is the united states set to increase its involvement in libya? summary and thoughts on senate testimony
Two weeks ago (Feb 12), the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee invited the State Department to address the ongoing crisis in Libya and offer directions for US policy. Testimonies were given by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Christopher Robinson, with opening remarks from Senator (R- ID) Jim Risch from the Foreign Relations Committee.
Senate testimonies on key issues can help gain understanding into the thinking and possible direction of the administration. On Libya, American leadership has been noticeably absent. The overthrow of Ghaddafi by Libyans was facilitated by Europe with American backing. However, as Libya broke down into a civil war that continues to this day, Europe has only recently attempted to return to a productive role in brokering a ceasefire. The US, aside from keeping ISIS at bay, has largely distanced itself from this conflict. This vacancy has allowed Russia, Turkey and other regional powers to step in, pumping arms, cash and mercenaries into the ongoing fighting.
Where is the US? Where is American leadership? Where is the one power that has the weight to balance out Russia and Turkey and help bring stability to the region?
In his opening remarks, Senator Risch referred to troubling developments in Libya that warrant American attention. He points out that months of fighting, referring to Haftar’s renewed efforts since April to take Tripoli, have left the sides in a stalemate. Risch describes the growing foreign influence that is complicating matters on the ground, including the inflow of illegal arms and military training, all of which are in violation of the UN arms embargo, especially Turkey and Russia who are pursuing agendas that run contrary to and at the expense of the Libyan people. He noted Turkey has deployed uniformed troops and now Syrian militia most recently to the fighting.
Risch further points to the burgeoning relationship between the Tripoli GNA and its “troubling” agreement with Erdogan’s Turkey, which granted Turkish military assistance to the GNA in exchange for a rewriting of the exclusive economic zones of both countries in order to lay claim to gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. This agreement helped Turkey cement its growing influence in the region.
Russia too has increased its in influence through sending mercenaries in what he called the “Syrian model” to Libya, whereby it floods the arena with arms and mercenaries, and then uses its newly created leverage to take over a UN-led “sham” political process intended only to grant it influence.
The Senator expressed concerns that the growing Russian foothold in Libya will let it leverage the flow of refugees to Europe, will complicate America and Europe’s counter-terror mission and generally sow discord within an already distracted European Union.
Risch noted that the US is concerned with a potential terror threat re-emerging, especially ISIS, an increasingly militarised southern Mediterranean region, an area vital for trade, and the destabilising threats to Europe of migration and terror that Russia could exploit. He further pointed to the importance of Libyan oil to the stability of global markets and how Haftar is currently undermining the supply.
Risch suggested the US continue supporting the GNA and actively work to discourage foreign intervention, while pushing all the sides to resume peace talks, and asked the administration expert witnesses to testify as to what the US can do to further promote stability.
Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker offered that the best way for the US to help stabilise Libya is to limit the foreign intervention, which has escalated the conflict and is threatening regional order and American interests, through halting the flow of arms, funds and personnel into Libya.
In late January and into February, the UN managed to convene the two sides for ceasefire talks, the first such in nearly a year. A part of this will require the incremental withdrawal of foreign mercenaries active in Libya. For a ceasefire to have any success, it will require a sustained effort by the US to press both sides to engage.
Schenker noted the threat to civilians, infrastructure, commercial aviation and the increased threat to already vulnerable migrants and refugees stuck in Libya. He also discussed the ongoing almost total shutdown of the petroleum sector by the LNA, and stressed that Libya’s National Oil Corporation must be allowed to continue its work for the sake of Libya’s financial stability.
The US must continue to emphasize to all parties involved that there is no durable military solution and continue promoting the UN-led political process. Ultimately, the Libyans themselves must resolve this crisis, de-escalate, honor the ceasefire and focus their energies on the political process.
He suggested that the US can help address the issues driving the conflict, including militias that operate freely, Islamist extremists and helping to push for a reunification and transparency among economic institutions, including the just distribution of economic resources.
The US will continue to push for stability. The US, he pointed out, cooperated with both the GNA and LNA on counter-terrorist missions and is essential in preventing the resurgence of terror groups. The US can continue and enhance its use of sanctions to pressure those threatening stability, however this is not a substitute for diplomatic engagement. The US also has a strong humanitarian role, where it provides health care, food, water, sanitation, hygiene, protection and shelter. US AID has invested over half a billion dollars in Libya since Ghaddafi’s over throw, 164 million in humanitarian aid.
The US’ efforts are complicated by foreign actors, Russia, Syria, Chad, Sudan, the UAE, Turkey and others, who are increasingly fighting proxy battles on Libyan soil in pursuit of their own agendas. Schenker noted that Secretary of State Pompeo told world leaders (in Berlin) “there are things we can do today to foster a stable, sovereign, united country that is inhospitable to terrorists, and one day capable of generating prosperity through its energy resources. … we must support a lasting cease-fire between Libyan parties and not just with words. …end the violence and flow of arms.”
However, the powers gathered in Berlin are not upholding their commitments to a ceasefire, some are deploying fighters, mercenaries and arms to Libya. Schenker made clear the US should help enforce the UN arms embargo, call on all foreign fighters to leave Libya, and ensure those violating the Council Resolutions face appropriate consequences.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Christopher Robinson focused his remarks on Russia’s role in the conflict. He pointed out that Russia employs military power and proxy actors to expand its influence on other countries seeking to assert their independence and sovereignty, offering the Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Syria as examples. Libya now risks being the next such venue for Russia to expand its influence, exploiting conflict to advance its own narrow gains. Robinson pointed to the wider work the State Department is doing trying to counter Russian “adventurism” throughout Africa, which can undermine American interests and lead to instability.
As to Libya, Robinson pointed to Russia’s destabilization, including the deployment of the Wagner Group (mercenaries) sanctioned by the US. He noted that Sec. State Pompeo called out Russia and Wagner’s role at the Berlin conference and is pressuring Russia to abide by the arms embargo. Russia denies it sent Wagner to Libya and seeks to maintain distance from the company. However, Robinson claims that Wagner and other mercenaries are really an instrument of foreign policy that carry low cost and low risk.
Robinson laid the blame for the continued conflict on actors like Russia, who push for continued conflict for their own interests in the region. In this regard, Russia can use its involvement to build a foothold, including military facilities and resources, in Libya.
The US must continue supporting the EU process and work to decrease Russia’s influence in Libya and the region, whether through public pressure or financial sanctions, and continue to press the EU countries to act in a similar manner. All this, to ensure Russia cannot act with impunity in Libya.
If the testimonies offer any indication, it is that the current administration recognizes the greatest challenge to improving stability in Libya at this time is to press both sides to continue talks, while working to limit foreign intervention, especially Russian and Turkish intervention. The testimonies also offer us an understanding that the US sees with growing concern Russia’s and Turkey’s increasing attempt to “take over” the conflict for their own interests.
The US can do much to help improve the conditions in which the two warring sides can come to the table and find a political solution, especially in providing a much needed counter-weight to Moscow and Ankara. It can use tools such as sanctions to help enforce this, along with its influence at the UN. The question is, as we head into the 2020 US Presidential elections, will the White House have the attention span to take on a greater diplomatic role in Libya? Will any candidate want to advance greater involvement in a foreign conflict? Its clear what the US should and can accomplish, the only question is whether it wants to.