The US seems to be moving toward a policy shift regarding Libya, and if it is, Russia is to blame. Just last week, the State Department concluded a high-level diplomatic dialogue with the GNA government, after which it offered a clear statement opposing Russia’s increasing intervention. At the same time, we learned that Congress is looking to introduce bipartisan legislation that would instruct the administration to enact sanctions on Russian mercenaries in Libya, as well as push the administration to appoint a Libya envoy. It seems that the recent, increased and deadly involvement of Russian mercenaries in the war torn North African country has reached a tipping point forcing the US to take a more active and decisive role in ending the conflict.
While some countries have clearly chosen sides in Libya’s conflict, the US has, so far, refrained from doing so. Turkey and Qatar’s support of the Tripoli-based GNA is well documented. Italy and the EU, at least officially, also back the GNA, for primarily very different reasons, mostly relating to curbing the flow of migrants. Many Arab countries, especially the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, as well as France, to an extent, are firmly backing Haftar’s LNA forces. In recent months, it seems Russia has chosen to stand more firmly in Haftar’s corner as well, supplying heavily armed and well-trained mercenaries and military equipment, as well as providing diplomatic cover and cash. At the same time, Russia continues to deny its connection to the mercenaries in Libya, while maintaining communication with the GNA.
Until now, the US has been somewhat split and distant from the crisis. The State Department officially backs the UN recognised GNA, while the CIA is reportedly sympathetic to Haftar, who has had long-standing contacts with Langley. President Trump further called US policy into question in a telephone call he conducted with Haftar in April, after his offensive on Tripoli began. Many took this as a sign indicating the US may be pulling its support from the GNA to what seemed to be the winning side at the time. Trump’s affinity for strongmen might have played some role here as well, as well as Haftar’s image as a staunch secularist fighting Salafist militants. In the meantime, the only thing that was clear from the US’ involvement was its ongoing effort to take on ISIS in Libya and the region. Thus, the US has consistently acted against ISIS strongholds, most recently, in September, striking 4 ISIS targets, and taking out a significant percent of estimated ISIS forces remaining in Libya.
However, it increasingly seems the US is shifting course, and it is in large part due to Russia’s increasing involvement more than anything else. Russia has many interests in Libya. Some relate to Libya’s significant natural resources, and getting a head start on obtaining lucrative infrastructure and energy contracts. Other interests relate to obtaining defence contracts, including for private military contractors in the current fighting. Yet others revolve around ensuring radical Islam does not spread to Russia, with Haftar billing himself as one who will take on ISIS and militant Islamic forces. And still other interests pertain to Russia seeking to expand its influence in key parts of the world, including establishing military bases, especially at the US’ expense, essentially trying to challenge and rewrite the rules of the current US-dominated world order. Russia also seeks to gain some sort of influence over the flow of migrants into Europe, to be able to use that as leverage over the EU. And part of this is in an attempt to strengthen ties with the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, relations with whom are strained due to Russia’s involvement in Syria. This too, is also an attempt to peel them away from the US’ sphere of influence.
However, these extra efforts may have tipped the scales and awakened a sleeping American giant hesitant to instil itself in additional conflicts, especially in the Middle East. Numerous reports of expanded Russian interference have finally made their way into American media, reporting about “thousands” of mercenaries, especially from the Wagner Group, a sort of Russian Blackwater, with close ties to the Kremlin.
And, as the military efforts seem to largely be at a stalemate right now as LNA forces can’t seem to take Tripoli, growing foreign involvement, especially with air support, has led to a rise in civilian casualties. Russia’s gamble on Haftar seems to be failing – despite the supply of arms, cash (printed in Russia) and now mercenaries; Haftar still can’t take Tripoli. Russia’s gamble on Haftar is failing to push him to victory, and now it seems to have crossed the line with Washington.
The US, certainly the State Department, does not seem to be a fan of another anti-Democratic Sisi-like strongman, even if Trump and some of the previous senior figures in the National Security Council flirted with the idea. But now that Bolton is out of office and the Russians are increasing their efforts, the White House itself is also conducting a policy review. The recent focus on Russia’s involvement in the American press, the National Security Council’s policy review, the introduction of sanctions legislation, and the State Department’s meeting and statement show that Russia’s involvement may have moved the issue from the back-burner to a high priority issue in Washington. Essentially, it seems that Russia’s and Haftar’s strategy may have backfired.
As Russia is capitalising on American hesitancy to become involved in foreign conflicts in order to raise its own stature, and increasingly uses private military contractors as a form of strategy that allows it deniability, the US has to make some choices. Will it leverage its diplomatic power to take Moscow down a peg or continue to sit on the sidelines? There are those who think the US can leverage a combination of sanctions, economic and diplomatic ties with Haftar’s other backers (the UAE, Egypt, etc.), and with the Europeans to take a leading role in limiting foreign intervention and pushing the warring sides to a compromise. Sanctioning Russian mercenaries would be a start. Does the US remain on the sidelines, letting rival Russia continue to expand its influence, or push back and reassert its role as the dominant power in the region and the world? The time to choose is here.