By Jack Detsch, Amy Mackinnon
Putin and Erdogan “act when there’s a stick involved,” a House aide said.
U.S. lawmakers are advancing a bill that would compel the Trump administration to levy sanctions on Russia and Turkey for fueling an escalation in the civil war in Libya, as the Defense Department has warned about the deployment of foreign mercenaries into the war zone.
The Libya Stabilization Act, which is expected to pass out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week, would impose mandatory sanctions on both countries within six months, giving the White House wide leeway to revoke U.S. visas or freeze funds in American banks, a bid to keep Russia in particular from establishing a bridgehead across the Mediterranean.
“We don’t want Russia to establish a foothold on what is essentially the soft underbelly of NATO in Europe,” a House aide familiar with the legislation told Foreign Policy. “Other than chastising them there haven’t been significant penalties.”
“With [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and [Vladimir] Putin and more broadly, they act when there’s a stick involved or a penalty held above their head,” the aide added, referring to the Turkish and Russian presidents.
The legislation comes as the conflict in Libya is intensifying, with Egypt the latest country to consider wading into the fight, which pits an internationally recognized government in Tripoli—the Government of National Accord, which is supported by Turkey—against Russia-backed rebels in the eastern part of the country.
Aides said the legislation would allow for sanctions on Egypt if President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi goes ahead with his threat to send the Egyptian military into Libya in support of the so-called Libyan National Army in the east, which is also backed by the United Arab Emirates. The decision by the Egyptian parliament this month to approve a troop deployment to Libya could put Ankara and Cairo on a collision course and further aggravate the proxy conflict.
But despite pressure from allies like the UAE to enter the conflict, Egypt may not be eager to take on a resurgent Turkey—and open the door to U.S. sanctions. On a recent call with U.S. President Donald Trump, Sisi appeared to back off a pledge to intervene in the war-torn country, instead calling for a cease-fire.
“Cairo is very hesitant and skeptical when it comes to facing off against the GNA’s coalition knowing that it is backed by a very assertive Turkey that is officially in western Libya,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague.
While parties to the conflict have doubled down on their military presence—the U.S. military has called out the use of Russian mercenaries and the deployment of more than a dozen Russian MiG-29 and Su-24 fighter aircraft to the country—there is little appetite to escalate the conflict, said Galip Dalay, a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy.
“All the actors in Libya are consolidating their military presence on the ground, but at the same time they’re all open to talks too,” he said.
The bill, first floated in the House last year by Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch and in the Senate by Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, would further crack down on human rights abusers and oil thieves. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch, a Republican, is also considering taking up the legislation.
As it has done before, Congress is trying to get the Trump administration to take action against Russia and Turkey for their foreign-policy missteps.
Trump pushed back against a near-unanimous Senate vote in 2017 to pass sweeping sanctions against Russia, and he has not imposed penalties on Turkey for taking delivery of a $2.5 billion Russian-made air defense system last summer.
Congress is seeing more appetite for punishing Russia as U.S. Africa Command has released satellite imagery showing paramilitaries from Russia’s quasi-public military contractors the Wagner Group backing the eastern warlord Khalifa Haftar and consolidating their position in the city of Sirte.
In a quarterly report to Congress issued last week, the Defense Department’s inspector general for counterterrorism operations in North Africa estimated that between 800 and 2,500 Wagner mercenaries had been deployed to Libya in support of Haftar.
Africa Command also released images of Russian advanced fighter jets deployed in violation of a nine-year-old United Nations arms embargo and operated by mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group.
“There are pretty strong indications that [as] these violations are occurring there has been a lot more talk in the administration about sanctioning Russia,” the House aide added. “There’s a growing acceptance in the administration that sanctions might be necessary [and] we want to codify them [to] strengthen the administration’s hand.”
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that the Treasury Department threatened a round of sanctions against Haftar over the recent seizure of two key Libyan oil fields by the Wagner Group. In June, 28,000 more Libyans were displaced from Tripoli, Tarhuna, and Sirte, according to Mercy Corps, a nongovernmental humanitarian organization.
Several countries including the UAE, Turkey, and Egypt have also been accused of flouting the arms embargo. In February, a senior U.N. official said that the embargo has become a “joke” and called for stricter monitoring and enforcement of the ban.
The new legislation would continue using U.S. sanctions against Wagner, after Washington previously hit the group’s affiliates with sanctions, freezing any U.S. assets they may have and barring them from doing business in the United States for their activities in eastern Ukraine and Syria.
Earlier this month, the Treasury Department announced new sanctions targeting Wagner affiliates operating in Sudan for collaborating with the country’s former President Omar al-Bashir in efforts to suppress pro-democracy protests.
But sanctions, while a tougher response than seen so far, are a blunt tool to try to change Russia’s behavior. “As we’ve seen with other types of Russian sanctions, it sort of becomes a game of whack-a-mole, where one side is constantly looking to evade the sanctions,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute.
Still, the new legislation would go some way toward creating a U.S. Libya policy, even if it’s a purely punitive one. The Trump administration has largely deferred to European powers to haggle over a settlement to the yearslong conflict.
France had backed Haftar until he was pushed out of the city of Tarhuna in June, while Italy has floated a naval blockade to help the Government of National Accord enforce the U.N.-backed arms embargo.
“It’s clear that the United States is increasingly concerned about Russian activity in Libya,” Borshchevskaya said. “But the missing piece is broader American leadership with regards to resolving the broader conflict in Libya, as opposed to only talking about sanctions.”
Though Trump called for a cease-fire in the country last month, efforts to kick-start the administration’s policy appear to have stalled out, even as Libya faces huge humanitarian challenges from the conflict and the coronavirus pandemic—infections now stand at around 3,000 after doubling in the past two weeks, according to Mercy Corps.
A National Security Council-led review of U.S. policy begun last year still has yet to produce a final product, while diplomats on the ground have been mostly concerned about trying to get peace talks back on track.
“This bill would be the closest we’ve been to a coherent U.S. Libya policy that we’ve been in a long time,” said a former U.S. official familiar with the matter.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. He was previously a staff writer for Al-Monitor covering intelligence and defense.
Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy.