On 7 May three senior US State Department officials — Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIL, James Jeffrey; Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Near East Henry Wooster; and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Europe Christopher Robinson — escalated their criticism of Russia’s involvement in the Libya conflict in an on-the-record briefing.
They accused the Kremlin of providing weapons and other support to over 1,200 mercenaries from the Russia’s private sector Wagner Group, as well as Syrian militias that are fighting on behalf of Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF). ‘Libya has become the next venue for Russia’s malign efforts to exploit regional conflicts for its own narrow political and economic gain’, Robinson said and added that Moscow simultaneously engages in activities that undermine a political peace process and widen the conflict. The three accused Russia use of the Wagner Group as a ‘low-cost and low-risk’ instrument to advance its goals. Jeffrey noted that Moscow has been working with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to ferry Syrian fighters to Libya to support Wagner’s operations.
The officials’ remarks are part of the Trump Administration’s ongoing campaign to ratchet up its condemnation of Russian malign activities in Libya, Syria, and beyond. More recently there has been growing anger in Washington about Russian disinformation campaigns which are designed to blame the US military for the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, there is little evidence to suggest that the briefing was part of a broader effort to use US power to help bring an end to the current Libyan conflict. There was, for example no mention, let alone condemnation, of the UAE which has been the LAAF’s most consistent backer. Nor did the three diplomats discuss potential paths to renewed political negotiations between Libya’s warring sides, or a US role in such negotiations. The reality is that, even as episodic engagement by some American officials may push at the edges of the Libyan conflict, it is highly unlikely that the Trump Administration will suddenly prioritise ending the Libyan civil war before the US presidential election in November 2020.
However — even if we assume that this briefing was primarily about Russia rather than Libya or Syria — the leverage that such statements can bring to bear upon Moscow in order to change behaviour is limited at best. The three career diplomats — Jeffrey is technically a political appointee but was a career foreign service officer prior to his retirement — work in an institution that has been largely side-lined by the Trump Administration. Their statement was not endorsed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or other more senior officials, much less President Donald Trump himself, who has never willingly criticised Moscow or President Vladimir Putin. If Russia changes its strategy in Libya it will be because of its ongoing frustrations with Haftar — or Assad in Syria — and not because of criticism from three senior American diplomats whose support from the White House is questionable. Moscow’s reported courting of House of Representatives (HoR) speaker Aguila Saleh as an alternative to Haftar — which backfired when Haftar asserted his authority and Saleh re-declared his fealty to the field marshal — is an example of Russian manoeuvring in its relationship with eastern Libya which is far from unidimensional.