WASHINGTON — The United States is wading back into Libya, with the Biden administration launching a fresh diplomatic bid to pull the country out of a violent spiral and making plans to reopen the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli seven years after it was closed.
Last week, the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat to visit the country since 2014 arrived in Tripoli, and the administration has deployed a team there to work out the daunting logistics of reopening the embassy, two sources familiar with the matter said.
The moves are a contrast to the hands-off approach of the Trump administration, which chose not to impose pressure on governments — including U.S. allies — that have supported proxies in Libya's civil war in blatant violation of a U.N. arms embargo.
The United Arab Emirates, Russia, Egypt and Turkey have funneled weapons, cash and tens of thousands of mercenaries to competing militias in the country's chaotic civil war, according to the United Nations, fueling potential terrorism in the region and a migration crisis in which refugees have been crossing the Mediterranean Sea to seek asylum in Europe.
A report in March by a U.N. panel of experts described a veritable free-for-all inside the country as foreign powers fly in drones, transport aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, artillery and armored vehicles, as well as mercenaries from Chad, Sudan and Syria.
Even considering a reopening of the U.S. Embassy carries political risks for the Biden administration, however. U.S. officials are mindful of the partisan feud that erupted in Washington after an attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in the Libyan city of Benghazi in 2012, in which U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens died. Republicans in the House launched six investigations of the Obama administration's handling of the episode.
Asked about the future of the embassy in Tripoli, the State Department declined to comment about when the mission might open its doors again.
"Our intent is to begin to resume operations in Libya as soon as the security situation permits and we have the necessary security measures in place," a State Department spokesperson said. "The process for that to occur, however, entails careful logistical and security planning, plus interagency coordination to meet security and legal requirements. "
The European Union reopened its mission in Libya last week, and other governments have restarted their diplomatic missions since March, in a show of support for a transitional government that was established after a U.N.-brokered cease-fire in October.
Libya's envoy to the U.S., Mohammed Ali Abdallah, said his government had urged the Biden administration to move ahead with plans to reopen the U.S, Embassy, saying it would send an important symbolic message.
"We asked the U.S. government to expedite the process of reopening the embassy in Tripoli," he said.
The embassy was closed in 2014 when officials decided that fighting near the city made operating in the capital unsafe. The embassy was moved to neighboring Tunisia.
After the Benghazi attack and the closing of the embassy, the Obama administration discouraged visits by senior U.S. officials to Libya. The decision was "that we're not going to take the risk — period," said a senior Obama administration official who worked on regional diplomacy.
An embassy helps keep the government back home informed and serves an array of practical functions, including consular services, assistance to U.S. companies interested in investing and forging cooperation with the local military and intelligence services.
Operating without an embassy puts a government at a disadvantage and deprives it of a full picture of the situation on the ground, the former U.S. official said.
"It is embarrassing that we're not there," the official said. "It's bad for U.S. foreign policy. It's bad for U.S. national security. It's bad for the host country. It's bad for the region."
A 'huge shift'
Western governments believe the cease-fire, the transitional government and an election planned for December offer glimmers of hope for a country that has been on a downward spiral since the fall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
After a NATO-backed uprising toppled Gadhafi 10 years ago, Libya has been divided between a U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli and rival factions in the east backed by outside powers. A former Libyan general, Khalifa Hifter, supported by Russia, the UAE and Egypt, launched an offensive in April 2019 in a failed attempt to capture Tripoli. With vital military support from Turkey, the government defeated Hifter's forces, partly with help from Syrian mercenaries.
Under the cease-fire agreed to in October, governments pledged to ensure the withdrawal of all foreign fighters and mercenaries and to halt further breaches of a U.N. arms embargo. But a recent U.N. report made it clear that the foreign fighters remain on the ground, and weapons continue to flow into the country.
Now the U.S. will have to push its partners — including the UAE — and adversaries to stop meddling in Libya, said Ben Fishman, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington think tank.
It's an open question "how active we will be in terms of diplomatic engagement with the spoilers, basically, to make sure they don't spoil," Fishman said. "Will Libya be high enough on the agenda in our complex relationships with some of these states? That's where the rubber meets the road."
It's unclear whether the Biden administration will be able to keep up a sustained diplomatic effort, as the White House has made it clear that it intends to invest less time and effort on the Middle East to focus on countering China. But Fishman said Libya offers an opportunity for President Joe Biden to address instability on NATO's southern flank while making make good on his promise to repair trans-Atlantic relations and U.S. credibility.
Libyan and European diplomats so far say they are heartened that the U.S. appears to be taking a more active role at a pivotal moment for Libya.
Apart from sending the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Joey Hood, to Tripoli for talks last week, Biden recently promoted the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, to serve as a special envoy to Libya, another sign that the administration is trying to rally international support for the political process.
Ali Abdallah, the Libyan envoy to Washington, said there had been a "huge shift" in the new administration compared to the Trump administration.
There is now a "willingness of the U.S. administration to exert pressure and invest political capital with some of the allies who have been interfering and were part of the problem in Libya," he said. "That was not the case with the Trump administration."
But despite positive developments like the cease-fire, he said, the U.S. and other countries need to address the presence of foreign fighters and what he called the "elephant in the room" — Hifter. Companies that are running guns for Hifter must be held accountable through U.S. or Western sanctions, Abdallah said.
"There's no way we're going to be able to hold elections with these people controlling big parts of the country," he said.
U.S. lawmakers from both parties are backing proposed legislation that would impose sanctions on any entities violating the U.N. arms embargo.
The U.N. report that described a free-for-all in Libya said operatives from the Russian paramilitary company Wagner were acting as a "force multiplier" for Hifter's forces, serving as air controllers, aircraft mechanics, artillery observers and snipers.
A Defense Department inspector general's report issued last year, citing reporting from the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the UAE "may provide some financing" for the Wagner group's operations.
None of the countries mentioned in the U.N. report have acknowledged its findings.
The State Department spokesperson said the U.S. strongly supported the October cease-fire agreement, which requires the withdrawal of all foreign military forces and mercenaries.
"This includes the need for the departure of Russian mercenary and proxy forces, Turkish forces and all foreign military forces, mercenaries, proxies and foreign fighters, including those from Syria, Chad and Sudan, and the need to end any support for foreign military intervention, including from the UAE," the spokesperson said.
The UAE hasn't specifically addressed the findings of the U.N. or inspector general's reports.
"The UAE supports international efforts to achieve peace and stability in Libya," the country's embassy said in an email.
In January, the UAE's ambassador to the U.N., Lana Nusseibeh, said in a statement that the UAE welcomed the Security Council's call for all foreign forces to withdraw.
"Foreign intervention in the conflict must end now. The UAE firmly believes that diplomatic and political solutions are the sole path to end the Libyan conflict," she said.