U.S. Balanced Approach on Libya: A Good Step Forward But Not Enough
For years, the United States has distanced itself from the national reconciliation process in Libya, adopting a more limited role that focuses mainly in fighting the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the oil-producing North African country. This left room for Libyan stakeholders and their foreign backers to fill the void and prolong the country’s instability. However, there are signs that Washington has begun to recognize the costs of disengagement and sought to balance its engagement with Libya’s main rivals in the east and west. This is a good step, but it is not enough.
For the first time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on December 4 tweeted about Libya, praising his meeting in Brussels with Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the Tripoli-based and UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). Pompeo also expressed support for the recalibrated plan presented by UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salamé which calls for a national conference to be held in January 2019 and a subsequent electoral process to begin in the spring.
Pompeo’s tweet was followed by a reported confidential meeting in Rome between General Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA), and U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia Daniel Rubinstein. The American diplomat and Haftar discussed developments in Libya, as reported by Faraj al-Jarih, the chief editor of The Libyan Address Journal.
U.S. officials have frequently met with al-Sarraj and expressed public support for the GNA, yet they kept their distance from Haftar, who is aligned with the GNA’s rival government in the east. But a senior White House official recently told The Wall Street Journal, “Certainly we would see a role for Gen. Haftar in any future of Libya.” If this becomes official policy, it will mark a shift from favoring the Tripoli-based government to seeking an agreement between the two main contenders for power. In addition, a balanced approach to reconcile Libyan rivals is indispensable to the counterterrorism campaign in Libya. In fact, the country’s persistent divisions will undermine the already weak GNA, and terrorist groups, mainly IS and AQIM, will keep exploiting this reality to rebuild. Over the last two months alone, IS launched two major surprise attacks on Al-Fuqaha and Tazirbu towns in central and southern Libya in a bid to cement its foothold after the loss of its coastal stronghold in Sirte in 2016. Therefore, a move to realign engagement towards political reconciliation would prove more fruitful in the long term.
This U.S. shift came after two major summits organized in May and November by France and Italy, respectively. Both countries tried to resolve the Libyan crisis and advance their respective agendas, but the summits yielded no major breakthroughs. Paris and Rome have legitimate concerns regarding migration and terrorism threats. Italy seeks to maintain its economic interests in Libya, mainly in Tripoli and the country’s west, while France prioritizes the stabilization of Libya’s south, as terrorists, criminals, and smugglers located there threaten the Sahel region, where 4,000 French troops are currently deployed. Because of these divergent interests, Paris favored Haftar while Rome backed the GNA and some of its aligned militias in the west. Nevertheless, a power struggle between the two EU allies has compounded Libya’s complex problems and frenzied politics.
Truth be told, the Italian initiative proved to be more practical and productive compared with its French counterpart. Its Palermo conference succeeded in two key respects: shelving the overly optimistic December 10 deadline for elections promoted by France, and giving precedence to the UNSMIL and its action plan. This might explain why the United States favored the more realistic Italian approach, as reflected by a statement welcoming the conclusions of the Palermo conference and supporting the UN Action Plan.
This kind of engagement is positive but insufficient, as divisions among Libyan stakeholders and international backers persist. The Tripoli-based GNA and its eastern rivals—Haftar’s LNA and the House of Representatives (HoR)— continue to seek foreign help to enhance their positions. Haftar indicated that he might accept al-Sarraj as a transitional leader until elections can be held, yet differences between them remain despite reported Italian efforts to bring the two rivals to the table after the Palermo conference.
These divisions within Libya mirror equally serious divisions in the broader Middle East. Whereas Egypt and the UAE provided significant support to the eastern-based authorities, Turkey and Qatar backed western-based Islamists. The conflicting agendas of these regional camps, the first seeking to counter Islamists in Libya and the second trying to establish an Islamist order, has exacerbated the lingering divisions between Libyan stakeholders. Two experts have recently warned of foreign interference, saying “part of the divisiveness fueling the Libyan conflict has roots abroad.”
Meanwhile, Russia, whose strategy aligns with those of Egypt and the UAE, recently stepped up engagement to fill the void left by American passivity. In the run-up to the Italian summit, Haftar met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow where Yevgeny Prigozhin, a friend of President Putin who reportedly orchestrates Russia’s engagement in Africa, attended the talks. Moscow, which tries to prove that it can fix what Washington breaks, has adopted “a strategy of hedging its bets.” It maintains contacts with both the east and west, that includes receiving Haftar and GNA Prime Minister al-Sarraj in Moscow and, at the same time, expresses support to the UN-led peace efforts to safeguard its long-term interests and renew the economic deals on construction, energy, and arms sales which were severally affected after the fall of Muammar al-Qadhafi.
While the latest U.S. balanced approach should be applauded, yet it is not enough to reinforce the UN-led efforts seeking to help Libyans realize a stable and unified government. To that end, Washington should press international and regional players to end their negative interferences that delay reaching a settlement that could pave the way for credible and fair elections and bring peace and stability to Libya. Without robust U.S. diplomatic engagement, Libyan actors and their external backers will continue to obfuscate Libya’s impasse by fueling existing divisiveness and terrorist groups like IS and AQIM would exploit the waning status quo to build a safe haven there.
Romany Shaker is an Arabic-language research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @RomanySh.
Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.