The US Chargé d’Affaires to Libya, Joshua Harris, visited Misrata and Benghazi last week where he, respectively, held talks with the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and the self-styled Libyan Armed Army Forces (LAAF). This rare visit by a senior diplomat — because the US Embassy is based in Tunis — is another sign of greater US engagement on the Libya file, and the fact that Harris visited both cities in the same week is in line with Washington’s policy of ‘active neutrality.’
Whether US diplomatic engagement in Libya — combined with growing condemnation of Russia’s role in the country — will translate into concrete action, such as new sanctions, may depend on a significant piece of legislation currently under consideration in the US Congress. Lawmakers are advancing a bill that would compel the Trump Administration to levy sanctions on foreign individuals and entities who contribute to fuelling the Libyan conflict. Last week the House of Representatives’ Foreign Relations Committee approved amendments to the so-called Libyan Stabilization Act (LSA) and it will now be put to a vote for approval by the committee. The LSA was first floated in the House last year by Representative Ted Deutch (Dem. Florida), and in the Senate by Senator Chris Coons (Dem. Delaware). The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s chairman Jim Risch (Rep. Idaho) is also considering taking up the legislation.
The LSA would impose mandatory targeted sanctions on individuals within six months, which will give the White House wide leeway to revoke US visas or freeze funds in American banks. It would further crack down on human rights abusers and the theft of Libyan oil. The bill also provides for increases in US economic and democracy assistance to the country. The latest amendments include submitting a mandated report from the Secretary of State on foreign intervention in Libya and other reports on the activities and aims of Russia’s presence in Libya. The amendments also include various penalties that will be imposed on foreign individuals and groups that are responsible for the gross violations of human rights laws which have taken place in Libya.
Clearly the legislation’s main target is Russia whose efforts to establish a permanent foothold in Libya — an ambition that has been extensively documented by the US Defence Department in recent weeks — have sounded alarm bells for both the Republicans and Democrats. But if the stated goal is to punish external powers for violating the arms embargo and fuelling the conflict, then the US lawmakers expose themselves to the accusation of hypocrisy. This is why the legislation is written so that Ankara and Turkish individuals could also be implicated.
Doing so, however, risks provoking a veto from the White House which is a weapon that Donald Trump has readily deployed in the past when Congress has attempted to rein in his foreign policy powers and target those that he perceives as friendly countries. Last year, for example, Trump vetoed a Congressional attempt to curtail US involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. In 2017 he pushed back against a virtually unanimous Senate vote to pass sweeping sanctions against Russia, and he failed to penalise Turkey for purchasing a US$2.5 billion Russian-made air defence system in 2019. The fact that the LSA could also be used to sanction Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or the UAE — because of the Gulf countries’ large-scale funding of some of Russia’s Libya activities — might be vetoed by the White House, or the Republican-majority Senate which would also have to pass the legislation.
On the other hand, there is a growing appetite — in Congress, foreign policy think-tanks, and amongst the American public opinion — to make Russia pay for its various misdeeds may yet force the Administration’s hand. It would signal a US approach to Libya that is more coherent and has more substantial teeth than the current one which consists more of pronouncements in the ‘naming and shaming’ mould. Already, there have been other signs of a toughening stance. The Treasury Department threatened sanctions against Khalifa Haftar over the Wagner Group’s recent seizure of the Murzuq Basin’s key Sharara and El-Feel oil fields. The Treasury Department cited Russian involvement in Libya in a new round of sanctions applied in July to Wagner’s owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin — who is often known as President Vladimir Putin’s chef — in response to the group’s attempts to seize control of Libyan oil fields. It has also imposed sanctions against the Wagner Group and its affiliates in Syria, Sudan, and Ukraine.
Targeted sanctions — while a tougher response than that applied by the US so far — have not, however, been effective in changing Russia’s behaviour in places such as Ukraine and Syria. Moreover, they have a limited effect in a civil war and especially when the prize of a permanent Russian military presence is so close to southern Europe. The fact that Wagner’s Russian mercenaries now control important oil production is a major prize and source of leverage and further sanctions are unlikely to persuade them to let go of. Ironically Russia’s state-owned Gazprom is Eni’s 50-50 equal partner in the El-Feel oilfield as part of the two companies’ broader February 2011 joint-venture agreement. Gazprom also has Block 64 in the Murzuq Basin and a share of Wintershall DEA’s C96 and C97 blocks in the Sirte Basin.
As we have argued in past issues, it is ultimately unlikely that the Trump Administration will take any major action on Libya before the November 2020 presidential election. A National Security Council-led review of US policy in Libya which started last year is still incomplete. US diplomats, such as Harris, have been more engaged in attempting to get UN-mediated peace talks back on track and in negotiating an end to the oil blockade while the Pentagon has sounded alarm bells about Russia’s activities in Libya. A major US effort would, however, require White House backing and this is simply not going to occur in the near future.