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US: What is President Biden’s Libya strategy?

By Sarah Vernhes
Posted on Wednesday, 24 February 2021 23:35, updated on Thursday, 25 February 2021 00:22

Joe Biden in Washington, February 22, 2021 © Evan Vucci / AP / SIPA

The Tripoli government hopes to see the new US President get involved in Libya again. In particular, it is counting on Washington's support to ensure the withdrawal of Russian mercenaries.

The Tripoli government is looking for President Joe Biden to demand the withdrawal of foreign forces from Libya. Elected president on 5 February, Mohamed al-Menfi wants to begin this process to legitimise his power.

The withdrawal of the Russian Wagner Group’s mercenaries and that of the Turkish forces present in the west of the country are the prerequisite conditions for the full and complete entry into force of the recent ceasefire.

The ceasefire was approved by the so-called 5+5 military committee, a joint task force consisting of the Tripoli government and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s camp. But the discussions – the last of which, led by Menfi, date back to 21 February – remain at a standstill.

The foreign forces’ departure from the town of Sirte, along which the Wagner Group dug a trench, was due to take place before 23 January. However, the deadline has come and gone, and neither Russia nor Turkey have budged.

More urgently, the coastal city is due to host on 26 February the deputies of the house of representatives, who must approve – by a vote – the composition of the new government.

Moscow in the spotlight

Biden’s election in November 2020, however, suggests that the US will return to the Libyan case. Washington is now showing its willingness to end the proxy war being waged in Libya by Turkey, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.

Moscow, which had taken advantage of the US’ absence to occupy the field, is more than ever in the firing line. The White House wants to put an end to its activities in Libya, while Wagner’s troops continue to be deployed at the airbases of Barak al-Shati (South) and Jufra (North).

Discussions in diplomatic circles have resumed. On 28 January, John Sullivan, the US ambassador in Moscow, met with Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister.

On the same day, Richard Mills, the US ambassador to the UN, criticised Ankara and Moscow, demanding an end to their military interventions and the withdrawal of their mercenaries.

According to United Nations estimates, there are 20,000 of them in total. Some are fighting alongside the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli while others are part of Haftar’s forces.

However, Mills’ criticisms merely echoed the Libya Stabilisation Act that Ted Deutch – a Democrat who supports the Tripoli government – had presented in October 2019 in the US house of representatives.

The bill would impose sanctions on military, mercenary and paramilitary contractors operating in Libya. It therefore directly targets the Wagner Group and Turkish troops.

Turkish domination

Washington has not followed up on these meagre efforts. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on 9 February that he would not withdraw troops until other foreign forces did so.

For economic and ideological reasons, Ankara aligned itself at the end of 2019 with the GNA, to which it sent reinforcements. Its objective was to reposition itself within the former framework of Ottoman domination, by playing on the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhoods of the two countries.

Over the course of its existence, the GNA has heavily relied on the Brotherhood’s connections. From former Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj to Fathi Bashagha, his interior minister, and Salaheddine Namroush, his defence minister, the Muslim Brotherhood has had powerful allies in Tripoli.

The Brotherhood has a number of trumps up its sleeve. Today, it is trying to influence the formation of the next government and a man close to it: the new prime minister, Abdulhamid al-Dabaib.

The Brothers view Biden’s election in a positive light. They are counting on the return of faces from the former administration of Barack Obama, which was more conciliatory with them than former president Donald Trump’s. He was considering classifying the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation.

Back to interventionism?

One of the signs indicating that the US will soon be returning to the international scene was Antony Blinken’s appointment to the position of secretary of state. A former deputy adviser to the National Security Council and assistant secretary of state under Obama, Blinken is known for his interventionist stance. He supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 intervention in Libya.

“Joe Biden had several times expressed doubts about the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s  intervention in Libya, which he considered to be a mistake. However, knowing what is at stake in the Mediterranean basin, Biden will certainly act, even though he intends to focus first on domestic policy,” says historian Federica Saini Fasanotti, affiliated with the Brookings Institution’s Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology.

Tahani Elmogrbi, a Libyan expert at Culmen International, agrees: “It is too early to know what Biden’s new diplomatic policy will be. But his priority remains to put the United States in order and deal with domestic problems.”

Among the tasks to be undertaken is appointing a new US special envoy to Libya.

This post, held by Jonathan Winer from 2013 to 2016, had been left vacant under Trump. “Such an appointment would have a symbolic significance”, says Elmogrbi. “For four years, the state department has simply supported everything that UNSMIL [the UN support mission in Libya] was doing.”

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