The Conflict in Libya Resurfaces on Washington’s Agenda

It has been over seven months since General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) waged war against the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) to wrest away control of Libya’s capital, Tripoli. In May, this column addressed Washington’s bifurcated posture toward Libya, with some, including President Donald Trump, preferring to support Haftar’s effort to consolidate control over the country. At the same time, others remained committed to ending the conflict through a political settlement under the auspices of the United Nations.

In the months since, the conflict and instability afflicting Libya have not abated, but US interest has largely waned. This week, however, the State Department announced that it had dispatched a delegation to meet with General Haftar in an effort to reach a ceasefire between the LNA and GNA and lay the groundwork for a negotiated solution to the conflict. The timing is admittedly curious. Other US officials met with GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in August and September of this year, but there have been few efforts to reach out to Haftar or spend much political capital aimed at achieving a cessation in hostilities. The United States did recently host a joint security dialogue with GNA officials and it expressed concern about the state of security in the country. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also raised the issue of Libya’s conflict with at least one Arab Gulf state that has supported General Haftar in Libya’s war. However, it is unclear why the administration has chosen this particular time to publicly wade into the conflict or even if it is ultimately committed to expending the time and energy necessary to make progress.

Members of Congress are also taking a second look at Libya. Democratic Senators Chris Coons (Delaware) and Chris Murphy (Connecticut) and their Republican colleagues Marco Rubio (Florida) and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) introduced S. 2934 to try to clarify US policy toward Libya. The Libya Stabilization Act, as the legislation is called, is intended to “place sanctions on individuals fueling violence in the country, require a report on foreign government involvement, and require a strategy to counter Russian influence.” Furthermore, the senators hope “the bill would also marshal US resources, including humanitarian assistance, to support the Libyan people and an eventual unified Libyan government.”

The randomness of the timing raises doubt about the authenticity or dedication of these new efforts. Over 1,000 people have died in the stalled offensive on Tripoli and destabilization around the country has allowed human trafficking and a modern-day slave trade to persist. These are not new developments. Some may think that the catalyst is found in recent reports that Russia, having seen success in Syria, is expanding its presence in Libya and putting its thumb on the scale for General Haftar.

Whatever has sparked the renewed interest, if Washington really wants to contribute productively to the peace process, it will need to spend the requisite time and energy. The senators’ legislation could prove useful, but ultimately the Trump Adminsitration will have to use any and all leverage with Middle Eastern actors like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar—as well as European states like France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Russia—to persuade those countries to stop meddling in Libya. The LNA and GNA will need space to negotiate and compromise, but neither side is willing to do so as long as it feels it has unmitigated support from powerful regional actors.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Refugee Protection Act. This week a bicameral group of lawmakers introduced legislation to “[restore] and [reinvigorate] US refugee and asylum systems in response to the Trump administration’s attempts to shut the nation’s doors to refugees and asylum seekers” (see the Senate legislation here and the House version here). The world is witnessing nearly unprecedented levels of displacement, including in Arab states like Syria and Libya, yet the United States under the Trump Administration has repeatedly cut the levels of refugees it will settle. Lawmakers are attempting to legislate a more robust refugee resettlement program.

Directing the President to Remove United States Armed Forces from Hostilities in Syria. Representative and Democratic presidential aspirant Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) introduced a concurrent resolution this week that seeks to leverage the War Powers Resolution to withdraw US troops from Syria. Gabbard introduced a similar measure at the end of October, but so far she has received little support from her colleagues for this effort. In fact, removing US forces from Syria elicited scorn from many on Capitol Hill when the president ordered their return earlier in October. The two versions of the resolution differ in substance on the timeline of a withdrawal: whereas the previous version would give the Pentagon 30 days after the resolution’s passage to withdraw US forces, the later iteration provides for a 60-day timeline.

Affirming US Support for Israel’s Right to Defend Itself from Terrorist Attacks. Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) and Lee Zeldin (R-New York) introduced H. Res. 727 to express the sense of Congress that the United States supports Israel’s right to defend itself from terrorist attacks. The resolution is in response to the recent fighting between the Israel Defense Forces and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization in Gaza, that began when the IDF assassinated a PIJ official and that led to the death of scores of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

2) Hearings and Briefings

Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living under Israeli Military Occupation. On November 20, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) held a briefing on Capitol Hill to rally support for her bill titled “Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act” (a summary of the Congresswoman’s bill from a previous Congress can be found here). McCollum has been steadfast in her belief that US taxpayer dollars, $3.8 billion of which go to Israel as security assistance every fiscal year, should not be used to facilitate the detention—and in some cases abuses—of Palestinian children. Congresswoman McCollum made that case again at the briefing, telling the audience that crimes against Palestinian youth are completely preventable and the United States has a responsibility to ensure it does not fund abuse of children.

3) Nominations

SFRC Holds Hearing for Deputy Secretary of State, Votes on Ambassadors. On November 20, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) held a confirmation hearing for Stephen E. Biegun, the current special representative for North Korea who has been nominated to take over as the State Department’s second-in-command. Biegun has been tapped to replace John Sullivan, who is undergoing consideration to serve as ambassador to Russia. Biegun has been active in government throughout his career and is likely to win enough support to be confirmed. If media reports prove prescient and Secretary Pompeo does step down to run for the US Senate, Biegun would serve as acting secretary until a replacement for Pompeo is seated.

In addition, the SFRC voted that same day to proceed to full consideration of nominations for ambassadors to Kuwait, Morocco, and Oman.

Brouillette Closer to Confirmation as Secretary of Energy. Dan Brouillette cleared a procedural hurdle this week, all but guaranteeing that the will be confirmed to replace Rick Perry as secretary of energy next month.

4) Personnel and Correspondence

Senator Murphy and Reps. Deutch and Wilson Travel to Lebanon, Bahrain. Over the last week the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), together with the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism—Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) and Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina), respectively—traveled to the Middle East. They visited Bahrain where Murphy and Wilson participated in the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Manama Dialogue. Deutch later joined Murphy and Wilson for meetings with regional officials. Senator Murphy also made a point to visit the US Fifth Fleet, which is based in Bahrain, and he made an unannounced visit to the home of Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab.

Murphy also traveled to Lebanon where he hoped to understand more about the protests that have rocked the country and that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The senator also took stock of the situation regarding US security assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces, which has been frozen by the current administration despite the funds being appropriated by Congress.

House Democrats Oppose New State Department Position on Israeli Settlements. After Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the State Department no longer views Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as illegal according to international law, 107 House Democrats penned a letter objecting to the announcement. This, along with the administration’s other actions, severely damages peace prospects, the group wrote, and they called on the department to immediately reverse the decision.

It is noteworthy that nearly the entire international community agrees with this group of House Democrats. Of the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council, all but the United States—and Israel, which spoke in support of the announcement as a non-council member—panned Washington’s interpretation of what the rest of the world clearly views as a violation of international law.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

Pompeo Holds Talks with Officials from Turkey, UAE, Oman. This week Secretary of State Pompeo held meetings with officials from Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. First, Pompeo met with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoğlu as a follow-up to the US-Turkish conversations held when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Washington earlier this month. Those talks mostly dealt with the US and Turkish postures toward Syria and Ankara’s military operations against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

Later in the week, Pompeo met with Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan to explore ways the United States and the United Arab Emirates could cooperate to counter Iranian activities in the region and to stabilize Libya. Lastly, the secretary met with Omani Minister for Foreign Affairs Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah. The two spoke about multilateral cooperation efforts in the region and plans for trying to stabilize Yemen and bring the conflict there to an end. With the two officials from the Arabian Gulf, Pompeo spoke about the need for a unified Gulf Cooperation Council.

State Department Officials Mum on Lebanon Security Assistance. Twice in the last three weeks, this column has reported about the status of US security aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces (see here and here). There is still confusion regarding the matter as Secretary Pompeo and Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker refused to clarify the status of aid that, as of now, remains frozen with no clear justification.

2) Department of Defense

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Meets with Jordan’s King Abdullah II. On November 24, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II to discuss the two countries’ defense cooperation. Milley also met with his Jordanian counterpart, Maj. Gen. Yousef Huneiti. Milley’s session with Abdullah II was supposed to be the king’s last meeting in a series of talks with Trump Adminsitration officials and members of Congress in the wake of the State Department’s announcement on Israeli settlements.

Milley also visited Israel and held meetings with officials in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Pentagon’s Under Secretary for Policy Tours the Middle East. While Milley was leading one delegation, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Rood embarked on a separate tour through the region. Rood visited Egypt, Iraq, and Bahrain, the latter of which was for meetings on the sidelines of the Manama Dialogue. There he also convened with officials from Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, Rood met with defense officials and visited the Sinai Peninsula to understand the security threats Cairo faces and the efforts the state is taking to reduce such dangers. In Iraq, Rood visited with officials in Baghdad and Irbil to discuss the threats to Iraq’s internal security, including those of the Islamic State.

US Forces Resume Counterterrorism Operations in Northern Syria. According to a New York Times report, the US military has resumed cooperation with the Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria to carry out “large-scale” counterterrorism operations. The commander of US Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie, Jr., confirmed the report, according to the media outlet. This marks a departure from President Trump’s own stated goal of withdrawing all troops except those intended to “secure the oil” in eastern Syria.

3) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Sanctions Iran’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology. Following large and violent protests throughout Iran, the government there reportedly shut down Iranians’ access to the internet for several days. In response, the Treasury Department sanctioned Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammed Javad Azari Jahromi. Under the sanctions guidelines, any property the minister has in the United States must be blocked and reported to the Treasury Department. During a press conference this week, Secretary of State Pompeo insinuated more sanctions could be coming in response to the Iranian regime’s crackdown on protesters.