The U.S. wades back into Libya after Trump's hands-off approach

WASHINGTON – The United States is returning to Libya. Biden’s government is launching a new diplomatic offer to get the country out of a violent spiral and plans to reopen the U.S. embassy in Tripoli seven years after it closed.

Last week, the senior US diplomat who has visited the country since 2014 arrived in Tripoli, and the government deployed a team there to work out the daunting logistics of reopening the embassy.

The moves are in contrast to the hands-off approach taken by the Trump administration, which has chosen not to put pressure on governments – including US allies – that assisted proxies in overtly violating a United States arms embargo during the Libyan Civil War.

The United Arab Emirates, Russia, Egypt and Turkey have forwarded weapons, cash and tens of thousands of mercenaries to rival militias in the country’s chaotic civil war, according to the United Nations, adding to potential terrorism in the region and a migrant crisis that refugees live in. have crossed the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe.

A March report by a UN panel of experts described a true jack of all trades in the country when foreign powers were flying out of Chad in drones, transport aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, artillery and armored vehicles, as well as mercenaries. Sudan and Syria.

However, even considering reopening the US embassy, ​​it poses political risks for the Biden administration. US officials are aware of the partisan feud that broke out in Washington in 2012 after an attack on a US diplomatic mission in the Libyan city of Benghazi in which US Ambassador Chris Stevens died. The Republicans of the House opened six inquiries into the Obama administration’s handling of the episode.

A burned building on the grounds of the US consulate in the east Libyan city of Benghazi in September 2012.Gianluigi Guercia / AFP via the Getty Images file

When asked about the future of the Embassy in Tripoli, the Foreign Ministry declined to comment on when the mission could reopen its doors.

“We intend to resume operations in Libya as soon as the security situation permits and we have the necessary security measures in place,” said a foreign ministry spokesman. “The process for this, however, requires careful logistics and security planning as well as coordination between the agencies in order to meet the security and legal requirements.”

The European Union reopened its mission in Libya last week, and other governments have resumed diplomatic missions since March to show their support for an interim government established after a US-brokered ceasefire in October.

Libyan envoy to the US, Mohammed Ali Abdallah, said his administration had urged the Biden administration to move forward with plans to reopen the US embassy and said it would send an important symbolic message.

“We have asked the US government to expedite the process of reopening the Embassy in Tripoli,” he said.

The embassy closed in 2014 when officials ruled that fighting near the city made operations in the capital unsafe. The embassy was relocated to neighboring Tunisia.

Acting Deputy Foreign Minister Joey Hood (left) accompanies Libyan Foreign Minister Najla el-Mangoush on his arrival in Tripoli, Libya, on May 18.Hazem Ahmed / Reuters file

After the attack in Benghazi and the closure of the embassy, ​​the Obama administration advised against visiting high-ranking US officials in Libya. The decision was, “We are not taking any chances,” said a senior Obama administration official who worked on regional diplomacy.

An embassy helps keep the government at home informed and performs a number of practical functions including providing consular services, helping U.S. businesses interested in investing, and working with local military and intelligence agencies.

Working without an embassy penalizes a government and deprives it of a full picture of the situation on the ground, the former US official said.

“It is embarrassing that we are not there,” said the officer. “It’s bad for US foreign policy. It’s bad for US national security. It’s bad for the host country. It’s bad for the region.”

A “big shift”

Western governments believe the ceasefire, interim government and elections scheduled for December offer glimmers of hope for a country that has been on a downward spiral since the overthrow of dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011.

After a NATO-backed uprising toppled Gaddafi 10 years ago, Libya was split between a US-recognized government in Tripoli and rival factions in the east supported by outside powers. A former Libyan general, Khalifa Hifter, backed by Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, launched an offensive in April 2019 to avoid conquering Tripoli. With vital military support from Turkey, the government defeated Hifter’s forces, in part with the help of Syrian mercenaries.

As part of the ceasefire agreed in October, governments pledged to ensure the withdrawal of all foreign fighters and mercenaries and to halt further violations of a United States arms embargo. But a latest U.N. report made it clear that the foreign fighters remain on the ground and that weapons continue to pour into the country.

Now the US must urge its partners – including the UAE – and opponents to stop interfering in Libya, said Ben Fishman, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.

It is an open question “how active we will be in terms of diplomatic engagement with the spoilers to ensure they don’t spoil,” Fishman said. “Will Libya be high on the agenda in our complex relations with some of these states? This is where the rubber meets the road.”

It is unclear whether the Biden administration will be able to continue its ongoing diplomatic efforts as the White House has made it clear that it will invest less time and effort in the Middle East to focus on fighting China. But Fishman said Libya is an opportunity for President Joe Biden to tackle instability on NATO’s southern flank while keeping his promise to restore transatlantic ties and US credibility.

Libyan and European diplomats have so far been pleased that the US appears to be playing a more active role at a crucial moment for Libya.

In addition to dispatching Assistant Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs, Joey Hood, to Tripoli last week, Biden recently promoted U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Robert Norland, as special envoy to Libya, another sign the government is seeking international support for collect political process.

Ali Abdallah, the Libyan envoy in Washington, said the new administration had “changed a lot” from the Trump administration.

There is now a “willingness from the US government to put pressure and invest political capital on some of the allies who interfered and were part of the problem in Libya,” he said. “That was not the case with the Trump administration.”

But despite positive developments like the ceasefire, the US and other countries would have to address the presence of foreign fighters and what he called the “elephant in the room” – hifter. Companies that use guns for hifter must be held accountable through US or Western sanctions, Abdallah said.

“There is no way we can hold elections with these people who control large parts of the country,” he said.

Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter salutes during a military parade in Benghazi, Libya, in 2018.ABDULLAH DOMA / AFP – Getty Images

US lawmakers from both parties support the proposal legislation This would impose sanctions on companies that violate the United States arms embargo.

The United States report describing a jack-of-all-trades in Libya said employees of the Russian paramilitary firm Wagner acted as “force multipliers” for Hifter’s forces, serving as air traffic controllers, aircraft mechanics, artillery observers and snipers.

A report by the Inspector General of the Defense Department released last year, citing reports from the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the UAE “may provide some funding” for the Wagner Group’s operations.

None of the countries named in the U.N. report recognized its findings.

The State Department spokesman said the US strongly supports the October ceasefire agreement, which requires the withdrawal of all foreign forces and mercenaries.

“This includes the need to withdraw Russian mercenaries and proxies, Turkish armed forces and all foreign forces, mercenaries, proxies and foreign fighters, including those from Syria, Chad and Sudan, and the need to end all support for foreign military interventions , also from the UAE, “said the spokesman.

The UAE has not specifically considered the findings of the United States or the Inspector General’s reports.

“The UAE supports international efforts for peace and stability in Libya,” the country’s embassy said in an email.

In January, UAE Ambassador to the United States, Lana Nusseibeh, said in a statement that the United Arab Emirates welcomed the Security Council’s call for all foreign forces to be withdrawn.

“Foreign intervention in the conflict must end now. The UAE firmly believes that diplomatic and political solutions are the only way to end the Libyan conflict,” she said.

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