Washington’s stance on Libya is ‘evolving’ but new questions arise about GNA’s ties to Iran

During his Japan visit, Siala apparently had very cordial talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Saturday 31/08/2019
French President Emmanuel Macron (R) speaks with Libya’s UN-recognised Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Tunis, July 27. (AFP)
Exploring options. French President Emmanuel Macron (R) speaks with Libya’s UN-recognised Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Tunis, July 27. (AFP)

TUNIS - The Libyan National Army made another attempt to retake the strategically important town of Gharyan, south of Tripoli, but reportedly made no progress, deepening the sense of stalemate in the fight for control of the Libyan capital.

That appeared to strengthen the hand of those inside and outside Libya pushing for a return to UN-led political dialogue, saying that a military solution is not going to work.

The view was restated at the G7 summit in France, which called for an international conference on Libya bringing together the stakeholders, regional players involved and probably some of Libya’s other neighbours.

The G7 statement, drawn up by the French hosts, was non-binding but was seen as representing the views of all who attended, including, significantly, US President Donald Trump.

Since the start of the Libyan National Army (LNA) offensive to take Tripoli five months ago, there has been considerable confusion as to where Washington stands regarding Libya.

Trump’s phone call to LNA Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar on April 15, during which they discussed counterterrorism moves, and the White House’s subsequent statement that Trump recognised Haftar’s “significant role in fighting terrorism” and that the two had discussed “a shared vision” for Libya’s transition to democracy, gave the impression that the White House was dropping its support for the internationally recognised Presidential Council and its Government of National Accord (GNA) and shifting towards Haftar.

That view was reinforced when, on three occasions, the United States blocked British-worded statements in the UN Security Council seen as critical of the LNA. Officially, however, the US State Department continued to back the Presidential Council and calls for a ceasefire.

That led to the conclusion that Washington was not particularly focused on Libya, apart from concerns about terrorism and wanting the country to produce as much oil as possible to ensure low oil prices, and that its Libya policy was not united with the White House, the State Department, the US Defence Department and the CIA having different views.

The G7 statement, taken with other events, suggested an evolving Washington policy on Libya. Those other events include, after a gap of a year-and-a-half, the appointment of a US ambassador to Libya. Richard Norland took up his post August 14. As with many other ambassadors to Libya, he is based in Tunis.

There is also a new head of the US Africa Command (Africom), which, through its air strikes in 2016, played a major role in helping defeat Islamic State (ISIS) fighters who had been holding Sirte. US Army General Stephen Townsend took up the post at the end of July.

The same day the G7 summit ended, Townsend and Norland were in Tunis for talks with the head of the Presidential Council, Fayez al-Sarraj, on resolving the Libyan crisis.

“We emphasised to Prime Minister Sarraj the importance of supporting a diplomatic solution to put an end to the current conflict,” Townsend said.

In a video message following his Senate confirmation, Norland said the United States would actively take part in UN-led efforts to find a political solution “through negotiation and compromise” to the Libyan crisis.

Four days before the meeting with Townsend and Sarraj, Norland had talks in Tunis with Sarraj’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Siala on diplomatic efforts to end the conflict. Siala was on his way to Japan for a Japanese-pan African summit.

Haftar’s supporters drew comfort from the Trump phone call and the US blocks on UN statements critical of the LNA, seeing them as signs of a change in US policy. However, Norland’s and Townsend’s comments indicate Washington is firmly throwing its weight behind a political rather than military outcome and committed to maintaining ties with the Sarraj government.

Norland condemned air strikes on Libyan civilian airports and, although he stated that he was not naming sides, those were carried out by the LNA.

“Things are going on in Washington,” said a Libya analyst, noting that both Norland and Townsend “understand what the administration wants” in Libya.

The new appointments, he said, “show that changes are taking place.” However, he warned: “Be careful about what people say and what they do,” suggesting that Washington’s Libya policy was still evolving.

The prime US concern, he said, remained the threat from ISIS and the fear that it could be making a reappearance in Libya as a result of fighters moving from Syria. The worry was that the GNA was not sufficiently motivated about it, unlike the rival authorities in eastern Libya.

Despite Norland’s insistence on political dialogue, it is not clear what the United States will do to move this along. “We still don’t really know what’s Washington’s aim in Libya,” an EU diplomat said in late August.

It is also far from clear if there can be dialogue, despite the international community and the UN Support Mission in Libya pushing for it and the stalemate on the ground.

While the GNA is generally supportive, there is little sign that it will be able to sell a ceasefire and dialogue to some of the militias fighting for it. They are ideologically committed to the battle against Haftar and the LNA and, for them, it is a fight to the end. They are not going to compromise.

There is also a view that Haftar was in a stronger bargaining position before he launched the Tripoli offensive and that he would need a clear victory to strengthen his position in any talks. However, as another diplomat pointed out, the danger is that a victory, such as retaking Gharyan, could result in the LNA thinking it does not need to compromise, that the capture of Tripoli and final victory were in its immediate grasp.

Questions are being asked about the GNA’s stand towards Iran. During his Japan visit, Siala apparently had very cordial talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. In April, reports that an Iranian ship unloaded military equipment in Misrata fuelled speculation about the GNA’s relationship with Tehran.

Washington, as well as the Saudis and the Emiratis, would be far from sanguine if the GNA, heavily backed by Turkey and Qatar, were to extend its foreign alliances to include Iran.