The US State Department statement which clearly opposes the Cairo initiative to resolve the Libyan crisis, and for which President Donald Trump had previously announced his support, reflects the existence of moves to thwart efforts aimed at giving control of the Libyan file to the US President.
David Schenker, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, said that there were “useful” aspects to the Egyptian proposal for a truce in Libya, but a UN-led mediation effort to bring peace to that country is the best way forward.
On June 10, Trump expressed his support for the Cairo initiative launched by his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for an immediate ceasefire in Libya and the return to the search for a peaceful solution to the crisis, which many considered a sign of the White House’s desire to retake control of the US policy in Libya from the dominance of the Department of State.
Trump, who implicitly supports the Libyan National Army, rejects the control of Libya by Islamist groups since the overthrow of the late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, which had led, among many other things, to the assassination of former US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens.
United States officials view with concern Turkey’s transfer to Libya of Syrian fighters from Idlib, among them elements belonging to the Islamic State and the Al-Nusra Front, and which constitutes a threat to the security of US allies in North Africa and Europe.
According to statements a few days ago by Josep Borrell, the European Union’s High Commissioner for Security and Foreign Policy, the Cairo initiative does not contradict the decisions of the Berlin Conference.
And precisely regarding the Berlin Conference, the countries supporting the Libyan National Army, especially France and Russia, have made serious efforts to force the army and its commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar to accept the outcome of that conference, by stopping their support for the army’s campaign to take control of Tripoli and turning a blind eye to the Turkish intervention on the side of the Government of National Accord’s militias. The aim of that approach was creating a new military balance on the ground to end the LNA’s superiority.
The LNA recently withdrew from the entire western region in a move it said was aimed at completing the Berlin political process, but that withdrawal whetted Turkey’s and the militias’ appetites for more gains and they vowed to continue the fight until they gain control the city of Sirte, the southern region, and the oil crescent.
The US State Department’s rejection of the Cairo initiative raises questions about the US intentions in Libya and reinforces doubts that there is an intention to overturn the Berlin understandings through the United Nations new envoy to Libya, American diplomat Stephanie Williams, who is said to be affiliated with the State Department lobby.
It is widely believed in Libyan circles that Williams, who was Chargé d’Affaires at the American Embassy in Libya and has good relations with the Islamist movement and especially with the GNA’s Minister of Interior, Fathi Bashagha, was appointed as a deputy to the former UN envoy Ghassan Salameh to ensure the American Department of State’s control of the Libyan file.
Defenders of this theory point out to the celerity with which Williams and US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland have endorsed the Libyan Islamists’ claims about the LNA committing war crimes, claims which are of course denied by the army and dismissed as pure propaganda in order to smear its image and put it on same footing as the militias.
The State Department appears to be encouraging Turkey to ignore the Cairo initiative, even though this initiative is offering an acceptable and fair settlement to the two parties, in exchange for launching Libyan-Libyan talks known as 5 + 5 talks under the aegis of Stephanie Williams, despite the great risk of guiding such talks towards a settlement made to measure to the Islamists, an outcome that will definitely lead to its failure.
The failure of the settlement automatically means that the war in Libya will take a new turn, with one or more major powers being directly involved on the side of the army. Such speculations are intensifying in light of Egypt’s recent military build-up on its western border with Libya. While observers exclude an Egyptian military intervention comparable to the Turkish intervention in Libya, they do, however, expect that there will a Russian-Egyptian coordinated scenario whereby Cairo assumes a limited military role, limiting itself for example to conducting air strikes aimed at stopping the militias’ advance towards the centre, east and south of the country.
The US-led narrative on Libya has focused on amplifying Russia’s role in Libya, even though that role has been limited so far to providing some logistical support to the Libyan army, which is by far not comparable to Turkey’s support to the Islamist and regional militias. The aim behind Turkey’s move was to create justification for the continuation of the fighting in order to enable the Islamists to gain control of vital areas in Libya, especially the Oil Crescent area and the oil fields in the south.
These political and media campaigns have deliberately omitted France’s role in Libya, even though France is by far the top competitor to the United States in Libya. But the goal of the propaganda campaigns is to highlight Russia as a common threat to the West and to suggest the existence of Western understandings to make the Islamists as caretakers of Western interests in Libya.
The American-Turkish-Islamist lobby is betting on the assumption that, in Russia’s plans, Libya is nothing but a pressure card that can be used to obtain gains and profits in other regions, especially in Syria, and that the Russians are not ready now to spend on a war in Libya; so the only option is to continue fighting and monitor the opportunity for a settlement similar to what happened in Western Libya.
Consequently, the “Syrianisation” of the conflict appears to be a plan in which the US Department of State is involved and its success will be a threat to European interests. This is why Europe is trying to activate its role in Libya, which was reflected in the discussions conducted by the German Ambassador Oliver Owcza in Benghazi and his meeting with the LNA’s Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
The German diplomat’s visit, during which he praised the discipline of the Libyan army, carried a clear message to international and regional parties working to exclude Haftar from the scene and replace him with Speaker of Parliament Aguila Saleh.
That visit deepened doubts about whether Europe —fearing the scenario of being blackmailed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with illegal immigrants after Turkey’s control of western Libya — would bet more on Haftar to prevent the scenario of “Syrianising” the Libyan conflict.
While Europe, and especially France and Greece, are fighting Turkey’s ambitions to control the Mediterranean, Glen Howard, President of the American Jamestown Research Foundation, said that “Turkey’s insistence on obtaining a role in the Eastern Mediterranean should be accepted, and the United States should reconsider its (Turkey’s) role in this region.”
Howard and other experts defending the idea of an alliance with Turkey and the risk that this might cause the loss of the European partner may be seen as tools of the Turkish lobby in the United States, which is currently living at the height of its glory.
Mona El-Mahrouki is a Tunisian writer.
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