A Larger US Role in Libya?

As the chaos in Libya continues, recent reports indicate that the United States is considering ramping up its diplomatic and military involvement in Libya.  On July 10, CNN reported that the Trump administration could soon finalize a new policy for Libya to expand US presence in the country. If realized, a new policy for Libya must prioritize the stabilization of the country in coordination with key European allies. Despite President Trump‘s initial hesitation to consider Libya of critical importance to US national security, it has become clearer that the United States cannot ignore the security threat that Libya poses to US allies in the southern Mediterranean.

Southern Europe faces three major security threats emanating from Libya: illegal migration, criminal activity, and terrorism. Libya is the largest crossing point for migrants to Europe; more than seventy thousand migrants reached Italy this year; the number reached more than 180,000 in 2016. Criminal organizations engage in cross-border human trafficking networks from sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean and smuggle products including drugs and weapons. Terrorists and other extremist armed groups in Libya benefit from these criminal activities. Libya’s porous borders also benefit terror organizations; the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) has launched attacks from Libya in neighboring countries such as Tunisia as well as in Europe.

These threats are products, rather than causes, of instability and the absence of rule of law in Libya. The Libyan coast guard’s cooperation with powerful armed militia groups in the country’s coastal cities has led to criticisms of human rights abuses. UN investigators and activists have accused some armed groups of patrolling migrant sea crossings in order to protect their own criminal interests. And while ISIS was pushed out of its Libyan stronghold in Sirte in late 2016 with the help of US airstrikes, the group is by no means eradicated from the country. ISIS may seek to draw on Libya’s criminal networks as it regroups. The UN-backed Presidency Council and Government of National Accord (PC/GNA), meanwhile, remain unable to assert authority over the country as it battles both the opposition in Tripoli and faces opponents in the east.

Against this backdrop, Italy has repeatedly called on the international community, including the United States, to elevate solving the conflict in Libya as a priority for global stability. So far, those calls appeared to have fallen on deaf ears; Trump in March said that he did not foresee a role for the United States in Libya beyond counterterrorism. However, the report by CNN could indicate that the administration’s view has shifted or that individuals within the administration that recognize the importance of stabilizing Libya may prevail in crafting a Libya policy. Moreover, a recent meeting between US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti emphasized US and Italian cooperation on terrorism and the migrant crisis; and therefore the importance of solving the Libyan crisis.

According to the CNN report, the new policy for Libya would aim to support reconciliation between rival factions in the east and west and would send up to fifty US special operations troops to Libya on a rotating basis to engage in counterintelligence sharing, as well as possible training of Libyan forces. The Libya policy would also seek to reopen the US embassy in Tripoli and reestablish a US presence in the city of Benghazi.

This plan could face several immediate challenges. The first of which is the ongoing proxy war in Libya that has severely weakened the PC/GNA. The United States will need to convince Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to cease their proxy support for the House of Representatives and Khalifa Haftar in the east and push for all parties to come to the negotiating table, led by the UN, in good faith. Meanwhile, on the issue of training, European training programs for Libyan troops have not seen much success, and US efforts to train forces in Syria in the fight against ISIS also witnessed little progress.

The reestablishment of a US diplomatic presence in Tripoli would send a powerful message of support for the PC/GNA. Italy’s move earlier this year to become the first Western diplomatic mission to reopen its embassy in Tripoli was a significant vote of confidence for the UN-backed government. However, fighting continues near Tripoli between rival militia forces opposed to and aligned with the PC/GNA. And although Haftar recently proclaimed Benghazi liberated from Islamists by his Libyan National Army, security in the city remains uncertain.

In particular, the statement in the CNN report that the new policy would call for closer cooperation and intelligence sharing with Haftar, should be viewed warily. It is clear that the eastern strongman must be included in a settlement to end the Libyan conflict. However, in any settlement, a strong central government must be empowered to establish authority and promote good governance; Haftar cannot rule the country militarily. Should Haftar continue to refuse to accept civilian oversight, US intelligence sharing with him and his Libyan National Army would damage the credibility of the PC/GNA.

The United States should pursue a new policy on Libya in coordination with key European partners including Italy that elevates the stabilization of the country as the primary goal. In doing so, emphasis should be placed on eradicating criminal networks in Libya that exacerbate the migrant issue and empower terror groups. These are the two threats that most significantly impact European national security and therefore the security interests of the United States. Moreover, greater stability in the country could contribute to empowering the PC/GNA to undertake critical reconstruction efforts.

Italy should continue to press the Trump administration on the importance of stabilizing Libya. Coordinated Western engagement is necessary to end insecurity in the country, address major threats to shared transatlantic interests, and support Libyan efforts to find a negotiated solution to the crisis. 

Karim Mezran is a resident senior fellow with the Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Elissa Miller is an assistant director at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

Related Experts: Karim Mezran

Image: Photo: The U.S. ambassador to Libya Peter Bodde speaks during a news conference with Marine General Thomas Waldhauser (R), the top U.S. military commander overseeing troops in Africa, and Prime Minister of Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez Seraj, in Tripoli, Libya May 23, 2017. REUTERS/Hani Amara