US leadership conspicuously absent on Libya crisis

Friday 01/05/2015
More active US
engagement seems

Washington - The European Union had an emergency meeting on April 23rd to address the rise in illegal migration and its humanitarian implica­tions. The summit came on the heels of one of the worst migrant trag­edies in recent times, when nearly 900 people fleeing war and poverty drowned in the Mediterranean after their ship sank.

Embarking from Libyan ports on vessels of questionable sea worthi­ness has become an increasingly common way for desperate people from Arab and African countries to try to reach Europe.

At the summit, EU leaders tri­pled the budget of the Triton bor­der protection operation, now cost­ing about $3.22 million per month, which includes aircraft and coastal patrol boats protecting the European southern coastline.

But some international organisa­tions and immigration advocates say the European Union’s new plan remains inadequate in the face of an immigration crisis that is likely to worsen in the coming months. Am­nesty International (AI) noted that the Triton operation patrols only within 50 kilometres of the Italian and Maltese coasts, far from where many of the deaths at sea occur.

Conspicuously absent from the debate is leadership from Wash­ington, which critics say appears to believe that the crisis is a European problem.

This is a big mistake, says Wayne White, a policy expert with the Washington-based Middle East Insti­tute and former deputy director for the Near East at the US State Depart­ment’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. The solution to abetting illegal immigration and its related security concerns lies in Libya and world powers must take an initiative to push for a remedy there.

“You want to fix your immigration problem? Then start fixing the Libya problem. Start putting things on the table that might interest the two warring parties in Libya. And both the EU and the US need to be doing this together,” White told The Arab Weekly.

Libya effectively has two govern­ments that are fuelling the country’s civil war with the majority secular, Tobruk-based government interna­tionally recognised. It was elected last June when barely one-fifth of Libyans showed up to vote. Oppos­ing it is the former Libyan General National Congress, based in Tripoli, which boycotted the elections but seeks a legitimate stake in ruling the country.

UN Special Envoy Bernardino Leon has, since December, been try­ing to broker a diplomatic solution between the two governments with little progress. White says without real incentives and the gravitas of Washington’s diplomatic involve­ment, Leon has little chance of suc­cess.

“A diplomatic solution is tough when it’s not being addressed in terms of real heft and … concrete help in terms of finance and military … from both the EU and US. That needs to change,” he said.

Beyond the deteriorating humani­tarian situation lie many security concerns related to the immigration wave. The Islamic State (ISIS) claims to have inserted jihadist sleepers among the illegal migrants seeking passage to Europe and, although its claim that it has sent thousands is probably exaggerated, the European Union worries about jihadists enter­ing its borders.

ISIS has a small but growing pres­ence in Libya. In April, the militant organisation shocked the world with footage of cold-blooded killings of dozens of Christian Ethiopians on the beach. The victims had likely left their country for the Libyan coast in an attempt to cross into Europe.

White said the ISIS threat only makes it that much more impera­tive for the United States to become more involved.

“Not by putting boots on the ground, but by providing maritime patrol aircraft, surveillance from air coastal areas,” he said.

Already, a well-functioning inter­national maritime force prevents the smuggling of oil by Libya’s warring factions. A similar commitment can perhaps curtail human smugglers and prevent their unseaworthy ves­sels from setting sail, he added.

Equally important, if Washington throws its weight behind a diplomat­ic solution, the warring factions in Libya could be held to their word re­garding a commitment to fight ISIS.

“In other words, if you guys co­operate against the terrorists, we’ll help … with loans and grants. And if you’re not going to cooperate and engage with air strikes (against ISIS), then you won’t benefit from the fi­nancial aid we’re offering,” White said.

But more active US engagement seems unlikely in the current politi­cal climate in Washington. The 2016 presidential campaigning has begun and hardly anyone mentions Libya, except perhaps to point the finger at the Obama administration’s role in deposing Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi without having a plan for the aftermath.

As things stand, the European Un­ion is more focused on keeping ille­gal migrants from reaching its shores than it is on fixing Libya.

As for the United States, the most recent, significant mention of Libya by US President Barack Obama was during a visit by Italian Prime Min­ister Matteo Renzi just two days be­fore the tragic drowning of hundreds of migrants.

“We … spent a considerable amount of time discussing our deep, shared concern for the situation in Libya, where we continue to support UN efforts to form a unity govern­ment,” said Obama. However, no fur­ther pledges or concrete ideas were forthcoming from the president.