By Missy Ryan & Sudarsan Raghavan
An absence of U.S. leadership in Libya has allowed a dangerous international confrontation to deepen, analysts say, as a spiraling proxy war stokes threats to American economic and security interests and provides Russia a platform to expand its clout in the Mediterranean.
The U.S. position on the margins of the conflict — complicated by uncertainty about which side Washington supports — takes on new significance as Russia, Turkey and now possibly Egypt pour weapons and fighters into a combustible battle.
“The U.S. is essentially out of the game. The Libyans are unable to make their own decisions, entirely dependent on foreign actors,” a Western diplomat said. “There is total drift.”
Libya in recent months has become a free-for-all for regional and European powers, many of them American allies that have stepped into the security and political vacuum in support of rival governments. A divide is now also growing among NATO nations, while mercenaries from Russia, Syria and sub-Saharan Africa rush in, sensing economic opportunity.
The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, warned that the conflict had entered a new, perilous phase because of “unprecedented” foreign military involvement. Civilian casualties have surged, and retreating fighters have planted explosives in residential areas. Now, a battle may be brewing near the city of Sirte, along Libya’s coast, as each side brings heavier munitions to the fight.
“Time is not on our side,” Guterres said last week.
The situation illustrates the effects of a haphazard engagement on foreign policy matters by President Trump, who appeared to upend diplomatic efforts to strengthen a U.N.-backed government last year by declaring his support for the leader of the rival faction, would-be military ruler Khalifa Hifter.
In recent weeks, Trump has called for a halt to the fighting in conversations with the leaders of Egypt, Turkey and France, as U.S. military officials have sounded the alarm over new Russian military deployments that potentially threaten U.S. naval assets in the Mediterranean.
The chaotic situation also draws attention to the fact that by abiding by the arms embargo, the United States may have diminished its own ability to shape Libya’s future.
Even so, the war in Libya does not figure among America’s top foreign policy priorities, as the White House focuses on China, Iran and Trump’s desire to curtail America’s role in insurgent conflicts, all against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and a looming U.S. election.
“Unfortunately, the U.S. is ceding its influence,” said Emadeddin Badi, a Libya expert and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “All the states who have capitalized from the U.S. absence are now benefiting.”
In the years since it helped pull together the NATO-led operation that toppled dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011, the United States has limited its involvement in Libya, viewing the North African oil-producing nation largely through a counterterrorism lens and urging European nations to take the lead.
To this day, many Libyans denounce the United States, unfairly or not, for not offering more help in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. While American diplomats attempted for years to build legitimacy around the U.N.-brokered Government of National Accord, or GNA, their support has grown more cautious as it has remained weak and reliant on militia groups for protection.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, have expressed exasperation with Hifter — a former military officer turned Gaddafi opponent who enjoyed CIA backing in the 1980s and 1990s — over his determination to take control by force.
Hifter’s year-long military offensive to capture the capital ended in early June, months after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — over American objections — sent his military to defend the GNA.
Hifter’s failure to take Tripoli came even as the conflict took a dramatic turn in May, when Russia covertly flew advanced fighter jets to Libya, adding to a long list of U.N. arms embargo violations and bringing major firepower in support of Hifter following the deployment of Kremlin-linked Russian mercenaries.
Russia and Turkey appear to be motivated in part by Libya’s economic promise as one of the world’s largest oil producers, and its position on Europe’s southern flank.
Rear Adm. Heidi Berg, the top intelligence officer at U.S. Africa Command, which has taken unusual steps to publicly document Russian involvement in Libya, said Moscow was trying to position itself as a broker of peace while stoking conflict behind the scenes, as U.S. officials allege it has in Ukraine, Sudan and the Central African Republic.
“Proxy forces . . . have previously had a seat at the negotiating table and have had undue influence on the outcome, but now have almost become the principal interlocutors,” Berg said in an interview. “That highlights what Russia has wanted: international prestige and the ability to impose costs on the international community — to be the one that counts at the negotiating table.”
Russia also stands to gain if Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi follows through on a threat last month to send his military into Libya if GNA forces pushed too far east. U.S. officials say Egypt, a longtime supporter of Hifter’s faction, has been making military preparations for a potential intervention.
The conflict has also pitted NATO nations against one another as France, which U.S. officials say supports Hifter, vows it will not tolerate Turkey’s “dangerous game” in support of the GNA.
Faced with the fast-moving battlefield maneuvers, U.S. diplomats say they have continued “robust” efforts, mostly behind the scenes, in support of a political settlement under a policy they characterize as “active neutrality.”
“First and foremost, this is a European problem,” said a senior State Department official, who like other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
“We are invested in trying to get this solved, but this is enormously complex, the Syrianization of Libya,” the official said, making reference to the war in Syria, where military missions by Iran, Russia and Turkey have added to the bloodshed.
As one example of continued U.S. engagement, officials cited Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s participation this year in a Libya summit in Berlin, where several nations including Russia, France and Turkey laid out an ultimately unsuccessful cease-fire plan and called for an end to violence even as some of them were providing clandestine support to one Libyan side or the other.
“Many of our allies and regional partners, in addition to Russian mercenary Wagner forces, have made it very difficult,” the official said, referring to a Kremlin-linked security firm called Wagner Group. “When we go to multilateral events and get commitments . . . from our allies and partners to respect the arms embargo and then they refuse to do so, it complicates it.”
Mixed messages from Washington have added to the complications as White House officials, particularly under former national security adviser John Bolton, have looked more favorably on Hifter’s vow to root out Islamists who have flourished in Libya’s post-revolution chaos than on State Department efforts to do the same.
Trump appeared to sign off on Hifter’s military offensive during a call in April 2019, giving the perception that the United States officially supported the strongman as Libya’s legitimate leader.
U.S. officials have since sought to clarify their position — in support of a political settlement rather than picking any particular side — but the damage was done.
“America’s body language continues to matter a great deal,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya analyst at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague.
Moscow is poised to benefit if Egypt sends troops into Libya, a move that would highlight Washington’s ebbing influence over Egypt. Despite receiving $1.3 billion in U.S. aid annually, Cairo has been moving closer to Moscow, purchasing Russian armaments and recently cementing a nuclear power deal.
Despite those threats, the Trump administration is unlikely to dramatically increase its engagement in Libya. Even in places where U.S. interests are clearer, an abiding feature of Trump’s foreign policy has been his desire to reduce U.S. involvement in overseas conflicts.
Another question is what Washington, even if it adopted a more activist role, could do at a stage when other nations have demonstrated willingness to employ military might.
“At the end of the day, you have Russians on the ground,” Badi said. “So unless you are willing to put in the effort, that’s not going to change. Russia will keep getting stronger and stronger.”
Missy Ryan writes about the Pentagon, military issues and national security for The Washington Post. She joined The Post in 2014 from Reuters, where she reported on U.S. national security and foreign policy issues. She has reported from Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mexico, Peru, Argentina and Chile.
Sudarsan Raghavan is The Washington Post’s Cairo bureau chief. has reported from more than 65 nations and territories. He has been posted in Baghdad, Kabul, Johannesburg, Madrid and Nairobi. He has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the 2011 Arab revolutions, as well as reported from 17 African wars.
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