Libya is vital to America’s safety and security, but that African nation gets little attention from the press or the public. With the Trump administration’s new initiatives there, that may suddenly change.
If Libya collapses into chaos, then prices at the pump will quickly climb. Higher energy costs would push up food prices, kill job creation and slow the U.S. economy. Libya, a longtime member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, has the tenth largest proven oil reserves in the world and the largest in Africa. Libya’s continued oil production is essential for keeping world oil supplies up and prices down.
Libyan anarchy would also create a “new Afghanistan” that was a safe haven for Islamic militants to plot attacks against America. Indeed, radicals who share Osama bin Laden’s ideology, have staged major attacks in Libya (including against U.S. diplomats in Benghazi). Libya’s deserts are training grounds for terrorists while its mosques offer a forum for radical preachers.
For Europeans, Libya presents a third worry. Libya, weakened by civil war, has allowed some seven hundred thousand Arab and African migrants to slip through its territory and land in Europe since 2013. These desperate migrants fill hospitals, low-income housing and welfare offices. Some carry drugs or guns.
Still, Washington’s interest in Libya has been episodic since the 2012 Benghazi attack.
So Trump’s willingness to confront the Libyan crisis marks a real turning point.
This past Sunday, senior State Department officials gathered with European counterparts in Berlin to seek a permanent ceasefire, enforce a UN arms embargo and pave the way for a political resolution to the Libyan civil war. A consensus document emerged that some UN officials hailed as a major milestone. Ghassan Salamé, the UN Secretary General’s special envoy to Libya, said the text would be submitted as a resolution to the UN Security Council. Surely; its adoption would be an important step.
Still, a realist must ask: Will these strong words have any binding effect on the belligerents?
That is unlikely. Both the Russians and Turks are arming, training and funding militias on opposing sides while seeking lucrative deals from rival factions. The United States had allowed a power vacuum to develop and the Russians and Turks are happy to fill it.
Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a dual U.S.-Libyan citizen, was once seen as a pro-U.S. force. He had pleased the United States by expanding the fight against terrorists. Another development that Washington counted as a positive was Haftar’s seizure of oil installations in central and southern Libya, boosting production and thereby preventing a spike in global oil prices.
Yet Washington was reluctant to supply arms and training and Moscow was not. Starting in September 2018, Russian mercenaries appeared on the front lines of Tripoli, fighting alongside Haftar’s forces. Arms shipments have also been reported in strongholds in eastern Libya at Haftar’s mobile headquarters, and members of the pro-Haftar tribes have called for the closure of oil export terminals. With Russia’s help, Haftar’s fighters managed to advance toward Tripoli.
Alarmed, the Tripoli government, a remnant of an Islamist faction that lost elections in 2014, turned to Turkey for help. They dangled drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean as an incentive.
In January 2019, Ankara took the deal. Turkey sent several hundred, if not more, pro-Turkish Syrian fighters fighting to defend the Tripoli government. Turkey also dispatched drones, military advisers and deployed an air defense system forTripoli’s only functioning airport. In exchange, Turkey was granted an oil and gas drilling agreement in Libya’s eastern Mediterranean waters.
If their side wins, then Turkey or Russia stand to reap billions of dollars in oil exports, weapons sales and construction contracts. Moscow also sees its role in Libya as a key to gaining influence in the Middle East.
So, both national pride and economic interests will likely keep fueling the dueling militias of Russia and Turkey in war-torn Libya.
That is unless the United States rewrites the script. And that appears to be what the Trump administration is doing.
It began by building a diplomatic consensus in Berlin, aligning the North American and Western European economic and political interests in a negotiated peace in Libya. Next, it will use its resources at the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to punish nations and companies that sell or supply arms to Libyan combatants. Beyond that, the United States may refuse to recognize Turkish drilling rights in Libyan waters that apparently violate the treaty rights of nearby Cyprus—cutting off firms that assist the Turks from U.S. stock markets and international banking.
In the end, Trump may succeed in doing by diplomacy what Russia and Turkey cannot seem to do by war—bring unity and peace to Libya.
The benefits to America—such as lower oil prices, a stronger economy, an end to terrorist safe havens and a working central government that combats illegal migration and drug trafficking—will be enormous. The benefits to Libya will be even more so.
Ahmed Charai is a Moroccan publisher. He is on the board of directors for the Atlantic Council, an international counselor of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a member of the Advisory Board of The Center for the National Interest in Washington and the Advisory Board of Gatestone Institute in New York.