By Thomas Hill

U.S. interventions

The United States has shown little interest in Libya since the Obama administration’s support for NATO military engagement.

The reported strategy of “leading from behind” in Libya has prioritized the role of the United Nations, a strategy that the United States doubled-down on following the assassination of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in 2012.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations have seen the Libya conflict as largely a European problem where U.S. equities are limited. The United States sent a low-level delegation to the meetings in Paris and Palermo in 2018.

USAFRICOM has identified Libya as one of its four lines of effort but the strategy of “by, with, and through” places a premium on regional partnerships which have been slow to materialize in the Libyan context.

As a result, the U.S. strategy continues to be to respond kinetically to terrorist threats and publicly support the United Nations.  Following a reported call between President Trump and Field Marshal Haftar this past month, some have questioned if the U.S. strategy has been influenced by Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Plan A: United Nations in the lead

When the NATO military campaign in Libya ended in October 2011, the United Nations established the Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) to support the country’s transition to an elected government.

None of the countries that participated in Operation Unified Protector wanted to own the project of reconstructing Libya and so the United Nations was charged with the responsibility of managing Libya’s post-Gaddafi transition.

Importantly, UNSMIL is neither a peacekeeping nor humanitarian mission; it is a political mission.  UNSMIL’s mandate is to exercise mediation and good offices in support of the implementation of any political agreement(s).

Only upon request can UNSMIL provide essential services or humanitarian assistance; these are provided through IOM and UNDP. 

Proposals to insert a peacekeeping mission in Libya in 2011 were met with resistance by Libyans who believed that they were capable of resolving their own conflicts and feared foreign intervention.

The continuation of violence has prompted renewed calls for the introduction of “a modest international force for very specific security-related purposes.” Such proposals continue to be unsupported by the majority of Libyans.

From its outset, UNSMIL has been undermined by external actors (see above) and had its credibility challenged by political miscalculations, institutional dysfunction, and scandals involving successive Special Representatives of the Secretary-General (SRSGs). UNSMIL had six envoys in its first six years.

The third envoy, Tarek Mitri, was in charge during the critical period leading up to the escalation in violence in 2014.

In interviews since his resignation, Mitri has lamented that the UN rushed elections in 2012, and “the election made the power struggle take precedence over the state-building process.

Building the state should have preceded the struggle for power.” Under Mitri, UNSMIL was also criticized for having no one on staff with expertise in reforming security institutions.

Mitri was replaced in 2014 by Spaniard Bernardino Leon.  Leon’s tenure ended after emails surfaced exposing Leon’s efforts to secure a high-paying position in the UAE. Leon resigned as SRSG in 2015 and has since taken a position in the Emirates as the director general of a diplomatic academy.

At the very least, Leon’s connections with the Emiratis raised questions about UNSMIL’s neutrality for many Libyans.  

German Martin Kobler was then tapped to be SRSG. Kobler was ultimately pushed out after meeting with Petroleum Facilities Guard leader Ibrahim Jadran, a move seen by many – including members of the National Oil Corporation (NOC) – as legitimizing a warlord.

Kobler was accused of facilitating a deal with Jadran whereby the Tripoli-based Presidency Council would allow Jadran to control certain oil facilities in return for recognition. The deal was seen by many as UNSMIL appeasement of a criminal.

By 2017, Kobler was under increasing scrutiny for having overseen the failed implementation of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). Initially, former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyed was chosen to replace Kobler but his candidacy was scuttled due to opposition from other Member States. Kobler was replaced in June 2017 by Lebanese academic Ghassan Salamé.

Initial support for Salamé began to unravel as Salamé was unable to deliver significant progress towards ending the Libyan conflict.

Salamé’s ability to mediate between Field Marshal Haftar and Fayez Serraj was undermined by repeated diplomatic conferences and negotiations hosted by France, Italy, Egypt, and the UAE (listed above).

International pressure on Salamé increased as Field Marshal Haftar’s LNA started its military offensive through southern Libya in January 2019.

Reports that Field Marshal Haftar planned to assault Tripoli had circulated since at least December 2018. Salamé pressed for a political solution and announced that UNSMIL would host a long-awaited National Conference in Ghadames, Libya between April 12-13.

This proved to be the proverbial breaking point for UNSMIL’s credibility for Libyans.

Field Marshal Haftar launched his military offensive against the GNA ten days before UNSMIL’s National Conference, ending hopes of a political solution in the foreseeable future.

That Field Marshal Haftar attacked Tripoli while SRSG Salamé and UN Secretary General António Guterres were in Libya, further demonstrated the irrelevance of the SRSG and the United Nations to Libyans.

Since the start of Field Marshal Haftar’s April campaign, France, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United States have all signaled that Field Marshal Haftar’s aggression will be tolerated and accepted rather than condemned.

Many Libyans have lost faith in UNSMIL and no longer see it as a credible institution capable of bringing peace to Libya.

Plan B: After the United Nations

If “Plan A” was to allow the United Nations to resolve the Libyan conflict, that experiment has failed. The United Nations was not able to constrain external actors who frequently sought to advance narrow self-interest at the expense of peace and stability in Libya.

The United Nations was not given the resources or mandate necessary to fulfill its charge; in retrospect, a political mission did not have the coercive power to constrain internal spoilers and external actors.  

Four weeks after Field Marshal Haftar’s advance on Tripoli ended all hope of a UN-led peace process, it now seems clear that the LNA does not have the strength to take Tripoli without a significant influx of military and financial support from external actors and at great cost and humanitarian suffering to the people of Tripoli.  

General Thomas Waldhauser, Commander of the United States Africa Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2017 that “[t]he instability in Libya and North Africa may be the most significant, near-term threat to U.S. and allies’ interests on the continent.”

Unfortunately, the situation in Libya has deteriorated significantly since General Waldhauser’s testimony and his warning is all the more exigent. A political solution to the Libyan conflict remains the best possible outcome and while other international actors can play an important role, the United States is uniquely placed to play a constructive role.

Precisely because the United States has remained largely disconnected from the Libyan conflict since 2012, the United States is now still perceived as an honest broker by many Libyans.

This does not mean that the United States is obligated or even should entertain the possibility of shouldering the responsibility for resolving Libya’s conflict. However, the United States does have the convening power to bring various internal and external actors together and apply pressure against potential spoilers.

The United States has considerable diplomatic capacity to organize a process that leads to a peaceful transition in Libya.

Today, the United States enjoys good relations with all the relevant external actors (Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France, and Italy).

The United States has already demonstrated its capacity to resolve crises in Libya, as it did in mid-2018 when the United States was able to resolve the Libyan Oil Crescent conflict and reopen critical oil spigots, allowing Libya to access necessary foreign currency.

The Trump administration has not identified a Special Envoy for Libya following the departure of Jonathan Winer in January 2017.

My testimony does not advocate for the naming of a new Special Envoy for Libya as others have argued. There are many capable people already employed at the Department of State and in roles where they could lead a renewed U.S. engagement in Libya.

However, it is critical that the United States signal its sincerity by sending appropriate senior-level delegations to international meetings on Libya.

The recent practice of sending mid-level officers denotes a lack of interest and appreciation for the seriousness of the national security threats that emanate from chaos in Libya.

The Libyan people have expressed a desire for reconciliation and an end to the post-Gaddafi transition period; it is their leaders and external actors that have refused to hear this message.

The U.S. Institute of Peace is working with civil society in southern Libya and it is clear that these historically marginalized communities long for peace and stability. They reject the criminal elements and terrorists that have taken root in the country.  

Absent U.S. leadership to corral the internal and external actors operating inside Libya today, it is unlikely that the current stand-off between the Field Marshal Haftar and anti-Haftar forces in Tripoli can be resolved without significant costs to the unarmed civilian population.

Such a bloodbath will create a new flood of irregular migrants into Europe and provide terrorist groups with an opportunity to exploit Libya’s ungoverned spaces.

Former U.S. Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley was correct when she warned that “[t]hose that pursue a military solution will wind up helping terrorist groups that thrive on instability.”


Thomas Hill, senior program officer for North Africa, testified on May 15 at the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism hearing on “The Conflict in Libya.”




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