Fits and Starts Characterize UN Mediation in Yemen, Syria, and Libya

The seven-year political turmoil and carnage in the Arab world after 2011 are perpetuated by three conflicts, in Yemen, Syria, and Libya, with no apparent resolution in sight. United Nations diplomacy regarding these countries may be undergoing a period of fatigue, or perhaps exhaustion, in searching for efficient formulas to end those conflicts. But fatigue or exhaustion should not be the fate of the mission of the international community. At a minimum, the UN can attempt to avoid more civilian fatalities by providing humanitarian assistance for millions of internally displaced persons and refugees fleeing warfare, numbering in the millions in the three countries. At a maximum, the world organization should be able to devise and implement comprehensive plans to assure mechanisms for conflict management and amelioration. Such mechanisms will need the active involvement and assistance of local stakeholders and the support of influential states that can provide the expertise and funding necessary to make any agreements possible and successful.

Yemen: Ould Cheikh Ahmed Stymied

At present, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) considers the situation in Yemen as the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis. The Saudi-led coalition has imposed a crippling blockade on Yemen’s rebel-controlled ports. Urgent humanitarian assistance is needed for 22.2 million individuals, about 75 percent of the population. All warring factions have repeatedly violated their obligations under International Humanitarian Law, and, subsequently, undermined the promise of the UN-brokered peace talks. Additionally, UN agencies in the field report that close to 462,000 children are suffering from severe malnutrition. In late 2017, there was a peak of more than 900,000 suspected cases of cholera in the country. In mid-November, three leading UN agencies—World Food Programme, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), and World Health Organization—renewed their urgent appeal to the Saudi-led Arab coalition to allow the delivery of lifesaving supplies to the devastated areas in Yemen. The country is already on the brink of famine in early 2018, and a child dies in Yemen from preventable causes every ten minutes, according to UNICEF.

After an exhausting mission, UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed decided not to seek another mandate after nearly three years on the job, merely offering the Yemenis feelings of sympathy. Sounding as exhausted as a result of struggling to manage the crisis, UN Secretary-General António Guterres referred to Yemen as “a stupid war” that requires a political solution. Ould Cheikh Ahmed has been at his job since April 2015. He has tried to mediate between Yemen’s warring factions and between some of them and regional powers. While succeeding in getting all parties’ verbal commitments to work toward, and abide by, a peaceful resolution of the Yemeni crisis, he failed to overcome the impediments of competing domestic actors’ agendas and regional players’ strategic interests, mainly those of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran. He even solicited and received valuable assistance from Oman, but to no avail.

The 2018 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan (YHRP), initiated on January 20, requires a $2.96 billion budget to assist 13.1 million people in Yemen. However, there is little hope this humanitarian project will be fully financed at a time when the United States intends to decrease its UN budget contribution by 22 percent. The 2017 UN budget has shrunk by $285 million, to approximately $5.4 billion; the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, considers these and other future cuts a means of curbing the United Nations’ “inefficiency and overspending” that has taken advantage of the “generosity of the American people.”

The UN’s shrinking budget and struggling diplomacy in Yemen and beyond can be a double jeopardy for implementing the objectives of the world body. Secretary-General Guterres has called on all donors to channel their contributions in cash through the new Response Plan. He hopes that all warring parties would end their hostilities and show meaningful engagement with the UN diplomatic process, on the assumption that “the most effective way to address humanitarian suffering in Yemen is to end the conflict.” However, the situation on the ground is less than promising. In the south, what amounts to a coup has taken place against the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, possibly beginning the process of secession from Sanaa. In other parts of the country, Houthis and other factions supported by Saudi Arabia are at a military stalemate. Even Saudi and Emirati intervention has not changed the fortunes on the battlefield. At the same time, UN efforts to contain the deepening humanitarian crisis remain constrained by what qualifies as a tactic of deliberate starvation.

The conflict in Yemen seems to have surpassed that of Syria and Libya in complexity, and may lean toward a Sochi-like destiny. As the mediation train, led by retiring Special Envoy Ould Cheikh Ahmed, has come to a stop, there are salient indicators that the Yemen case could bring more Russian influence to the region. On January 22, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abdulmalik al-Mekhlafi met with his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow, in what seemed to be an invitation to help ease the burden of the conflict off the shoulders of the Yemeni government. Lavrov expressed Moscow’s readiness to engage with all sides to push the situation to “move from a military scenario to a political dialogue.” The question now is how Russia will strategize for a Sochi-like initiative for Yemen and use it as another opportunity to solidify its presence in the Middle East.

Syria: Russian Expropriation

As in Yemen, the multi-factional infighting, foreign manipulation of proxy militias, and political disarray are exacerbating an already difficult situation in Syria. The six-year-long Geneva diplomatic process has faced major setbacks and resulted in increasing disappointment worldwide. It has been gradually overshadowed by the emerging pact between Russia, Iran, and Turkey, with the center of gravity in determining the future of Syria moving eastward, from Geneva to Sochi, via Astana. The Kremlin managed to secure the presence of less radical opposition groups, along with the Syrian government delegation, whereas other UN-recognized negotiating opposition groups known as minassat (platforms) and others boycotted the symbolically crafted “Peace to the Syrian People” conference at the end of January. Paradoxically, UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura was just another guest to witness the ceremonial Russian plan for Syria’s peace. One of the ironies of this Geneva-Sochi shift in international diplomacy is that the United Nations asked for assurances that Russia still consider the United Nations as the party responsible for mediation and for drafting a constitution.

When the first round of the Syrian talks was held in Geneva on June 30, 2012, then-UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, a seasoned diplomat, raised expectations regarding the containment of violence and formulation of a political plan to help enable Syrians to determine their own future independently and democratically. There was clear conviction among members of the Action Group for Syria that ending violence and human rights abuses was tantamount to resolving the conflict.

Brahimi took into consideration that Iran must be allowed to be a variable in resolving the conflict. But after Geneva, a new dynamic of a Russia-Iran-Turkey pact came to dominate the Syrian issue. Today, Sochi seems to be the defining effort, led by Russia, but undergirded by a strategy to assure Assad’s remaining in power. For this effort, Moscow gathered hundreds of delegates representing various ethnic strata of Syrian society—although not the opposition, which refused to participate despite Turkish pressures—and allowed the arrival at a 12-point framework for Syria’s political transition, the future of which remains unsure. However, what can be said is that Russia’s tactics may have marginalized the US, European, and UN visions for Syria. Staffan de Mistura, appointed as UN Envoy to Syria in July 2014, was limited in his optimism to stating that the positive thing from Sochi was that the government and the opposition have both agreed to talk about a constitution for the country.

Nonetheless, the absence of important actors like the United States and the European Union is bound to have deleterious effects. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian dismissed the Sochi initiative and argued for giving the lead in the Syria conflict to the United Nations to continue the 2012 Geneva process. Moreover, what is likely to affect the outcome of Sochi and the UN’s role is the Turkish “Operation Olive Branch” in northern Syria. If nothing else, it adds a new wrinkle in the trajectory of the Syrian war and introduces yet another regional dimension to it. It also adds another humanitarian angle; the United Nations estimates that 13.1 million people need protection and humanitarian assistance, including 6.1 million who are internally displaced. A staggering 5.5 million people fleeing the conflict have crossed Syria’s borders and are now in neighboring countries.

Libya: Divisions and Uncertainty

UN diplomacy has also been challenged by a third stubborn conflict. The continuing stalemate in Libya is due to the fragmented power structure between the UN-recognized High State Council in Tripoli, the House of Representatives (known as the “Tobruk government”) in eastern Libya, General Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army, and the sporadic violence by hundreds of rival armed militias. The January 23 double bombing that killed 33 in Benghazi and the renewed clashes that left another 20 dead in Tripoli in January have hindered the six-month relative calm and prospects of implementing the UN-brokered Action Plan in Libya. After his visit to Libya in January 2018, UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman is not confident about his Libyan interlocutors’ true commitment to following the Action Plan and ending the transitional period. So far, the two main objectives of the United Nations to stabilize the country remain problematic: holding a general election by the end of 2018, and adopting a new constitution in the near future.

In his January 17, 2018, remarks to the Security Council, UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salamé explained that the conflict over resources has complicated the Libyan crisis. He reiterated his team’s commitment to three fundamental objectives for Libya: adopting a new constitution as a permanent legal framework, reformulating a Libyan national polity, and holding general elections.

For their part, the majority of Libyans feel less enthusiastic and believe the current deadlock is too strong to make any real political overtures. The only political momentum in Libya at present is the United Nations’ search for a new impetus among rival centers of power, including the militias. However, leaders of political and military rival groups are reluctant to engage in the UN process or to commit to any final decision. There is growing hopelessness regarding UN diplomacy, which has been characterized by recurring themes of “promising” dialogue and “imminent” reconciliation, proposed by five consecutive UN special envoys: Ian Martin (2011-2012), Tarek Mitri (2012-2014), Bernardino León (2014-2015), Martin Kobler (2015-2017), and Ghassan Salamé (June 2017-present).

So far, Salamé’s promised implementation of the Action Plan, meaningful reconciliation, and a competent and efficient government may be slipping away this year. This trajectory can be seen as a result of two growing shifts: 1) the prominence of security concerns vis-à-vis the sub-crises of human trafficking, slavery, detention centers, and terrorist threats in Libya; and 2) the new rapprochement between Russia and Italy, notably Italy’s positive view regarding Russia’s involvement in Libya-related issued at the UN Security Council. Apparently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently convinced his Italian counterpart and chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Angelino Alfano, of the need for “a pivotal role” for Moscow and Rome in shaping a settlement plan for Libya.

Reinvigorating the UN Role

While the three UN envoys Ould Cheikh Ahmed, de Mistura, and Salamé struggle with engaging local stakeholders in the prerequisites of political transition, a few propositions can provide alternative points of entry into diplomacy in the three war-torn countries:

  • The multiplicity of international and regional frameworks of diplomacy and the frequency of meetings at various capitals since 2011 could be counterproductive in settling the conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and Libya. Local stakeholders have developed distant interpretations of the support of the respective backers and feel they are too empowered to present any desired concessions toward a compromise-based framework of resolution. Beyond UN diplomacy, Russia, the United States, France, and regional powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran need to convince their proxy groups in the three countries to adopt a non-zero-sum approach to negotiations. Instead, the idea of middle-way solutions and win-win scenarios could be promising, now more than ever, to move beyond entrapment in the fruitless process of talks of the past seven years.
  • There is need for a comprehensive strategy of peacemaking, before peacebuilding, by adopting a negotiating approach that is more inclusive of various political groups and armed wings. The political will of most interlocutors does not necessarily hinge on whether they consider the expectations of the armed groups. The interconnectivity between the political and the military remains a common denominator among the three conflicts.
  • As the political economy of each conflict fuels most civil wars, the United Nations and donor states can formulate new peace strategies based on redistributing local resources and foreign aid packages equally among rival groups. The economic factor remains a double-edged sword, either pushing for increased tension or inspiring with the idea of splitting the pie. The splitting-the-pie incentive can lead to power sharing, the true impetus of any state-building and democratization process. With the current stalemate in the three countries, most—if not all—stakeholders would be willing to consider inclusivity as a formula for national unity talks. This call for inclusive politics requires one unified platform of international diplomacy under the umbrella of the United Nations.

Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui is professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University and former member of the United Nations’ Panel of Experts. He sits on the Academic Advisory Board, and is a Guest Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC