By Antonino Occhiuto & Dylan Yachyshen

Joe Biden has shown an interest in maintaining stability and strengthening alliances, in contrast with Trump’s hesitance to intervene in foreign nations.

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On the eve of the 2011 Western military intervention in Libya, Joe Biden, then vice president, worried that the fall of Libya’s long-time dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, would cause the disintegration of the North African country.

Almost a decade later, Biden’s fears have materialized. NATO ousted Gaddafi but did not prevent an internal conflict that has attracted the attention of regional and international powers. Libya’s second civil war (2014-present) has destabilized North Africa and the Sahel.

The conflict could offer President-elect Biden the opportunity to restore Washington’s commitment to multilateralism and reverse the perception that the U.S. has little interest in North African affairs, felt by several international stakeholders under Trump.

On 23 October 2020, the opposing sides agreed to a permanent ceasefire. In the coming months, Biden’s foreign policy team could play a key role in ensuring that ceasefire holds.

Arguably, the incoming administration is well positioned to act to reduce incentives for war among local, regional, and international actors with important stakes on the Libya dossier.

This would prevent Libya’s cycle of violence—characterized by widespread human rights abuses and external players violating international norms—from resuming, as it did following several previous multilateral efforts to resolve the crisis in which the U.S. played a marginal role, such as the January 2020 conference in Berlin.

As opposed to Trump’s ambivalence towards the warring factions, Biden can be expected to firmly support the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli against the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by the Cyrenaica-based warlord Khalifa Haftar, in case hostilities resume.

Beyond coordinating support for the GNA with the UN and European allies, Washington can take steps to pressure General Haftar into compromising.

The Biden administration could threaten to revoke the warlord’s U.S. citizenship and seize his U.S.-based financial assets. According to The Wall Street Journal, Haftar holds millions in real estate assets in the U.S. The seizure of those assets would constitute a significant blow for the leader of the fight against the GNA.

When it comes to citizenship, Haftar was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in the 1990s, as the CIA was keen to enlist him in its plan to oust Gaddafi.

Arguably, Haftar’s U.S. citizenship has put the warlord in a privileged position compared to other local leaders and reduced the likelihood of foreign states or international organizations to target him with sanctions.

Standing against regional interferences

It is no secret that Turkey, the most active international supporter of the GNA, was one of the few NATO member states that would have welcomed Trump’s re-election.

Arguably, after getting used to Trump’s personal and transactional management of bilateral ties, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was happy with the degree of foreign policy freedom that he could enjoy across the Middle East under the outgoing administration.

Ankara is now keen not to alienate Biden on Libya, as continued U.S. support for the GNA also works towards Turkish interests in the country.

Moreover, the Libya dossier and joint support for the GNA could constitute a platform to strengthen Washington-Ankara cooperation elsewhere in the region.

Regardless, under Biden, a continuation of Turkey’s active military involvement on the ground in Libya would be considered as destabilizing and detrimental to Washington’s efforts to de-escalate the crisis in the North African country.

Biden is also likely to have a more difficult working relationship with other authoritarian leaderships in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Russia—the main supporters of the LNA, alongside France.

When it comes to the UAE, the new administration could use the proposed U.S. sale of F-35 warplanes to Abu Dhabi as leverage to incentivize the UAE to compromise on Libya and discourage its support for future offensives by Haftar.

Following years of Emirati diplomatic efforts, not obtaining the sale of the F-35s from Washington would constitute a serious blow to Abu Dhabi’s international image.

The UAE’s desire to purchase the F-35s could give Washington additional leverage if Biden demonstrates that he plans to reduce the number of defense deals that have characterized U.S. ties to Gulf states under Trump.

In such a scenario, Abu Dhabi would increasingly fear that the F-35 deal is at risk.

Egypt is another country with important stakes in Libya and a key supporter of the LNA. The country’s President, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, is likely to be under increased scrutiny by the incoming administration over Cairo’s widespread domestic human rights violations.

During his presidential campaign, Biden criticized Trump’s support for Al Sisi, implying a possible change in Washington’s policies towards Egypt in case he was elected.

Although Al Sisi was the first Arab leader to congratulate Biden following his victory in the U.S. presidential election, this is unlikely to translate into a shared vision for Libya’s future.

While the Biden foreign policy team considers external involvement in Libya as a key cause for the continuation of the conflict, perceived Islamist influence over the GNA in Libya could push Egypt’s leadership to interfere in the neighboring country for the foreseeable future.

Wider International Implications

Growing U.S. support for the GNA and for the UN’s efforts to halt the fighting in Libya could pressure France into reconsidering its position and into closer alignment with Washington’s other EU allies, such as Germany and Italy, that support the GNA.

Paris has been backing Haftar politically, has given him implicit diplomatic recognition in international conferences and has supported the LNA’s military efforts.

Internal EU cohesion is necessary to broker a settlement for Libya, while intra-EU divergences have already played a key role in the failure of the Berlin Conference.

Russia is yet another country that has been increasingly involved in Libya and that stands to be affected by the incoming leadership change in Washington, in North Africa and beyond.

Before the election, Biden outlined the need to counter Russia and impose “real costs for its violation of international norms.” When it comes to Libya, Moscow’s deployment of some 1,200 contractors of the state-sponsored Wagner Group to support Haftar’s offensives against Tripoli came under intense scrutiny from the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) already in July 2020.

The activities of the Wagner Group have also included the deployment of military equipment to conduct kinetic operations in and from Libya.

In addition, Moscow’s decision to fly 14 Mig-29s and Su-24s over to Libya, to provide air cover to Wagner contractors, has raised fears in Washington that Russia could aim to establish an air base in Cyrenaica, thus posing a new threat to NATO’s southern flank.

In case Moscow’s contractors play any role in re-igniting the conflict on the ground, a possible reaction from the Biden administration could be to impose sanctions on those Russian decision-makers involved in Wagner’s deployment or any future Russian deployment in Libya.

Overall, Washington’s renewed focus on Libya, to ensure the continuation of the ceasefire, could serve as a testing ground for the incoming Biden administration’s pledge to promote U.S. leadership and multilateral cooperation to address international crises, following years of transactional foreign policy under Trump.

In Libya, such a new approach would require standing up to regional and international authoritarian regimes and rallying the support of traditional U.S. allies, something that Biden appears ready to do on an array of foreign policy dossiers.

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Antonino Occhiuto is an Analyst and Researcher at Gulf State Analytics (GSA). Based in Rome, he completed his postgraduate studies in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where he obtained an MSc in International Politics.

Dylan Yachyshen is an intern at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and will graduate from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in May 2021, majoring in international affairs and economics and French. Dylan is an editor at Boulder’s Colorado Political Science Review, involved in the community through volunteer initiatives, speaks English and French and is learning Arabic. He is an intern at Gulf State Analytics.

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