By Sheren Khalel
Senator Bob Menendez threatens to hold up presidential nominations if White House does not sanction Khalifa Haftar for accepting Russian support.
The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee slammed the Trump Administration for its failure to stop foreign involvement in Libya’s civil war.
During a hearing with State Department officials on Wednesday, several senators questioned why the White House had not taken a stronger stance against foreign support for eastern commander Khalifa Haftar, whose forces have continued to attack the capital Tripoli despite international ceasefire efforts.
Haftar’s self-titled Libyan National Army (LNA) last April moved on Tripoli, which is controlled by the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).
On Tuesday, LNA artillery shells rained down on the centre of the Libyan capital, hitting the electrical grid and causing power outages. Haftar’s forces on Wednesday began blocking UN humanitarian flights, with some saying Haftar was imposing a “no-fly zone” on Tripoli.
While the UN has had an arms embargo in place on Libya since 2011, the embargo has been largely ignored by states involved in the conflict, turning the situation into a messy proxy war.
Haftar is backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan, Sudanese and Chadian fighters and most recently, Russian mercenaries known as the Wagner Group. Russia has denied that the group is working on behalf of the state.
Foreign support for Haftar prompted Turkey to come to the aid of Libya’s UN-
The UAE, Egypt, Russia and Turkey had agreed with Western powers at a summit in Berlin last month to push for a lasting ceasefire and to uphold the arms embargo, but there has been little evidence of actual compliance.
Russian involvement in Libya was at the centre of much of Wednesday’s committee hearing, with chairman Senator Bob Menendez threatening to hold up presidential nominations if the Trump administration did not seek to sanction Haftar for his acceptance of Russian military support.
Under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), passed with bipartisan support in 2017, sanctions must be imposed against persons engaging with Russia’s intelligence or defence sectors.
“The Wagner group has been designated under CAATSA and they’re clearly in business with Haftar – so are we planning on sanctioning Haftar?” Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, asked State Department officials testifying at Wednesday’s hearing.
Christopher Robinson, the deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, who also testified at the hearing, said that the State Department did not think it was the “right time” to use such sanctions as a pressure tool in Libya.
In agreement with Robinson, David Schenker, assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, told legislators that CAATSA sanctions had not been levied against Haftar because the State Department was seeking diplomatic initiatives to solve the issue.
“Right now Haftar is participating” in international diplomatic efforts and therefore the State Department did not want to seek CAATSA sanctions, Schenker said.
Senator Menendez shot back, telling the State Department officials that CAATSA sanctions were not an optional tool, stressing that under the law, evidence of involvement with Russian intelligence or defence sectors meant mandatory sanctions.
“It is not voluntary, it is not discretionary, it is mandatory,” Menendez said.
“I think the administration thinks that it can ignore Congress with impunity, violate the congressional – not only intent – but also the actual wording of the law, and that will have consequences,” Menendez said.
“Listening to the president’s defense team, one of the consequences they say Congress can have is to hold up nominations – well, if that’s what we have to do to have faithfulness to the law, including CAATSA, then that’s what we’ll have to do,” Menendez said.
During the hearing, Senator Murphy also pointed to the UAE’s actions in Libya, questioning why the US had not used pressure tools to influence the Gulf country’s actions in the conflict.
The UAE has been accused of transferring arms to Haftar’s forces, which experts say has escalated the war.
In January, the GNA said an attack on a military school that killed 30 students was carried out by a Chinese-made Wing Loong II drone belonging to the UAE.
“They are one – if not the primary – actor funding much of the activity in Libya today, and yet we are still in business with the UAE,” Murphy said, pointing to the Trump administration’s emergency order that bypassed Congress and provided $8bn in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE last year.
“Seven percent of all our arms sales are to the Emirates, so we have levers that are available to us to play with the Emirates, both in public statements and in the mechanics of how we do business with them,” he said.
“It’s just been striking to me that we have this rhetoric about trying to put pressure on outside actors who are supporting destabilisation inside Libya, and yet with the Emirates, it seems like we’re not really willing to go to the mat. We’re not willing to tell them: ‘If you continue to fund Haftar and others we won’t sell you arms’.”
The State Department’s Schenker pushed back against Senator Murphy’s statements, pointing to comments critical of the UAE made by department officials at the Berlin conference on Libya last month.
Schenker doubled down on his stance that the US was seeking to find diplomatic solutions via peace talks to solve the issue of foreign involvement in Libya.
“Diplomatic engagement with [the UAE] will be more likely to get better results in the long run,” Schenker said, adding that the UAE “appears to be cooperating” with measures discussed at the Berlin conference.
Senator Murphy was sceptical, saying he “contest(ed) the fact” that the UAE was cooperating with diplomatic efforts as he called for greater US pressure against the country.
“I would just urge you to use some firmer measures. I don’t think that you’re getting what you need from the Emirates right now and I don’t know that these diplomatic back channels are going to get you there,” Murphy told the State Department official.
Senators at the hearing also criticised the Trump administration for being too soft of Haftar in general, with several lawmakers saying it was sometimes unclear which side the US was on.
“I have to tell you, in my conversations with some of these countries (that support Haftar), they tell me: ‘Why are you complaining, the US supports Haftar’,” Menendez told the State Department officials.
“We have major players with which we have relationships and we are not pressing them,” the senator said.
“There is one US policy in Libya: We support the GNA,” Robinson assured lawmakers.
Sheren Khalel is a Washington DC-based journalist who has previously worked throughout the Middle East, focusing on human rights, refugee issues and conflict.