According to Thomas D. Waldhauser, the instability in Libya and North Africa is one of the biggest short-term threats that the US and their allies are currently facing.
Something which has made the issue even more complex are intelligent reports suggesting that Russia were aiding an ex-Libyan general as he fought for control over the government. When this is combined with the fact that a Russian aircraft carrier had entered Libya and welcomed their militia leader, Gen Kalifa Haftar, things suddenly start to become even more concerning.
All of this has occurred following Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, where he highlighted the flaws in President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy in relation to Libya. The intervention by the US in 2011 meant that multiple governments were controlling the country and the upshot of this was complete and utter stability and ultimately, a “home” for Islamic State.
Even though Trump may have voiced plenty of accusations during his campaign, his administration still hasn’t delivered a policy for Libya. He has said that the US might fight IS there, but at the same time he’s also stated that the US doesn’t have a role in Libya. Suffice to say, it has been a confusing message and one that has handed a huge amount of influence to Russia in this area of the world.
One of the reasons the US has been so inefficient at implementing policies in this regard is because of the lack of guidance offered to the President. In general, he is forced to rely on instinct, as well as guidance from a small group of his trusted advisors. All of this has arisen because most of the main foreign policy positions are still vacant (or at least, only just filled).
As well as the above, there are suggestions that meddling in Libya would go against a lot of Trump’s America First promises.
Ultimately, the result is that nobody quite knows the US policy in Libya – and this has created an immense opportunity for Russia which they have taken full advantage of.
Let’s not forget that Libya is just 300 miles away from Europe, and Russia have managed to gain a huge influence in this area. They act as a mediator between the country’s opposing factions, but there is a lot more to their influence that meets the eye.
For example, several former European, Libyan and American officials have claimed that they have been involved in weapons-for-oil arrangements and even attempted bribery in relation to governmental defense positions.
Where has the urgency gone?
Prior to his campaign, Trump wanted to intervene in Libya and even went as far as saying that the nation had been left in “ruins”.
Initially, this continued into his tenure as well. For example, US officials had been told in Tunis that Libya was going to be made a top priority.
Now, however, all such urgency has seemingly evaporated. It is something that has certainly caused a lot of anger in some circles, with Libya now becoming a key route for human traffickers and refugees as the crisis continues. Many are annoyed that the initial approach on the country was just in a bid to attract voters, and all of that momentum now seems to have been ground to a complete standstill.
In terms of Islamic State, the repercussions are seemingly there for all to see. The high-profile terrorist attacks, such as the one in Manchester in 2017, are examples. Additionally, bombs have been detonated at Libyan training camps, with the consensus now being that IS are starting to regroup again in Libya.
There has been pressure to increase the number of military advisors in the country, but such appeals have fallen on deaf ears. Those that have wanted to make a change, such as Stephen K. Bannon who acted as Trump’s chief strategist, have tended to leave their positions quickly. In the case of Bannon, he even announced to the press that it was the situation in Libya that caused his departure.
Russia and the oil-factor
Libya has always been appealing to Russia because of its immense power in relation to the oil industry. The Russians were desperately trying to build a high-speed rail link between Benghazi and Tripoli to facilitate, with alleged bribes taking place.
When the above didn’t happen, the Russians attempted a somewhat different proposal. They approached a militia leader, going by the name of Ibrahim Jathran, in a bid to sell crude oil on the international market. The Russians would market the oil, moving it from Egypt to Russia. The big point in this deal was what Jathran would receive in return. For facilitating the movement of the oil, he would be paid in weapons for the first six months of the deal, with this then extending to cash thereafter.
This was seemingly a smart move for all concerned, but the Russians soon demanded exclusivity. This is when Jathran opted to walk away from the deal.
In 2015 the Russians approached Jathran again. This time oil wasn’t the subject, but they wanted him to support their choice for defense minister (who happened to be Libya’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia).
It’s at this point that Jathran was convinced to turn to the West. He met Jonathan Powell, who was a British envoy to Libya, and he was advised to not negotiate with Russia in this way again.
However, this was not the end of the story. In 2016, weapons were seized from the Libyan National Army that suggested they were still benefiting from Russia’s assistance. All of this was going on behind the back of Jathran.
Despite the above, Russia has always said that it complies with United Nations embargoes in relation to the transfer of weapons to Libya. It denies that it has ever attempted to exert more influence on the US by shipping weapons to Libya.
Overall, the general consensus is that Putin is pushing this subject as far as he can and will continue until he is stopped. His desire is for a central government that favors his economic interests, specifically in relation to arms, energy and the railway project that has already been discussed.
In the meantime, the US is starting to wake up to the situation more. In April, they announced that they wouldn’t have a role in helping to rebuild Libya. Now, they have a “leading role”, and this is both in relation to attacks on Islamic State and also attempts at stabilizing the country. However, whilst all this has been happening Russia has gained a stronghold on the region, and as we have discussed throughout a lot of this has been done solely with their own interests at heart.