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America's new Libya strategy: is it about Libya or about kicking Russia out of Libya?

April 6, 2023 at 8:30 am

A soldier waves Libyan flag, at the Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli, Libya on 16 February 2021 [Hazem Turkia/Anadolu Agency]

Last May, three months after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Biden-Harris Administration released what it called “Global Fragility Act”: a policy paper aimed at ending conflicts around the globe or, at least, containing their aftermaths away from the United States.

Libya featured high in that document, not only as an example of conflict and how its consequences could be contained, but also as an example to show the Democratic administration’s wider response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and also attempts to help Libya become more stable and peaceful. Remember that the White House has been the main force lobbying other nations to support Ukraine against Russia, be it in the halls of the United Nations or in sending arms and ammunition to Kyiv. This raised questions about how serious Washington is when it comes to ending the conflict in Libya.

To try to answer that question the White House, last month, released what it called “The US Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability 10-Year Strategic Plan for Libya”. The document is seen as a follow-up and a more detailed roadmap to the “Global Fragility Act”, and how it could be implemented in the real world.

Notably, this time, the United States has singled Russia out as a threat to “NATO’s southern flank and further destabilising the Sahel region”. It also points the finger at Russia’s Wagner Group’s presence in Libya, without actually mentioning it by name. It implicitly points out the fact that Libya might become the springboard for wider Wagner Group activities in Libya’s southern neighbours and the entire African Sahel. In recent years, the mercenary group, Wagner, has been the favourite security partner in countries like Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, even replacing the long French presence in the region. Wagner still maintains a couple of thousand fighters in different locations in Libya.

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What the US document does not mention is the fact that it is not only Russia that is meddling in Libya, including having armed forces or fighters stationed in the country. Some of Washington’s regional allies are also actively pursuing their own agendas and that of their local proxies. Ankara, for example, has deployed thousands of Syrian mercenaries in Libya, alongside an unknown number of its troops, after it signed the 2019 agreement with Tripoli. Egypt, Libya’s eastern neighbour, is a strong supporter of the forces in Eastern Libya led by General Khalifa Haftar and the Tobruk-based parliament. Cairo has not, so far, deployed any fighting forces in Libya, but is known to offer other forms of support such as intelligence sharing and security coordination.

But what really serves Washington best, at this time, is to blame Russia as much as possible for as many of Libya’s ills as possible. On top of all that, Libya is an important regional oil producer and is strategically located in North Africa on the southern Mediterranean coast.

Washington also would very much like to see Moscow kicked out, not only from Libya but from the entire African continent and the eastern Mediterranean. This, partially, explains why Libya has become an important country for Washington in its lobbying against Moscow. Washington’s renewed interest in Libya has been recently manifested in at least two high ranking officials visiting the North African country.

Earlier this year, William Burns, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, visited Libya and met with Prime Minister, Dbeibeh, and General Haftar in the eastern region. Then, last month, Barbara Leaf, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, also met Mr. Haftar and Mr. Dbeibeh in Benghazi and Tripoli, respectively. The US’s ambassador and special envoy to Libya, Richard Norland, has been one of the most active foreign diplomats in the country. In all these meetings, Wagner and Russian presence in Libya and beyond, across Africa, have been points of discussion. Such discussions intensified after the Ukraine war.

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In any case, the new US document is promising to help Libya achieve four main objectives described as a “guiding” to all “development, and security engagement”. They are: advance the transition to a stable and democratic system; better integration of the “marginalised” southern region; unified and civilian controlled military and foster sustainable economic growth that fights corruption and better manages revenues. When it comes to policy papers and long term plans, this is exactly what Libya really needs. However, how sincere Washington is about this is another story.

Interestingly, the decade-long US plan envisions helping new Libya through the country’s grassroots civil organisations mushrooming around Libya almost every day after the NATO military intervention of 2011. Washington also points out the important role played by such organisations in Libya’s southern region.

However, civil society organisations in Libya are not operating freely and their very existence is questionable, given the shaky legal ground they are built on. Just last February, Libya’s top judiciary body, the Supreme Judiciary Council, announced that all Libyan and foreign civil organisations operating in Libya are illegal and must be restructured in accordance with the 2001 law. Also, most civil organisations in the country are too weak and enjoy very little credibility among ordinary Libyans. Most people question the funding of such organisations, and why they exist in the first place.

Even worse, Libya’s top civil organisation administration responsible for setting the smartcards for civil society activism is, itself, divided and weak. How such a chaotic scene could produce a driver for the new US strategy in Libya is unclear. Libya lacks the kind of effective, credible and transparent civil organisations and the last 12 years of chaos did not help, either.

READ: Libya, Ukraine hold talks on bilateral military cooperation

The US, undoubtedly, would like to see a stable and secure Libya as a potential ally against Russia and, maybe, China too. However, having the right words, key sentences and nice phrases put into a document is not enough or convincing to the suspicious Libyan people.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.