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Libya’s UN-Backed Government Head Meets with US Officials

Libya's Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj meets, April 5, 2017, in Stuttgart, Germany with top U.S. officials, in hopes of finding a way forward for what one analyst is calling “the Obama administration’s Iraq.”

The head of the U.N.-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) has met in Stuttgart, Germany with top U.S. officials, in hopes of finding a way forward for what one analyst is calling “the Obama administration’s Iraq.”

Chuck Prichard, a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command, told VOA that GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj sat down Wednesday with U.S. General Thomas D. Waldhauser, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, and U.S. Ambassador to Libya Peter Bodde at the U.S. Africa Command headquarters.

“The point was to catch up on how things are going in Libya and to brief about how civilian rule and military organizations work together,” Prichard said. It was Sarraj’s second visit to U.S. Africa Command headquarters.

The visit comes as Russian military officials have deployed to an airbase western Egypt, in what U.S. officials say appears to be a bid to support Khalifa Haftar, the military commander of Libya’s rival eastern government.

U.S. officials told Reuters news organization last month that the United States had observed what appeared to be Russian special operations forces and drones at Sidi Barrani, about 100 kilometers from Egypt’s border with Libya.

When asked whether the U.S. Africa Command supported collaboration between the GNA and Khalifa Haftar, Prichard said the command was “not really advocating a position one way or the other.”

“We’re just trying to facilitate stability so that the Libyan people can sort out their government,” he said.

'Irresponsible' approach

But this approach to allow Libyans to wade through political waters on their own has been “irresponsible,” especially when the Obama administration realized that U.S. allies in Europe were not going to effectively aid the Libyans, says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow for defense strategy at the Brookings Institution.

“I think we’ve done a horrible job in Libya. I think it’s the Obama administration’s Iraq,” O’Hanlon said, adding that the U.S. helped overthrow Libyan dictator Moammar Ghadafi with “just the hope that once we eliminated a bad guy, things would get better.”

He said that approach was the same type of mentality that then-President George W. Bush had toward overthrowing Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the early 2000s.

However, while the United States sent more than a hundred thousand troops into Iraq, analysts say U.S. forces in Libya lack the capacity and numbers to properly train Libyan forces on the ground. According to a U.S. official, only small numbers of U.S. forces are spread out in areas including Tripoli, Misrata and Benghazi.

“To stabilize the country, there’s no way these people [U.S. forces] can do what is needed because our basic political strategy doesn’t hold water,” O’Hanlon said.

The last six years of volatility left a window of opportunity for Islamic State militants to gain a foothold. Months of fighting, and eventual aid from U.S. airstrikes in and around Sirte, pushed the militants out of country.

Russian intervention?

But as the country still lacks a stable form of government, Libya is ripe for Russian intervention, according to Russian expert Dmitry Gorenburg of CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization based in Arlington, Virginia.

He said Russia’s support of Haftar would be a method to both increase its influence in Libya, where it once had an ally in Ghadafi, and build relations with Egypt.

"They [Russia] see an opportunity to regain some influence in a country that was pretty much lost to them post - and even to some extent prior - to Ghadafi's overthrow," Gorenburg noted.

Any thought of the U.S. working with Russia to stabilize Libya, however, has been complicated by a recent gas attack in rebel-held Idlib, Syria, which has killed scores of people, including children.

“It’s pretty clear the U.S. and Russia are going to take much more opposed points of view on Syria after the chemical attack,” Gorenburg said.

Moscow has been Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s principal supporter, but U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday accused Assad's government of going "beyond a red line" with the poison gas attack, alluding to former president Barack Obama's threat to attack Assad if he used such weapons against civilians.

“My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much," Trump said.