Insights

Libya at the heart of renewed US interest in the Mediterranean

US actions in Libya and the Near East focus on promoting the country’s political and economic stabilisation, countering the Wagner Group and supporting allies.

Hussein Eddeb / Shutterstock.com

The United States’ renewed interest in the Mediterranean, particularly on the complicated North Africa and Near East region, responds to a need to contain the activities of rival actors and assist those of allies. Evidence of this are the Biden administration’s recent diplomatic moves and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s declarations on the need to assist Europe in stabilising the region – and among other things, lightening the migratory burden.

The last of these US moves was the visit of the Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East, Barbara Leaf, first to Libya and then to Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon. In Tunis, the focus was on avoiding the country’s economic and financial wreckage, granting credit lines to Kais Saied’s Government (like the IMF ones, which Italy is also working on) on condition that it continues to keep dialogue open and avoid excessively authoritarian drifts. In Libya, however, the situation was more complex.

Ms. Leaf’s official task was “to meet with senior Libyan officials to highlight US support for UN-facilitated efforts to promote consensus leading to general elections in 2023”. Seeking to embrace the country’s internal complexity, she had meetings both in the Eastern and Western part of the country.

The presence of two rival governments in Libya is an element of destabilisation and weakening for the country, as are the interests of external actors, also present in the country. This was also discussed in the meetings that Ms. Leaf had in Cairo, following a pattern already established by the CIA director, William Burns.

The United States now has a particular interest in containing the presence of Russian military security company Wagner Group, which controls a number of positions in the central-eastern area of Libya (at Al Khadim airbase, near the city of Al Marj, in the city of Sirte and in the central region of Al Jufrah). The Russian contractors provided assistance to the UN-backed government in Tripoli, repelling an attack launched three years ago by the Benghazi-based rebels led by General Khalifa Haftar – who not surprisingly had a meeting with Ms. Leaf.

Despite the conflict coming to a halt, Wagner’s men have remained in Libya and have deepened their influence and presence. They beca a factor of “destabilisation”, as Italian Foreign Affairs Minister Antonio Tajani recently declared, echoing the concerns of Italian Minister of Defence Guido Crosetto, who denounced the role the group plays in migratory trafficking.

Concerns are further strengthened by recent information about Wagner Group’s potential involvement in the disappearance of uranium rods, which were subsequently found.

If General Haftar, who continues to control the Eastern part of the country, agrees to drop his links with the Wagner Group, it would be a great success for US diplomacy, with a clear benefit for Italy and for the country’s stabilisation. This could go through a process of normalization, with the establishment of a transitional government of national unity, followed by constitutional reform and presidential and parliamentary elections.

However, a positive note came from the Council of the European Union, which decided to further extend the mandate of the European Naval Force in the Mediterranean, EUNAVFOR MED IRINI, until 31 March 2025. This operation is key to control the trafficking of arms into Libya, the reduction of which also reduces the likelihood of internal actors resorting to the military option to resolve political disputes.

The stabilisation of Libya is a key area of interest for Italian politics too. The reason for this goes beyond the value of Libya for Italy’s ability to project its foreign policy on the Mediterranean. Recent data published by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) points to a sharp increase of migrant departures from Cyrenaica, Libya’s easternmost region, where General Haftar militias and the Wagner Group are based. The reasons for this spike in departures are complex and include declining employment opportunities, for example due to the ban on fishing. However, Minister Crosetto’s words on the involvement of Wagner Group in human trafficking should not be underestimated either.

As it often happened in the past, the global geopolitical confrontation has an impact on Libyan. Russia, China and, to some extent, Egypt look more detached from the UN initiative to stabilise the country. On the contrary, Ms. Leaf engaged with General Haftar to promote the importance of “supporting the initiative of the UN Secretary General’s special representative Abdoulaye Bathily, aimed at involving all Libyan institutions and political actors in defining a clear path for elections by the end of the year”.

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