Marking a key development in the situation in Libya, in recent weeks the US has returned to play an expanded role that goes beyond its traditional counter-terrorism activity and extends to involvement in the political process. Washington’s increasing interest in Libya is unexpected given President Trump’s comments during a meeting with Paolo Gentiloni in April 2017. The former Italian Prime Minister was hoping for a “decisive” American role to achieve stability in Libya. Trump responded by saying: “I do not see a (US) role in Libya” during a joint news conference, moments after Gentiloni called the US role in the country “critical”; “I think the United States has enough roles right now” Trump said (CNN, April 20, 2017).
Indicators of growing US engagement in Libya
A number of developments since the beginning of May 2018 point to a shift in Washington’s Libya policy. Two days after a conference in Paris, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, Commander of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), visited the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and met with Fayez Al-Sarraj, Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord. Sources inside AFRICOM claimed that the meeting dealt with the possibility of AFRICOM providing the necessary logistic support to ensure legislative and presidential elections are held by the end of 2018.
On July 2, 2018, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the appointment of Stephanie T. Williams – former Chargé d’Affaires at the United States Embassy in Tripoli – as Deputy to UN Representative in Libya Ghassan Salamé. Furthermore, Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army, reversed his decision to withhold control of oil installations from the national oil corporation; several reports claimed that Haftar’s move was the result of American pressure.
This breakthrough in the crisis concerning control of Libya’s oil installations coincided with a request from Al-Sarraj to the UN Security Council to appoint a committee to investigate oil revenue expenditure. This may indicate that Washington’s intervention to solve the crisis is part of a comprehensive US vision that encompasses a number of controversial issues – an assumption supported by William’s appointment.
Context and implications of the US role
This growing, unprecedented interest in Libya does not necessarily indicate a fundamental shift in US foreign policy, as aspects of the Libyan conflict may be entwined with other high priority interests of the Trump administration.
Libya features prominently in counter-terrorism efforts because the country is favored by Jihadists fleeing Syria. In addition, the Libyan conflict is connected to the US–Iran dispute in two respects. The first concerns oil prices in the wake of US sanctions on Iran and Washington’s desire to stabilize the Libyan oil industry to increase both production and export capacity. This requires progress toward a settlement to the Libyan conflict. The second connection concerns the activities of the Iranian intelligence services in southern Libya, where they continue to search for Uranium; news reports in early June 2018 claimed that Mossad had assassinated two such agents in southern Libya.
These developments are unfolding against the backdrop of complex interactions between the US and Europe regarding Libya. The US role has grown while competition between European countries in Libya has intensified – most notably between France and Italy, which has clearly impeded progress in the political process. Meanwhile, Germany’s prominent position in European decision-making concerning the issue of illegal migration guarantees Berlin’s continued involvement. Moreover, strong US engagement in Libya will likely aim to prevent any effective role for Russia in the crisis, particularly given the prospect of an end to the Syrian conflict.
There may also be a connection between the new US role in Libya and the so-called “deal of the century” in the Middle East. Although there is no confirmation of this, or regarding the position that Libya is likely to adopt in this context, it is important to note that US involvement in Libya has risen in tandem with the decision by the Egyptian Judiciary to consider annexing Libya’s Al Gaghbub oasis and the return of debate over the federal option in Tobruk.
In addition to this connection between the Libyan situation and the most pressing concerns on the US foreign policy agenda, this matter would appear less complex than other intractable issues such as Syria, Iran and trans-Atlantic relations, or the struggle with Russia and China. Indeed, the Trump administration may have a better chance of achieving a breakthrough in this conflict, which could come to be seen as one of the few foreign policy accomplishments of the administration. Such an achievement may prove highly significant in the US midterm elections in November 2018.
Anticipated US influence
The growing impact of an increasing US role will be seen at various levels. It will likely revive the political agreement signed in Skhirat in late 2015 – a goal pursued by Ghassan Salamah since his appointment in the Fall of 2017. Salamah has attempted several times to resurrect this agreement by amending its terms but to no avail. His failure in this regard led to a shift in emphasis toward aspects of the UN initiative. Deputy Special Representative for Political Affairs in Libya, Stefani Williams, however, has a different viewpoint. She believes that the revival of the agreement is necessary and that enforcing its Article 15 would probably be the starting point for such a revival. She maintains that agreeing the selection of those who will assume key executive posts would pave the way for unifying the government and eliminating parallel authorities.
Any US endeavor to revive the Skhirat agreement in this manner would seemingly indicate that the US administration does not believe elections can be held under current circumstances. This seems evident, since negotiations among local parties, backed by their external supporters, have reached deadlock in their attempts to decide the constitutional rules to which these elections would be held.
This argument gains merit given the deteriorating security situation in Libya and the divided military forces both in the west and inside the capital. All these conditions pose challenges to successfully ending the transitional phase and establishing a stable authority in the capital, as these goals cannot be accomplished without resolving the issue of the proliferation of arms and irregular militia groups.
However, although the balance of power appears to be weighted in favor of the US in Libya’s political landscape, that alone is not sufficient to raise hopes of a forthcoming breakthrough in the crisis. This is especially true given that the unfolding situation is affected by many factors other than the balance of power between global, regional and local actors; indeed, developments in recent years have shown that various parties to the Libyan conflict have the ability to derail the peace process.
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