, the Warfalla tribe has, since 2011, never taken part in any conflict in Libya apart from defending their hometown, Bani Walid, in 2012 against an array of militias. This position earned them a reputation as respected peace-makers across the country. In a tribally divided society, the Warfalla became synonymous with reconciliation and coexistence, albeit with varying degrees of success. The SCWT even lost two of its prominent members in September 2017 while on a reconciliation mission in western Libya.
This time, though, there is no serious discussion of any local mediation efforts which are occasionally more successful than outside peacemaking which locals often view with suspicion. Salame tried to get help from the SCWT during his meeting with its senior members in Tunisia, on 20 July, but had little success.
While the Council agreed to play a mediation role it was worried that such efforts might be in vain. It wanted some guarantees from the UN envoy to ensure that its mediation is taken seriously. After the meeting, SCWT member Fathallah Aldake wrote on Facebook, “We welcome the idea of helping to end the current Tripoli war on two conditions: UN guarantees are given to stop all foreign interference in Libya, and mediation to be a fully Libyan affair.”
According to Aldake, the SCWT is worried that its work might be just another attempt to end one round of violence while another starts up somewhere else. He said that the Council wants to “end all wars in the country” which is impossible, he believes, “unless foreign countries stop backing their local proxies in Libya.” The current conflict is being fuelled by the involvement of the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which all back Khalifa Haftar’s forces; Turkey, Jordan and Qatar, meanwhile, back the forces loyal to the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord in Tripoli.
After more than four months of fighting for control of Tripoli, neither side can claim a major breakthrough; both appear increasingly exhausted but not yet ready for dialogue. Since Haftar’s Libyan National Army launched its attack on Tripoli in April, the fighting against a coalition of militias nominally allied to the GNA defending the city has all but stalled. Neither side appears capable of winning, but despite the obvious stalemate their respective foreign allies seem determined to continue to back them.
In recent weeks, the conflict has taken a more destructive and deadly turn with both sides using fighter jets and armed drones to target, in particular, airports. Mitiqa Airport serving Tripoli and much of western Libya, has been hit at least a dozen times since May. There is usually no advance warning of air strikes or shelling. In many instances, bombs have fallen near civilian aircraft with passengers on board. There is a disaster in the making, it being just a matter of time before a civilian airliner is hit and innocent civilians are killed, passengers and airport workers alike.
Since the UN authorised the use of force against the Gaddafi government in 2011, foreign meddling in Libya’s internal affairs has been standard policy for many neighbouring countries and those further afield. Most Libyans now believe that such meddling fuels armed conflict, political disagreement and social discord in their country. This sees foreign states trying to boost their own influence while shaping Libya’s future; their own interests are pushed, with little concern for Libya and its people. The UN envoy knows this but can’t do anything about it. That is why he could not give the SCWT the guarantees it asked for and arguably why he did not even mention its efforts to the UN Security Council on 29 July, a week after that Tunis meeting.
Is there any possibility of reviving local mediation in the absence of external peace efforts? Not really.
I surveyed more than 120 Libyans, from all walks of life, about why local mediators are missing from the scene. The overwhelming majority said that the current conflict is decisive and potential mediators are either supporting one side; see it as the final battle; or both; the conflict must be decided on the battlefield. This also suggests that there is no honest local broker for peace. Thirty per cent of my respondents think that the SCWT is the only fair and impartial peacemaker to take the initiative to end hostilities; 40 per cent, meanwhile, believe that it is too late to broker peace.
Moreover, nearly 90 per cent of respondents think that foreign meddling is the number one factor hindering any serious peace initiatives, local or otherwise. This is seen as the single major obstacle to conflict resolution in Libya. Nevertheless, local involvement in peacemaking after eight years of UN failure is essential. For such efforts to bear fruit local proxies must realise that, even if they win the war, they will never win the peace. “Libyans are destroying their country with their money for the benefit of others,” Ghassan Salame once said. This is something that many of my fellow Libyans still do not understand, sadly.