White House warns of foreign intervention in Libya, says ‘no side is winning’
WASHINGTON – The United States on Tuesday condemned all foreign military involvement in Libya and urged Libyans to come together to “reclaim their sovereignty.”
“The United States is deeply troubled by the escalating conflict in Libya. We strongly oppose foreign military involvement, including the use of mercenaries and private military contractors, by all sides,” US President Donald Trump’s national security advisor Robert O’Brien said in a statement Tuesday.
The US national security adviser also stressed that Libyans themselves must rebuild a unified country.
“It is clear there is no ‘winning’ side. Libyans can win only if they come together to reclaim their sovereignty and rebuild a unified country,” he said.
In past weeks, Trump had spoken with several world leaders about Libya, and it was clear there was “no winning side,” O’Brien added, without naming the leaders.
Trump discussed the need to de-escalate the situation in Libya in recent weeks with French President Emmanuel Macron, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, according to White House statements.
He also talked to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After the Trump-Erdogan phone call, O’Brien denounced Turkey’s aggressive naval manoeuvres in the Mediterranean against a French warship. “NATO allies shouldn’t be turning fire control radars on each other. That’s not good,” O’Brien told reporters in Paris in July.
The US security advisor’s statement then was seen as a rebuff to Ankara, which was playing up its membership in NATO to highlight the threat of Russia’s presence on the southern shores of the Mediterranean. Ankara repeatedly encouraged the Pentagon and other Atlantic alliance members to focus on reports of Russian fighter planes and private troops belonging to the Wagner Group being sent to Libya.
In his statement Tuesday, he said efforts by foreign powers to exploit the conflict posed a grave danger to regional stability and global commerce.
He urged all parties to enable Libya’s National Oil Corp to resume its work with full transparency, to implement a demilitarised solution for Sirte and al-Jufra, respect the UN arms embargo and finalise a ceasefire under UN-led talks.
Libya descended into chaos after the NATO-backed overthrow of longtime leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Since 2014, it has been split, with the Turkey-supported Government of National Accord (GNA) controlling the capital, Tripoli, and the north-west, and the Benghazi-based Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar controlling the east.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that there are “unprecedented levels” of foreign interference and mercenaries in the oil-producing country.
O’Brien, who returned to the White House on Tuesday after recovering from a mild case of COVID-19, said the United States was deeply troubled by the escalating conflict, and intervention by foreign powers undermined the collective security interests of the United States and its allies.
“Escalation will only deepen and prolong the conflict,” O’Brien said.
He pointed out that Washington was committed to playing an “active, but neutral” role in helping find a solution that supported Libyan sovereignty and protected the shared interests of the United States and its allies.
Arab concerns about Turkey’s role
Washington’s recent statements come after most Arab countries condemned Turkey’s involvement in the Libyan conflict and voiced their concern over the threat such an involvement poses for the whole region.
Such an involvement included sending Turkish troops and intelligence officers as well as military equipment, including drones and air defence systems. It also dispatched thousands of militants and mercenaries to fight with the GNA.
In late July, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, who was on a visit to Tunisia and Algeria, underlined the “central role of neighbouring countries” in resolving the Libyan conflict and battling “terrorism and foreign interference.”
The Saudi statement was made days after Egyptian lawmakers unanimously approved “the deployment of members of the Egyptian armed forces on combat missions outside Egypt’s borders to defend Egyptian national security… against criminal armed militias and foreign terrorist elements,” according to a statement by the Egyptian parliament.
On August 1, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash urged Turkey to stop interfering in Arab affairs, mockingly referring to the Ottoman empire which collapsed a century ago.
Turkey can no longer behave like “the Sublime Porte and use the language of colonialism,” he said, referring to the government of the Ottoman empire which ruled the Arab world for centuries.
“The Sublime Porte and colonialist illusions belong to the archives of history… and relations between states are not conducted with threats,” Gargash wrote.
Turkey’s ambitions in Libya
Last year, Turkey signed a security deal to back the GNA. Another agreement was later signed: a memorandum redrawing the two countries’ maritime borders.
In Erdogan’s memo, Turkey and Libya lay claim to large areas of the Mediterranean Sea and the potential natural gas deposits under it. The deal achieved a longtime goal of Turkey — finding a partner to back its claims.
Recently, GNA officials disclosed for the first time the deliberations that resulted in Turkey becoming a major broker in the war, opposite Russia.
They described the relationship as necessary and said Turkey’s foray into the conflict goes hand-in-hand with its economic designs.
Several officials said their side entered the deals with Turkey reluctantly late last year, believing they had no choice.
“It was like a give-and-take game,” said one official in Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s office.
“They took advantage of our weakness at the time.”
He and other officials spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their safety in a country largely ruled by an array of militias.
In the end, Turkey’s massive intervention helped pro-Sarraj forces repel the LNA assault last spring, preventing the collapse of the Tripoli-based administration and shifting the tide of the war.
Turkey looks forward to its version of the spoils of war, in terms of oil resources as well as construction and energy projects.
It has also been pressing for new business opportunities and recouping losses it claims to have sustained since Qaddafi was pushed from power.
The Turkish Contractor’s Association estimated that in 2011, just after the country’s NATO-backed popular uprising, Turkish companies had more than $18 billion in contracts in Libya. Many of those were lost in the ensuing chaos and war.
In June, a Turkish delegation including the foreign and finance ministers, met Tripoli officials and presented bills for $2 billion owed to Turkish firms, another official said.
Tripoli agreed to pay back that and $1.7 billion in other debts and compensation for machinery and equipment lost in the war, he said.
Libyan officials have said Turkey is building a naval base as part of Misrata’s port and a base at the al-Waitya air base in the desert southwest of Tripoli.
But this is all part of a bigger picture, said Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow specialising in Libyan affairs at the Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations.
“Control over that territory isn’t so much about Libya’s oil itself as it’s about the natural gas under the Mediterranean Sea,” he said.