By Mohamed Abufalgha
After more than 400 days of fighting, the time has come for the United States to step onto the Libyan stage.
In April of 2019, former U.S. National Security Advisor, John Bolton, indicated to renegade general Khalifa Haftar that the U.S. does not oppose Haftar’s plan to launch an attack on the Libyan capital city of Tripoli, in an attempt to overthrow the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
The idea was that Haftar’s self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) would sweep into the city, push local armed groups aside, and take over the entire country.
Though superficial and simplistic, this idea resonated with some foreign actors, especially in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Haftar promised to eradicate militias and Islamists, as part of his campaign. These promises come despite the fact that Haftar’s own alliance contains several militias and some Islamist elements, namely Madkhalis.
The U.S.’ initial approval of the offensive did not require much action from the global superpower. Although some elements in Congress opposed Haftar’s offensive, the U.S. remained on the sideline throughout the war. The extent of its involvement did not transcend some generic statements made every now and then, urging “all sides” to halt operations.
Then, the Wagner Group landed on Libyan soil. A few months after launching his offensive against the GNA, Haftar sought military support from Russia.
Eager to gain yet another strong foothold in the Mediterranean, Russia deployed mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private military company led by one of Putin’s closest associates. In recent years, the Wagner Group has been the unofficial military arm of the Russian state.
Wagner mercenaries have been deployed to Syria, Ukraine, and Georgia among other countries to support groups aligned with Putin.
The deployment of the Wagner mercenaries sounded warning alarms across the hallways of the U.S. administration. U.S. officials in both the legislative and executive branches have repeatedly called out and condemned the deployment.
While fear of mounting Russian involvement caused the American tone to slightly change, the U.S. failed to take serious measures to stop Haftar’s dangerous gamble or to counter Russian interference.
The campaign against Tripoli has harmed American interests in multiple ways.
First, the attack pressured the GNA to shift its attention from combating the remnants of the Islamic State to defending Tripoli.
The U.S. found a reliable partner in the GNA forces in the fight against IS in 2016. The partnership proved fruitful and effective as it pushed the terrorist group from its biggest stronghold outside Iraq and Syria.
Second, the U.S. has been collaborating and coordinating efforts with the GNA on political and economic reforms. All these efforts were put on hold as a result of the attack.
Third, the LAAF has been deliberately targeting civilians, committing war crimes, and carrying out gross violations of human rights.
Principles of international law and human rights, often championed by the U.S. have been massively defied and broken by Haftar’s forces. Last but not least, the LAAF, through its reliance on Russian mercenaries and equipment, is handing the country over to the U.S.’ rivals in the region.
Despite the Russian and African mercenaries, the UAE-supplied drones and weaponry, and the Egyptian logistical support, Haftar’s LAAF failed to enter Tripoli. Instead, it resorted to shelling and bombing of residential areas to create a state of terror among civilians.
The last few months witnessed a major shift in the ongoing conflict. The GNA – thanks in part to support from the U.S. ally and fellow NATO member, Turkey – managed to push the LAAF back away from some key positions.
In April, the GNA took over several coastal cities in Western Libya in a matter of hours. LAAF’s retreat continued.
In May, al-Wattiya airbase, a major strategic position, was captured by the GNA forces after a deliberate air campaign that took multiple Russian air defense systems out in the process.
On May 19, the LAAF spokesperson announced that his forces are “repositioning” for tactical reasons. The LAAF later announced that it will retreat for 2-3 km to “allow civilians to observe Eid.”
In reality, the LAAF had to engage in such a retreat to minimize its losses, not for humanitarian motives. The decision to move forces back, however, allowed Tripoli to have its first free-of-shelling night in months.
The recent blows to Haftar’s campaign have shaken the confidence of his backers in his capabilities. Should they continue to bet on the clearly losing horse, Egypt and even the UAE risk sabotaging their own interests in a future Libya.
An Egyptian official recently told Mada Masr that “no one can bet on Haftar again.” The Russians have already hinted at their desire to find a replacement for the renegade general.
Their contacts with the House of Representatives’ speaker, Agilah Salih, indicate their discontent with Haftar. In addition, the released footage of several Russian Pantsir-S1 systems being destroyed by the GNA must have been another wake-up call for the Kremlin.
The recent shift in events provides the U.S. with a chance to interfere diplomatically and bring an end to the hostilities in Libya. Although the Administration has been more outspoken, in statements, about its support for the GNA in the last few weeks, these statements are not enough.
The U.S. should use its diplomatic power to pressure the UAE, Egypt, and Russia to end their support for Haftar.
The Trump Administration has refrained from taking an active role in Libya as such involvement would have been expensive. The current status, however, allows the U.S. to re-assume a leading role at no cost.
All that the U.S. needs today is a work of diplomacy and political pressure. No American military involvement is necessary as the tide is already turning against Haftar.
In addition, even for an operation to implement the arms embargo, the U.S. could delegate the military work to the European Union. Once the EU coordinates with the Libyan government, as per the guidelines of the Security Council, an operation like IRINI might suffice.
Moreover, with the US’s own Stephanie Williams leading the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), the work of American diplomacy could be easier and more effective.
Libya might be one of a few foreign policy issues that both parties in the U.S. agree on. The State Department, the foreign policy arm of the executive branch, warned repeatedly against the Russian interference in Libya.
A top State Department official said in April that “Moscow is seeking an enhanced presence in Libya to expand its influence across the Med and also onto the African continent.”
Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell told the senate on May 7 that “ Putin’s regime continues to threaten American interests along with international security— from bullying incursions in the free states it used to rule, to influence-peddling and mercenary adventurism in the power vacuums of Syria and Libya.”
A bipartisan group of congressmen from the House Committee on Foreign Relations wrote a letter to the Secretary of State in June of 2019 urging him to “exert U.S. diplomatic pressure to encourage a return to negotiations.”
This week, the Pentagon weighed in on the Russian support for Haftar. The Commander of the U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Townsend, said in a statement that “Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya.”
Another commander warned that “Russia could seize bases on Libya’s coast,” which will prove costly to the U.S. and its allies in Europe.
The main U.S. foreign policy shapers, but the White House, seem to agree on the threat of conceding Libya today. The recent declared positions, especially those of the State and Defense Departments, might be aiming to “scare the White House into taking some kind of action,” as Libya Scholar Jalel Harchaoui stated to Foreign Policy.
Given the apparent agreement on the urgency of the situation, the White House can and should adapt the same position.
Internationally, the U.S. could reassure its commitment to its European and NATO allies by preventing the emergence of a Russian threat some hundred kilometers away from European cities.
Domestically, a firm position against Russian interference in Libya could help clear the perception that the Trump Administration is soft on Russia.
The situation in Libya today presents an opportunity for President Trump to stand up to Putin. In an election year, the president could use such a stance to discredit his opponents’ criticism of his position on Russia.
If the U.S. fails to take action soon, however, it risks being marginalized by other powers. The Russian intrusion would not have been possible in the first place without the vacuum caused by the U.S.’ indifference toward the North African country.
Absent U.S. diplomatic interference today, the conflict would continue to rage on and the country risks further escalation. Russia and other backers would shift their support while maintaining their leverage.
The U.S. risks allowing Russia to gain, yet again, access to the Mediterranean. In the long run, a continued conflict in Libya does not serve American interests, neither does a Russian presence in North Africa.
Through the inexpensive work of diplomacy, made feasible by the GNA’s recent advances, the U.S. could pressure Egypt and the UAE to abandon Haftar and return all other actors to a negotiating table.
Political talks in the future needs to exclude those who spoiled earlier attempts for peace, especially Haftar. There should be no doubt, at this point, that Haftar is not interested in a peaceful, political settlement.
Failing to realize this reality would only take Libya further back a few years, risking the repetition of the same mistakes again, as the renegade general would continue his attempts to seize power.
For the sake of its future, the country must move on and get past Haftar.
To achieve a political solution without the spoilers, the U.S. should rally Libya’s neighbors, especially Tunisia and Algeria, along with European states to support talks between the GNA and other Libyan actors who are interested in reaching a political settlement, under the leadership of the U.S. and the UNSMIL.
With the recent blows to Haftar’s offensive, there is a chance for peace. Today, the time is ripe for the U.S. to do good in Libya; but the window of opportunity might be closing soon.
Mohamed Abufalgha – Graduate student pursuing Master’s in global policy studies with a focus on diplomacy and conflict resolution, experienced in research on issues of war, migration, and refugees in the Middle East and North Africa. A Brumley Fellow at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law.