Defense, Middle East, New in Lobbying, Regional conflicts

House passage of Libya bill buoys opponents of UAE arms sales

The US House of Representatives today passed a bipartisan bill that names and shames arms embargo violators in Libya for the first time, adding a new wrinkle in the lobbying and advocacy fight over the Donald Trump administration’s proposed $23 billion sale of F-35 fighter jets, drones and munitions to the United Arab Emirates.

The House agreed by voice vote to the Libya Stabilization Act, a longtime priority for US supporters of the UN-backed government in Tripoli. The bill calls on the US to increase its diplomatic and humanitarian engagement in the North African country and identify and sanction foreign actors that threaten its peace and stability.

Meanwhile in the Senate, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) announced that they would soon introduce four separate resolutions of disapproval of the proposed arms sales. They said the Trump administration, seeking to rush the sale of the sophisticated weaponry, had circumvented the normal congressional review process, Reuters reports.

The Libya bill’s very first section requires the secretary of State to issue a report within 90 days that includes “a description of the full extent of involvement in Libya by foreign governments [including] which governments are linked to drone and aircraft strikes.” It notably names Turkey and Qatar, which are fighting on the side of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, and the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Egypt, Sudan, Chad and Saudi Arabia, which support eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar via mercenaries and air strikes. (China, whose armed drones have been widely used in the conflict, is also named, while Jordan is not despite being identified as a repeat offender in UN Panel of Experts reports).

“For so long there’s been an aversion — almost a code of silence — to naming the violators,” said Frederic Wehrey, a Libya specialist and senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The forensics about the Emirati violations of the arms embargo are clearly apparent: Multiple fixed-wing drone strikes killing civilians. Yet there [had been] a reticence to call them out. And now the Stabilization Act requires a report that I think will name and shame them.”

The bill faces an uphill battle in the Senate, where Chairman James Risch (R-Idaho) has so far declined to bring it up in the Foreign Relations Committee. Some Democrats have taken action on their own, with Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to sanction arms embargo offenders and press for the release of a new UN report that is reportedly being blocked by Russia and China.

“We are particularly concerned about the role of the UAE and its support for warlord Khalifa Haftar’s violent gambit to seize power from the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA),” the senators wrote in a letter to Pompeo last week obtained by the Washington Post. “Between January and April of this year, the UAE reportedly dispatched more than 150 flights to bolster forces in areas under Haftar’s control.”

Still, Wehrey and others expect it to play a role in the arms sales debate, especially after Pompeo bypassed bipartisan congressional efforts to restrict arms sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia over their involvement in Yemen last year.

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“The same group of Congress members that were alarmed on Yemen started taking a really hard look at Libya,” Wehrey said. “And their whole narrative was that the US has been too soft on the Emirates and doing too much behind closed doors. The point of the Stabilization Act is it sheds more light on what the Emirates is doing.”

That spotlight, some advocates argue, is another strike against the proposed arms sales to the UAE, which have separately raised concerns about the preservation of Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region.

“The Libya piece of it would be important to that debate because it’s ongoing,” said William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.

“To some degree they’ve been Haftar’s air force,” added Hartung, who has co-authored an issue brief raising concerns about the sale. “It’s not some sort of minor involvement. They’re really full-on breaking the sanctions and engaged in the civil war.”

The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) is also working with other advocacy organizations on a letter opposing the F-35 and other military sales in part over UAE actions in Libya and Yemen, Foreign Lobby Report has learned.

Another group cheering passage of the bill is the Libyan American Alliance, a Virginia-based group that supports the GNA.

“Hopefully there’s a new day in Washington with the [Joe] Biden administration that while you can be an ally of the US, you can’t get away with violations of international law, supporting military dictatorships, and not affording the Libyans their aspirations for democracy and self-rule. I think those messages are being heard loud and clear,” said Esam Omeish, the group’s president. “I think the UAE still has a favored status in Washington because of a lot of its other important interactions with Iran and Israel and all that. But that doesn’t give it the right to spoil stability in a very critical and important region.”

The UAE for its part has enrolled its lobbyists to make the case that it has long been a reliable US ally in the region, using its fleet of F-16 fighter jets to support US-led counter-terrorism missions in Afghanistan, Syria and beyond.

“The sale of the F-35 to the UAE is much more than selling military hardware to a partner,” the UAE Embassy said in a report distributed to the US policymakers by lobby shops Akin Gump and American Defense International. “It is about advancing a more stable and secure Middle East. It enables the UAE to take on more of the burden for collective security from the United States.”