Libya: Stephanie Williams at the heart of Washington and Moscow’s tug of war

By Sarah Vernhes
Posted on Monday, 28 March 2022 10:47

The mandate of the UN Secretary General's Special Adviser Stephanie Williams is crystallising tensions between the Americans and the Russians.

Stephanie Turco Williams is one of the main players on the Libyan stage. As the de facto head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), which she supervises with Mission Coordinator Raisedon Zenenga of Zimbabwe, the American diplomat is now at the heart of a tug of war pitting the United States and some Western countries on one side against Russia on the other.

Since December, Williams has been Special Adviser on Libya to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, a position tailor-made for her, and which is a source of anxiety in Moscow.

Dmitry Polyanskiy, the first permanent deputy representative of the Russian Federation to the UN, explains: “The problem is that she doesn’t answer to the Security Council, but only to Antonio Guterres. So she has no obligation to report back and share what she is doing on the ground, nor does she need to seek the agreement [of] or justify her choices to Council members. Hence our priority is to see the appointment of a Special Envoy.”

Especially since, according to the Russian diplomat, “Stephanie Williams’ work is not transparent”. Russians and Americans are at odds over the Libyan dossier, with the latter prioritising the withdrawal from the country of Russian mercenaries from paramilitary company Wagner.

American trump card

In order to play this American trump [wild] card, Antonio Guterres bypassed the Security Council by announcing Williams’ appointment to the post of Special Adviser a few weeks before the Council’s January meeting.

This meeting was specifically devoted to renewing UNSMIL’s mandate and appointing a new Special Envoy on Libya, following the November 2021 resignation of Jan Kubis. But the Council members could not manage to reach a consensus. After heated negotiations, the text submitted by the British was rejected by the Russians. And it was only after bitter debate that the mission was renewed – at the last minute – for three months instead of six.

The Russians have already demonstrated that they will not accept an American diplomat as Special Envoy. And Stephanie Williams has broad support within the international community, including from the US, to continue in her [current] role.

However, Antonio Guterres’ pirouette – bestowing upon Williams the title of “adviser” rather than “envoy”?, thus allowing the Americans to keep control of the UN mission – is likely to become a stumbling block. Since UNSMIL’s mandate now expires on 30 April, it will have to be voted on again by the Security Council. Goal: renew the mission while the country is still torn apart by power struggles.

The [Council] members will have to work on restructuring the mission, while the appointment of a new Special Envoy is still pending. Compromise looks set to be difficult. Chatham House Middle East specialist Tim Eaton sums it up: “The Russians have already demonstrated that they will not accept an American diplomat as Special Envoy. And Stephanie Williams has broad support within the international community, including from the US, to continue in her [current] role.”

While tensions between Washington and Moscow at the Security Council have risen a notch since the February outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, Farhan Aziz Haq, deputy spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, prefers to remain optimistic about the future of UNSMIL: “I hope the Security Council will renew its mandate…All its members understand the importance of the mission’s ongoing work.” Tim Eaton added that although tensions between the United States and Russia predate the Ukrainian conflict, that they could now “harden”.

A seasoned diplomat

The resignation of Lebanese Special Envoy Ghassan Salamé in March 2020 opened a war of succession in which Stephanie Williams has always managed to stay above the fray. She had been UNSMIL’s second-in-command since 2018, when she took over the reins of the mission on an interim basis.

It was not until January 2021 that Jan Kubis was appointed Special Envoy by the Security Council. But his mandate was short-lived, with the Slovakian announcing his impromptu resignation in November 2021.

Since then, Stephanie Williams has been working hard to lead inter-Libyan dialogues in order to organise presidential and parliamentary elections in June – not without difficulty – as she struggles to implement her roadmap.

The aborted presidential election in December led to the creation of a new parallel government appointed by the Libyan parliament. From Tim Eaton’s point of view, Stephanie Williams’ role has been crucial. “She is deeply engaged in the Libyan dossier; she knows the local and international players, which is essential at such an uncertain time.”

Beyond Libya, this Arabic-speaking diplomat knows the Middle East well. As part of the US State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs from 2017 to 2018, she was a senior adviser on Syria, while based in London. Prior to that, she served as Deputy Chief of Mission for the US Embassy in Iraq for a year, in Jordan from 2013 to 2015 and in Bahrain in 2010.

Despite her experience and this solid CV, some Libyan observers have doubts about the American’s ability to bring about a solution to the conflict. They deplore the fact that the UN’s word has been discredited for months, recalling a series of failures: elections, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, and the new committee formed by parliament and the High Council of State.

When contacted by our journalist, UNSMIL chose not to comment.

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