Richard Norland, US ambassador to Libya, speaks to The Arab Weekly

“(Libyans) don’t want the country to be ‘occupied’ by anybody, whether Russians, Turks, Syrians or anybody else.”
Sunday 22/03/2020
Richard Norland, US ambassador to Libya, talks to The Arab Weekly contributor Michel Cousins. (US Embassy to Libya)
Complex landscape. Richard Norland, US ambassador to Libya, talks to The Arab Weekly contributor Michel Cousins. (US Embassy to Libya)

TUNIS--Suspending military operations in Libya, especially in Tripoli, is a key goal of US diplomacy. That and a political dialogue that produces a prosperous, peaceful Libya are among the main objectives of US policy in Libya, US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland said.

“US policy is to work with all parties in Libya in support of a negotiated settlement to the conflict,” Norland told The Arab Weekly.

“We have very close ties to the [Government of National Accord] GNA and Prime Minister [Fayez al-Sarraj]. We’re also in contact with [Field-Marshal Khalifa] Haftar,” Norland said.

“We’re in contact with a variety of actors throughout the country. It is all aimed at one specific goal, which is to suspend military operations, move towards a lasting ceasefire and launch a political process that will result in a stable political construct for Libya.”

Nor is the offensive or the wider conflict in anyone’s interests, Norland said.

“Those who say that they are concerned about the rise of Muslim extremism or the rise of militias in Tripoli and use this as a justification for the offensive on Tripoli miss the point that the offensive is having precisely the opposite effect. It is empowering militias. It is making the government more dependent on militias. It is giving extremist voices a greater say in what happens,” he said.

The military offensive is counterproductive, he said.

For many Libyans, the United States is important and much respected, even if some policies pursued in Washington are not. Since the start of the Tripoli offensive by the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Haftar, almost a year ago there has been confusion as to where the United States stands on Libya, particularly following US President Donald Trump’s seemingly supportive phone call to Haftar 12 days after the offensive started in which the two were said by the White House to have shared a vision for Libya’s political development.

“We engage with all sides, trying to persuade them to negotiate,” Norland said. The US goal is find a solution to the Libyan crisis “as soon as possible.” The United States is also engaged with external actors “whose role has sometimes helped to fuel the conflict.”

For them, a tougher approach is on the cards.

“I think what you’re going to see on the part of the United States and others in the international community… that it’s time to name names,” Norland said.

The aim is not only to stop them fuelling the conflict, it is also to get them to realise that their interventions only deepen the divide.

Washington is particularly concerned about foreign mercenaries. The Russians sent in the private Wagner Group, which Norland estimated at 2,000 personnel. They are being used “to undermine the recognised government,” he said.

Their presence and that of other mercenaries is a dangerous phenomenon and source of concern, not just for the United States but also Libyans “who don’t want the country to be ‘occupied’ by anybody, whether Russians, Turks, Syrians or anybody else,” the ambassador said.

The notion that Libya’s sovereignty and independence are in jeopardy because of foreign mercenaries will resonate with other countries in Africa, Norland said.

The LNA accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of having sent thousands of mercenaries from Syria to Libya to help troops loyal to the GNA.

That is important, given the way efforts to bring peace to Libya are moving.

Following the resignation of Ghassan Salame as UN special envoy to Libya, Washington is increasingly focused on the African Union as a mediator in the Libyan divide, not as a replacement for the United Nations but as an active partner.

Opening the doors to greater direct African Union participation to solve the crisis was part of the Berlin Conference follow-up process before Salame’s resignation.

At the AU summit in February, where the theme was “Silencing the Guns” (chosen with Libya partly in mind), UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres agreed that the African Union should play a greater role in helping bring peace to the conflict-torn country.

With South African President Cyril Ramaphosa serving as chairman of the African Union, South Africa has a key role in driving AU policy this year. Norland was in Pretoria March 10-11 for talks with South African officials about “silencing the guns” in Libya. He met with Sarraj, who was also in South Africa for similar talks with Ramaphosa.

South African officials indicated they were “very interested” in using Libya as a model for “Silencing the Guns” during Ramaphosa’s chairmanship, said Norland.

He said he does not agree with Libyan actors who see Salame’s work brought to a sudden stop by his resignation. “I don’t accept the premise that we’re back to square one,” Norland said.

Praising Salame’s “remarkable architecture for peace,” Norland said it can be built upon “if the parties are willing to do it.” With Deputy Special Envoy Stephanie Williams in charge in an acting role, there can be continuity.

“The path is there for people to take if they want to. The 5+5 talks in Geneva can reconvene once the parties have looked at the ceasefire draft document and made some refinements to it and are ready to come back together again,” Norland said.

A UN call for the talks to reconvene would be issued shortly, Norland said, although because of the coronavirus threat, the meeting may have to be virtual. That would not necessarily be a bad thing.

“Maybe it is easier to get people who disagree together on a screen rather than in the same room,” the ambassador said.

The coronavirus pandemic provides another paradoxical reason for hope. The United States is among those that backed an international call for a “humanitarian pause” in the Libyan conflict to concentrate on dealing with the virus outbreak.

Addressing that crisis in the United States is proving difficult enough, said Norland. “In a country that’s at war, where the public health system is under huge stress already, you can see how an outbreak of coronavirus could be hugely problematic,” he added.

“This could be a great opportunity for the country to work together, averting a major public health crisis and at the same time creating a positive atmosphere for trying to move forward on the 5+5 ceasefire discussions in Geneva,” Norland said.

Hopeful that the suggestion will be taken up, Norland said he was keen that Libya’s economic problems remain a major focus of attention. Economic issues “underlie the conflict to a certain degree,” he noted.

Economic dialogue, which the US Embassy has led the past three years, is central to the peace process and reform a must.

“There will need to be reform of the Central Bank [of Libya], the audit agency, some of the other economic institutions in order to enhance public confidence that there’s a new system in place,” he said.

Other economic reforms needed, he said, include subsidies and fuel prices, although he agreed that this cannot be done overnight or in isolation from political reform.

Nonetheless, there are economic moves that can be done in the meantime. Central to confidence is transparency and central to that is the planned audit of the Central Bank, the ambassador said, adding “it’s been taking too long.”

Meanwhile, the embassy will host another economic dialogue, he said.

Economic progress remains crucial, he explained.

“With the oil blockade, with the halt in revenue from abroad from oil sales, with the blockages of salaries, it is only a matter of time until Libya enters into an economic free fall and a major economic crisis,” Norland said. “So it is really important to get on with these as soon as possible.”

Asked if time was running out for Libya economically, with the oil price dropping and oil being Libya’s only source of revenue, he said he was cautiously hopeful because there are other resources — gold, uranium, a huge Mediterranean coastline. Libya could fulfil its potential, he said, but the present crisis casts a massive shadow.

“Is time running out? That’s a question for the leaders involved in all sides in this conflict and their external patrons,” Norland said. Does perpetuating this conflict by a single day help Libya? I don’t see how it does but there are vested interested who may want to see the current situation perpetuate itself because they are benefiting from it somehow economically. If that’s the case, they may drag this on longer than Libyan can sustain and the public will pay a huge price for it.

“So, ultimately, I can’t be the one to say whether time is running out or not. I think from my perspective as an objective outsider the sooner this conflict can be ended, the sooner the offensive can be stopped, the sooner the militias cease to hold sway, the sooner we have transparency on the distribution of resources, the sooner extremists agree to play a proper role in political life or be excluded… None of that can happen soon enough!”