Will the U.S. Re-Engage in Libya and To What Extent?

U.S. President Donald Trump has said the U.S. should have no role in Libya beyond fighting the Islamic State’s militants. However, experts say that may change.

The Trump administration is reluctant to play any role in Libya beyond fighting terrorism. However, experts detect indicators that show a different position could emerge.

The Franco-Italian competition over Libya has complicated international efforts to stabilize Libya, and U.S. lawmakers have strongly endorsed resumption of U.S. engagement in Libya to prevent it from becoming a hub for terrorism.

“It is past time to appoint a new U.S. Ambassador to Libya. We need to reopen our embassy in Tripoli to increase U.S. engagement on the ground.”

“It is past time to appoint a new U.S. Ambassador to Libya. We need to reopen our embassy in Tripoli to increase U.S. engagement on the ground,” said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East.

Former Libyan Ambassador to Mexico Muftah Tayyar detects a subtle U.S. interest in engaging in Libya through the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSML).

“The latest appointments in this mission comprise two American diplomats,” he says. “Stephanie Williams, the former U.S. Charge d’affaire in Tripoli was appointed as deputy special representative for the UNSML, and veteran U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman was recently appointed as an advisor to Ghassan Salame, the UN Special Envoy to Libya.”

Tayyar says this is an indication that the U.S. has begun to understand that it should pay more attention to Libya.

The Libyan diplomat connects the sudden U.S. interest in Libya to the rise of tensions with Iran, which could eventually disrupt oil supplies from the Gulf or at least result in oil shortages and higher prices.

“I think Libya becomes a crucial player in [the] world oil market because it can supply any oil shortage with higher quality oil away from tensions in the Gulf,” Tayyar said.

Jason Pack, President of the London-based “Libya Analysis” has other indications that there is an American desire to re-engage in Libya.

“Italy plans to host an international conference on Libya in Sicily next month. It is encouraging that both the U.S. and Russia are willing to participate in the conference to discuss ways to stabilize Libya.”

Pack said the Trump administration should understand that U.S. national security, as well as the U.S.’s economic and oil interests, require U.S. engagement in rebuilding Libyan state institutions.

“After the U.S failure in state-building in Iraq, the U.S. administration feels it is better to stay away and avoid repeating the same mistake in Libya.”

However, Bessma Momani, Professor of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo, rules out that possibility. “After the U.S failure in state-building in Iraq, the U.S. administration feels it is better to stay away and avoid repeating the same mistake in Libya.”

Some other experts like Rhiannon Smith, managing editor of “Eye on ISIS in Libya,” argue for a different U.S. role in Libya. “The U.S.,” she said, “could form a joint peacekeeping force with the United Kingdom that can act as a neutral international force, a police force to curb militias’ activities that have disrupted all efforts to reach a political solution in Libya.”

Smith admitted, however, that such a role would be politically sensitive in both the U.S. and Libya.

Ambassador David Mack, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East agreed and said while the U.S. should recognize the need to get involved in Libya, it should not be the major player.

“The European nations and Libya’s neighbors that are directly impacted by instability in Libya should take the lead in trying to establish some kind of stability in Libya, and the U.S. would be supportive, but only in a support role not a leading role.” Mack said.

Different interests and different approaches

Neighbors of Libya on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea are playing a geopolitical chess game in Libya.

On May 29, 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron arranged a meeting with the UN envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, and various Libyan powerful rivals in Paris. They agreed to conduct general elections in Libya on December 10.

Because of the competition, France did not bother to consult the Italian government.

France relies on General Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army to achieve its major goal of preventing the spread of violent Islamist extremism into its former colonies in Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Chad, and Niger.

Experts view France’s push for a quick election in Libya as a common goal that combines the influence of France with that of Egypt and the UAE to ensure Haftar’s takeover in Libya.

On the other hand, Italy is strongly backing the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and has maintained close ties with Tripoli and Misrata in the West, where the Greenstream pipeline has been pumping gas to Italy since October 2004 and from where most African immigrants are embarking to sail toward Italy.

Islamist parties are concentrated in the western part of Libya controlled by the internationally recognized GNA, where General Haftar is extremely unpopular.

So for Italy to secure a level of success out of its planned conference on Libya, its Foreign Minister negotiated recently with the strong military leader to gain his support and ensure his participation.

“Italy acknowledged that Haftar holds major cards through his military grip on Eastern Libya and that to mediate between Libyan rivals in the Sicily conference, it is crucial to bring Haftar to the table,” Ambassador Tayyar said.

The recent clashes between Libyan militias in and around Tripoli have cast a shadow on the prospect of the December elections championed by France.

Experts hope that the Italian Conference could provide a practical alternative to advance prospects of a political solution to the Libyan crisis.

Fredric Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, envisions a measure of success if the conference can circumvent the Franco-Italian competition and go on as planned.

“The U.S. and its partners must continue to play a strong convening and persuading role, especially among its regional Arab allies and Europeans to actually support the UN-led roadmap,” he says.

Experts are encouraged that the European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini has said she will participate personally in the Sicily conference.

They said the international conference on Libya should focus on an agreement to amend the disputed previous political agreement and facilitate reaching a Libyan constitution to pave the way for electing a president and a parliament.

The UN envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, acknowledged that the country could not hold elections until it has returned to a minimum level of security and stability, which is not happening in Libya so far.

Experts agree that the Libyan problem needs engagement from both Russia and the U.S. and are encouraged that President Trump has already thrown his support behind “Italy’s leading role in the stabilization of Libya,” but they are waiting to see if he sticks to his word.