Trump on Libya: What Now?

The situation in Libya seems to be simultaneously stalemated and wavering on the brink of collapse. The Presidential Council and Government of National Accord (PC/GNA), which emerged from the UN-led Libyan Political Agreement at the end of 2015, has made little progress in solidifying its authority in the country. The United Nations is increasingly weak in Libya, with no clear replacement for Special Representative Martin Kobler, whose mandate expires soon. Meanwhile, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who is allied with the House of Representatives in the east and leads the Libyan National Army, continues to refuse to come to a deal with the PC/GNA, perhaps based on the false assumption that he can take control of the country militarily. The recent clashes in the south of the country near Sebha between Haftar’s forces and militias loyal to the PC/GNA are an indicator of the dangers of escalation in the country’s conflict. There is an ever-growing risk of civil war in Libya. Indeed, PC/GNA head Fayez al-Serraj called this week on the international community to intervene in Libya to prevent further destabilization in the south and a possible outbreak of war.

Al-Serraj, who said that the fighting in the south “threatens everything that has been achieved on the path of national reconciliation and stability in Libya,” was right in calling for the international community to step up and take concrete steps to help stabilize Libya. The United States is the only actor capable of leading an inclusive effort towards reaching an agreement in Libya with consensus from all the actors on the ground. This is primarily because the United States is uniquely capable of putting pressure on international and regional actors in Libya to cease their support for proxies on the ground and push the different sides in the conflict to engage in a negotiations process in good faith. Only the United States can credibly employ both carrot and stick for those who want to reach a negotiated agreement and for those who want to defend entrenched interests and resort to military expansion, respectively.  

However, that now seems like an unlikely scenario. On Thursday, during a joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, Trump said he does “not see a role [for the United States] in Libya” beyond fighting the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh). “I think the United States has right now enough roles,” Trump said. These comments came as a cold shower for Rome, which has made the stabilization of Libya a priority and worked to keep the country on the international community’s agenda. Italy has been supportive of the UN-led negotiations and the PC/GNA from its inception, but has also recognized the importance of including Haftar in a settlement. Italy also became the first Western country this year to announce the reopening of its embassy in Tripoli, an important sign of support for al-Serraj’s government. During a recent visit to the Unites States in March, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano called on the United States to view Libya as a top priority for global security.

Trump’s remarks were indicative of the strong approach to counterterrorism, specifically the effort to defeat ISIS, that his administration has taken. However, this effort is viewed through the lens of a closed-ended operation that would not commit the United States to undertaking a major role in stabilization, despite the long-term interests that the United States has in a more stable Libya: spillover from the conflict into neighboring US allies as well as Europe threatens overall western security, and extremism ideologies will not be eradicated with the destruction of ISIS. “We are effectively ridding the world of ISIS. I see that as a primary role, and that’s what we’re going to do, whether it’s in Iraq or in Libya or anywhere else. And that role will come to an end at a certain point,” Trump said during the conference with Gentiloni.

The question for Italy is, what now? Gentiloni has no choice but to present his visit to the United States and his meeting with Trump as a success. Indeed, Trump did praise Rome for its “leadership on seeking stabilization in Libya” and its “crucial efforts to deny ISIS a foothold in the Mediterranean.” Trump’s stated commitment to rooting out ISIS from Libya is important for Italy, which, like much of Europe, is worried about the extremist group’s expansion to its south. While there were no public remarks to this effect, Gentiloni probably received a commitment from Trump to continue to support the UN-backed process and the PC/GNA rather than shift allegiance to Haftar. Italy has been firm in its position that shifting support to Haftar will only lead to more conflict. While it does not seem that Trump will heed al-Serraj’s call for an intervention, nor elevate the status of Libya as Rome may have hoped, there is no indication that US policy will change directions in Haftar’s favor.

Italy now needs to work with other major European stakeholders to pressure spoilers such as Haftar and his international sponsors to come to the negotiating table. While Trump’s comments may seem to some like a dismissal of US involvement in Libya altogether other than the counter-ISIS effort, there could be space for Italy to urge the United States to put its diplomatic weight behind pushing for an agreement. For this to happen, it would be important for Europe to present a united front in terms of supporting the PC/GNA and the UN process. The European Union should engage with Arab countries involved in Libya, such as Egypt, to cease proxy support for Haftar. A successful effort in that respect could convince the United States to invest its diplomatic leadership in finding a solution for Libya’s conflict.

Italy should also continue to raise the issue of Libya, particularly at the incoming G7 Summit in May and the G20 Summit in July. The foreign ministers of the G7 member countries recently stated their “strong support” for the PC/GNA and underscored the fact that there is “no military solution” in Libya. Italy should build on that momentum at the G7 summit in Sicily and ensure that Libya has a place on the agenda. The G20, meanwhile, will offer Italy an opportunity to engage other major stakeholders in Libya, including the African Union and Russia.

Rome should recognize the opening that still exists following Gentiloni’s meeting with Trump and discussion on Libya. It is important that Italy not let up on pressing the international community to prioritize Libya. Further destabilization would provide ISIS with an opportunity to reestablish itself, and unfortunately the country seems headed in the direction of worsening conflict rather than peaceful settlement. A two-pronged strategy by Italy that focuses on making the case for US diplomatic action on Libya and rallies European unity on this issue would be a good start. 

 Karim Mezran is a Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Elissa Miller is an Assistant Director at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

Image: Photo: U.S. President Donald Trump holds a joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein