The UN-recognized government in Tripoli and its US allies are banking on the incoming Joe Biden administration to ramp up Washington’s focus on Libya and deal the death blow to rebel leader eastern commander Khalifa Haftar‘s political ambitions.
Lobbyists for the Government of National Accord (GNA) and Libyan-American advocates are pursuing a multi-tiered campaign that includes stepped up US diplomatic engagement, congressional pressure on human rights and legal action against Haftar. The rebel leader’s rival US influence operations by contrast have largely dried up amid battlefield reversals and war crimes lawsuits in US court.
GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj rushed to congratulate Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris soon after the major news outlets called the election to share his “aspiration to work with them to achieve a civil democratic state in Libya.” Meanwhile the Libyan American Alliance, a Virginia-based advocacy group that supports the GNA, is preparing a white paper for the incoming administration that should be ready within a couple of weeks.
A key message to the Biden camp will be that Haftar “is no longer a part of Libya’s future,” said Esam Omeish, the group’s president.
“The project that he essentially represents — the military, authoritarian-type project that he represents — has no place in Libya,” Omeish said. “I think we need to have clarity from the Biden administration in voicing that.”
William Lawrence, a former State Department diplomat specializing on North Africa who consults for a range of clients on Libya, said GNA officials are making a similar pitch. They hope Biden, who argued against the NATO-led intervention against Moammar Gadhafi as vice-president in 2011 and mourned the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi the following year, will give the conflict the attention it deserves despite his expected focus on domestic issues including the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy.
“They want the US to engage on Libya in a way they haven’t since Chris Stevens’ murder and they understand that the US has limited bandwidth,” Lawrence said. “As with everything in Washington, it’s often just, how to put your country or your issue at the top of everybody’s to-do pile. And they really have to do it during the transition to hit the ground running on your issue. That’s why all this intense lobbying is starting now.”
Rival lobbying campaigns
The current lobbying effort traces its roots back to early April 2019, when Haftar and his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army launched their assault on Tripoli while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was visiting in preparation for a peace conference. Haftar backs a rival government in the eastern city of Tobruk and has enjoyed the support of countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates that see him as a bulwark against perceived Muslim Brotherhood influence in the GNA.
While the US government opposed the incursion, President Donald Trump caused a stir when he spoke with Haftar over the phone on April 15, 2019. A White House readout of the call said the US president “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.” The readout made no mention of the offensive on Tripoli.
Those developments sparked a lobbying arms race. On April 25, 2019, Sarraj’s office signed a $2 million-a-year contract with Mercury Public Affairs, which also represents GNA allies Qatar and Turkey. Not to be outdone, Haftar’s army hired Linden Government Solutions for the same rate the following month.
The Libyan American Alliance was launched around the same time. In its first public event at the National Press Club on June 26, 2019, the group announced that four Libyan families had filed suit with its support against Haftar in Virginia district court for alleged war crimes leading to the deaths of their family member during his offensive on Tripoli. The families are seeking $125 million in damages from Haftar, who used to live in Virginia and has US citizenship.
Advocates also pushed for a congressional hearing held on May 15, 2019. That same day, seven House members of both parties sent a letter to Attorney General Bill Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray calling on them to investigate war crimes allegations against Haftar and his subordinates.
Congressional action continued with the introduction of legislation from Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) that calls for US sanctions and assistance. That bill, the Libya Stabilization Act, finally passed the House of Representatives last week but has not moved in the Senate. The bill notably seeks a report on arms embargo violations by GNA allies Turkey and Qatar as well as by the UAE, Russia, Egypt, Sudan, Chad and Saudi Arabia, which support Haftar.
The Trump administration meanwhile ramped up its involvement around September 2019 amid reports that Russia was sending mercenaries to help Haftar.
“To this day the US policy towards Libya is very much oriented around a confrontation with Russia,” Lawrence said. “For this administration, it’s really largely about the Russian mercenaries, and the prospect of a southern Mediterranean Russia port or another Mediterranean Russian base, which is very much a cold war and post-cold war red line to a degree for the US.”
US engagement has continued since. This January, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended the UN-backed Berlin summit that helped relaunch the political process in Libya. The conference endorsed a three-track approach: a security track aimed at achieving a cease-fire and removing foreign fighters from the country; a political track calling for negotiations between rival authorities in Tripoli and Benghazi alongside independent actors; and an economic track charged with tackling reforms such as the distribution of oil resources, the unification of economic institutions and government subsidies.
Meanwhile on the military side, Turkey’s intervention at the GNA’s urging that same month decisively shifted the tide in Tripoli’s favor.
Haftar’s waning influence
The battlefield reversals have taken a toll on Haftar’s political influence both at home and abroad.
Linden Government Solution parted ways with the LNA in mid-June after the previous year’s contract wasn’t renewed. To date the firm has only disclosed $775,000 in payments from its client, far short of the $2 million agreed to.
“Basically the contract expired and the situation there is such that they’re focused on more serious issues right now,” Executive Vice President Joseph Fleming said at the time.
Another firm indirectly supporting Haftar shut down its lobbying operations earlier this year after being raided by the FBI.
Michael Esposito and his firm Federal Advocates registered in September 2019 to lobby the Trump administration on “geopolitical issues in Africa” on behalf of Opus Capital Asset Limited FZE of Dubai, which Federal Advocates described as a geopolitical national security firm. Bloomberg however reported earlier this year that a confidential UN report had linked Opus Capital to the deployment of western mercenaries helping Haftar. In any event, Esposito has not disclosed any new lobbying since the FBI raided his home in early January following reports that he greatly exaggerated his ties to the Trump administration to potential clients.
That has left the UAE’s lobbyists to pitch in on Libya policy on their own. On June 22, Akin Gump lobbyist Hagir Elawad, a former head of legislative affairs for the UAE Embassy in Washington, emailed her contacts to share the Emirati government’s warning that conflict between Turkey and Egypt loomed on the horizon if the Turks did not pull back in Libya.
“Egypt will NOT allow a Muslim Brotherhood-supporting country to set up shop on its border,” she wrote. “That is an existential threat to them. That would be the equivalent of having China in place of Canada, and Russia in place of Mexico.”
The Libyan American Alliance’s Omeish countered that the Biden administration should instead embrace Ankara’s role as an agent of stability and a vital ally for countering Russian influence.
“If Biden wants to engage NATO more, if he wants to have more robust partners in the region to help him, I think Turkey should be considered a center-piece,” he said.
He said his group is already engaging with a Biden team that has proved open to listening to a wide variety of opinions on foreign policy issues.
“That’s been a nice door-opener for us to engage them at a level where hopefully we can talk to folks who are going to be managing Libya policy,” Omeish said. “I think that’s a great opportunity for think tanks and advocacy groups to put their mark on Libya policy.”
The white paper the alliance is putting together aims to suggest a framework for actionable US policies over the next 100 days in conjunction with the UN process. Among the group’s asks are a US commitment to the Berlin conference’s three tracks and a renewed push with incoming Department of Justice leaders for a criminal probe into Haftar’s alleged war crimes after the effort failed to gain much traction under Trump.
“We don’t want human rights violations and crimes to be relegated to a secondary position,” he said.
As for congressional outreach, Omeish said that while the Libyan American Alliance welcomed last week’s passage of the Libya Stabilization Act, the group sees room for improvement if it comes up before the Senate or in next year’s Congress.
Among his group’s concerns are what he called the “false equivalence” created by listing Turkish military contractors alongside Russian mercenaries and Islamic State fighters among foreign armed groups and by treating attacks on civilian targets by GNA and LNA forces equally even though the latter are responsible for more of them, according to the UN Panel of Experts on Libya. He also pointed out that the bill does not mention the Russia-focused Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act in its list of punitive tools that could be used against destabilizing actors in Libya.
“It’s definitely, I think, a good law that needs to come out,” Omeish said. “But it can be improved upon in many ways.”