UNSMIL & Libya: On Deadlock due to Foreign Interventions

Updated: May 26

Vasu Sharma,

Research Analyst,

Internationalism Research.

How does the UNSMIL Work?

UNSMIL was established on September 16, 2011, by the UNSC resolution 2009 (2011). Currently, the mandate of UNSMIL is extended till September 15, 2020, through UNSC resolution 2489 (2019). Under the leadership of Special Representative Secretary-General (SRSG) and his Deputy SRSG, is guided and supported by the United Nations Department of Political Affairs (UNDPA). Consolidation of governance, providing humanitarian assistance, monitoring and reporting Human Rights, supporting uncontrolled arms and counter-proliferation security can be termed as major objectives of this special mission. The UNSMIL is credited for the Libya Political Agreement in 2015 and its implementation. Major feature post-2015, of UNSMIL, was the co-ordination of International Assistance to assist the Government of National Accord (whose establishment was bolstered purely by UNSMIL) to stabilize post-conflict zones. However, this latter aim of UNSMIL, whether successful or not, is debatable.

Foreign Intervention in the 2011 Libyan Civil War

The 2011 Civil War in Libya, what was supposed to be a conflict between pro-Gaddafi forces and Rebellion forces, came to an end particularly due to Foreign Interventions. These interventions were military and diplomatic in nature. They were diplomatic because of the pressure created by the International Community through the United Nations declaring a no-fly zone over Libya, leading the African Union not getting a say in conflict resolution, France recognizing the Rebels led National Transitional Congress (popularly known as TNC) as the legitimate government of Libya, etc. To impose no-fly zones over Libya, Air defence systems and the Air Force of Libya had to be deteriorated. To do so, a coalition of the United Kingdom, France, and the USA (led by the USA) was formed to implement the mandate of the UNSC. Weeks after airstrikes were conducted by Coalition forces, many countries argued whether airstrikes were conducted beyond the limitations set by the UN, hence so forth foreign military operations in Libya to topple the Gaddafi regime was undertaken by NATO. All of this proved successful for the Rebellions when in October 2011, Gaddafi was killed and subsequently in 2012 fresh elections were held. However, since 2012, even the post-Gaddafi regime, post conflicts, stability, and harmony are two things citizens of Libya are quite unaware of. Major credit for this goes to the foreign entities washing their hands in what can be termed as 'Second Libyan Civil War' (April 2019 – till date) between forces of General Haftar led Libya National Army and UN established General National Accords. However, foreign interventions during 2011 were quite different from how foreign interventions exert their role since 2019 in Libya.

Government of National Accords versus Libya National Army

Libya was the third-largest producer of oil in Africa. The two most important institutions in Libya are National Oil Corporation (which overlooked operations of oil) and Central Bank of Libya (which monitored revenue of the country, largely due to ventures of oil). Soon Oil and both these institutions were set to become a token of power and subject to splintering due to conflict between General National Accords (GNA) and Libya National Army (LNA).

In December 2015, the UN initiated the 'Libya Political Agreement' a power-sharing agreement of Libya, established General National Accords (GNA) in Libya, a successor to NSG, and a government that obtained recognition from the United Nations Security Council. LNA refused to endorse and recognize GNA as a government for Libya. What precluded these politics of recognition was the division of NOC into Western Branch and Eastern Branch, which were dominated by GNA and LNA respectively. Furthermore, even the CBL was divided on these bases. A rift between Tripoli and Tobruk was inevitable then. Tripoli became a power centre for Western Libya, dominated by GNA and Tobruk became a power centre for Eastern Libya, dominated by LNA.

Oil and institutions, the token of power in Libya

Until July 2018, most of the oil ports were dominated by LNA. Since most of the International Community was keen to trade and recognize the Tripoli NOC, the operation of a few ports was given to GNA then. In January 2019, LNA recaptured and freed Libya's largest port El Sharara from certain militias. However, once taken over by LNA, the operations of the port were handed over to Tripoli.

The landmark event which is pushing Libya into a second civil war was the 'April Offensive' by LNA in 2019. In a pursuit to liberate northwest Libya from militias, LNA sought to divert its forces towards Tripoli. Since then rift has been increasing between both the forces.

LNA has successfully blocked exports and supplies of oil from Libya, thus rendering Libya’s economy at standstill. With reactions from the International Community, the spark between the two forces is transforming into a bush fire, which can destroy the stability of Libya and harmony for Libyans shortly. Russia and Turkey are two major foreign entities that are sparking the civil war between GNA and LNA in Libya respectively, while UNSMIL witnesses all of this.

Traits of Current Foreign Interventions

Bi-polar Intervention

Foreign Intervention during 2011 and 2019 in Libya stands completely contradictory to each other. The 2011 interventions were unilateral in nature i.e. all the intervenors were against the Gaddafi regime and his forces. Coalition forces and NATO aimed to impose the no-fly zone by the UN. The result of the strikes was the weakened airpower of Gaddafi forces, which became more vulnerable against the rebellions. In 2019, the International Community seems to be bi-polar in the conflict. Pursuing personal interests, Russia, UAE, Egypt, Syria, and France back General Haftar and his forces in Eastern Libya while Turkey, Qatar, and Italy, back the UN established GNA and its forces in Western Libya.

Pardoning UAE

Amidst all the external players in Libya, UAE can be observed to be pardoned by WestWorld. The assertion of the UAE in Libya is much more aggressive and active when compared to other actors backing LNA. UAE has since April 2019, conducted approximately 900 airstrikes through Chinese drones. Furthermore, what activated Abu Dhabi to interfere was to contain 'Political Islam' and 'Muslim Brotherhood' which Turkey and Qatar advocate. Moreover, the UAE is subjected to provide LNA with military hardware, equipment, arms, ammunition, etc.

The Maritime Agreement

Turkey has not only backed GNA by providing them with logistical support and mercenaries, imparting training to personnel, military hardware, etc but it had also signed maritime agreement of boundaries with Libya in December 2019. This accord had angered several countries in the region like Egypt, Algeria, Greece, and Israel. By asserting its power in the Mediterranean, Ankara has proved that in the region the 'gas game' cannot be played without its consent. An agreement between Greece, Israel, and Egypt earlier had outmanoeuvred Turkey and commenced their exploration efforts. The centre of this energy diplomacy is the EastMed gas pipeline project which transports gas from reserves in Eastern Mediterranean to Southern Europe, passing through EEZs (Exclusive Economic Zones) of Turkey, but not consulting it. The agreement between Libya and Turkey can be termed as a passive reaction to those countries, thus depicting the strength of Ankara in the region.

Disengagement of Washington

Washington had played a primary role in exerting in 2011 in Libya. However, during the current conflict, the USA has not been an active aggressor. During the Berlin Conference in January 2020, when all the external players were called upon to seek a solution in Libya, the US President was not part of the delegation, but US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was. Rather, Washington cannot be observed to take stand on actions by its NATO allies France and Turkey as well as on actions of its Persian Gulf ally UAE.

The Anarchic nature of the International Order

International Order is said to be in anarchy always. Even though the United Nations acts as an institution of global governance, anarchy is felt in the UN as well. For instance, the UN established the General National Accords in Libya in December 2015. With the ongoing conflict in Libya, two of the permanent members and P5 countries of United Nations Security Council, i.e. Russia and France back Libya National Army, a military regime that opposes and does not recognize GNA as the legitimate government of Libya. Similarly, Italy and France, allies in NATO, G-7, and European Union, diverge on their agendas when it comes to Libya. Hence, the following statement 'there are no permanent enemies or friends, just permanent interests' is not only apt as a feature of the current conflict in Libya but also an important narrative of International Order and geo-politics. Countries from the UN, backing a regime that opposes a government recognized by UNSC, does establish the fact that the UN is yet to become an institution of Global Governance and still disarrays are evident in it.


For conflict-stricken countries, COVID 19 and the subsequent pandemic will not only affect the socio-economics of the country but also have worsened the already downtrodden humanitarian situation and lives of civilians. For some countries, normalcy implies living with the outbreak of the virus, but for conflict-stricken countries, dreams of normalcy and stability have gone beyond their reach. In Libya, the conflict seems to intensify instead of the outbreak of the virus. Hospitals have become a new target for airstrikes, humanitarian assistance has been blocked due to shelling and bombardments on airports, water resources and supplies have been halted in some area, and oil export has been halted.

With an existing weakened health care system, Libya will have to overcome the peak of coronavirus (a situation which is yet to come, since the number of cases is low assuming low testing facilities in Libya) and civilians will have to simultaneously witness the conflict between forces of GNA and LNA.

A unilateral ceasefire was declared by forces of General Haftar considering the holy month of Ramadan. But the forces of GNA did not consider the ceasefire and continued their offensive to drive out LNA forces from Tripoli. The violence between the two forces has increased despite a global pandemic.

From April 1 to May 18, 248 civilian casualties were recorded by UNSMIL and an increase of violence by 89 per cent in the first three months of 2020. Such a situation arising can be considered as a failure of UNSMIL and Berlin Conference. Even though violence is still evident and taking place in Libya, UNSMIL seems to conduct press releases, condemn the attack, and have a dialogue with foreign intervenors in the region to respect the UN arms embargo, which if done in reality would decrease the intensity of the conflict.

Even though the contestation of geopolitics has shifted from Atlantic to Indo-Pacific, Western Europe still is an economic powerhouse and enjoys geopolitical strength in the region. While Western Europe enjoyed its superiority (before the outbreak of COVID 19) down south of the Mediterranean, the situation had worsened. Being the immediate maritime neighbours to Libya, some western European countries can play an important role in stabilizing the situation in Libya.

Certainly, the Berlin Conference in January 2020 was an example of the 'European Model' of conflict resolution where the external participants were called on a high table to discuss the situation in Libya. However, an increase in violence in the first quarter of 2020 emphasizes whether Europe should merely conduct talks or take concrete actions to seek a political solution.

Since 1990, Iraq, Libya (2011), and Afghanistan are countries that are said to be worst affected by interventions of the USA. But as of now, multilateral forums where USA occupies a prominent place i.e. NATO, G-7, and UNSC are seen to be losing their relevance to an extent. However, if wanted Washington still has the ability to pursue its allies to dampen their interference in Libya. Furthermore, ignorance and silence of Washington can be considered as the reason behind such a situation in Libya since 2019.

The foreign interventions in Libya are damaging the material life of Libya and the devastating quality of life for civilians there. Since 15 months of conflict, 400,000 Libyans have been internally displaced. Internal displacement, current blockade of oil exportation, and COVID 19 might act as a nail to the coffin for the economic security of Libya in future. African Union since 2011 has stressed on political solution rather than a military solution, which is extant. Libyans either have realized or sooner will realize that foreign aggressors are doing no good to Libya, other than executing their proxy rivalries and interests. Although situations in Libya and Syria are different due to multi-folded reasons, Libya could soon be observed as Syria of Africa.

Intra-Libyan negotiations are central and necessary for any solution in Libya. For peace and stability to prevail, the conflict between forces of LNA and GNA has to be resolved politically through internal negotiations. Prior to that more Berlin Conferences would be required in order to bring heads of GNA and LNA to a high table.

Read more

  1. Acting SRSG Stephanie Williams briefing to the Security Council, May 19, 2020: https://unsmil.unmissions.org/acting-srsg-stephanie-williams-briefing-security-council-19-may-2020

  2. Jalel Herchoui, The Libyan Civil War Is About to Get Worse, Foreign Policy, March 18, 2020: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/18/libyan-civil-war-about-get-worse/

  3. Natasha Turak, Russian mercenaries, a CIA-linked general and lots of oil: Explaining Libya’s war, January 30, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/01/29/libyas-war-explained-khalifa-haftar-oil-cuts-uae-airstrikes-and-russian-mercenaries.html

  4. Emadeddin Badi, Russia Isn’t the Only One Getting Its Hands Dirty in Libya, Foreign Policy, April 21, 2020: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/21/libyan-civil-war-france-uae-khalifa-haftar/

  5. Malika Traina, Turkey's military helps turn the tide in Libyan civil war, Al Jazeera, April 27, 2020: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/turkey-military-helps-turn-tide-libyan-civil-war-200427095209181.html

  6. Sena Güler, Libya deal shows Turkey determined to protect rights, December 9, 2019: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/politics/libya-deal-shows-turkey-determined-to-protect-rights/1668781

  7. Murat Sofouglu, Gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean are fostering division. Why?, October 13, 2018: https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/gas-reserves-in-the-eastern-mediterranean-are-fostering-division-why-21247

  8. L. Carl Brown, Mukhtar Mustafa Buru and et al, Libya, Encyclopædia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/place/Libya/Attempt-at-unity-Government-of-National-Accord

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