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What is Behind U.S. Renewed Interest in Libya?

William Burns, the Director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) paid an ambiguous visit to Libya, last week, where he reportedly met with the rival political elite in Tripoli and Benghazi. The scarcity of official statements on the details of Burns’ recent visit to Libya, and the sensitivity of his current position as a chief spy, in addition to his decades-long experience in Libya, are creating a wave of speculations about the motives behind the United States renewed interest in the war-torn North African country. In the meantime, the Libyans are wondering if the United States intervention on that senior level could participate in breaking the political stalemate and accelerating the process of holding elections after being blocked twice by the power conflicts of the political elite.

Burns has a seasoned career as an American diplomat leading tough missions in the Middle East and North Africa. Speaking of Libya, Burns was the engineer of the U.S. rapprochement to Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2004. In his capacity as Under Secretary of State, in 2014, he was the first U.S. official to visit Libya since the terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi in late 2012. One month after his visit the civil war that dragged Libya into hell for six years had erupted. For another ironic coincidence, Burns was appointed as CIA Director at the same time the civil war in Libya came to an end by the Un-brokered elections of the Government of National Unity (GNU) in early 2021.

Handshakes and Cold Shoulders

Looking into the names of the Libyan politicians that the CIA Director had chosen to give a handshake or a cold shoulder can provide a clue for the motives behind the U.S. re-involvement in Libya. Since the beginning of the Libyan civil war in 2014, the United States administrations of presidents Obama and Trump remained quite neutral about the conflict but attempted to diplomatically mediate for a working solution through special envoys and ambassadors. William Burns is the first senior American official to visit the country since then.

The Libyan local media reported that Burns held separate meetings with political leaders in Tripoli and Benghazi. In Tripoli, he had talks with GNU’s Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, Foreign Minister Najla Al-Mangoush, and the Director of Libyan Intelligence, Hussein Al-Ayeb. The GNU media office published photos from the meeting and mentioned in a statement that “Burns stressed the need to develop economic and security cooperation between Libya and the United States.”

The same statement quoted Dbeibeh vowing his government’s commitment to hold elections to ensure long-term stability in Libya. Al-Mangoush wrote that her meeting with the CIA Director highlighted fruitful discussions on security cooperation, paving the way for political stability through elections in Libya.

Some local media resources also mentioned that Burns met with Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the unofficial forces known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), in Benghazi. However, there is no credible evidence that this meeting happened. The traditional and social media platforms affiliated with Haftar have not published any photos from the alleged meeting, and the LNA spokesperson unusually declined to confirm or deny the news. Some other reports claim that Burns traveled to Benghazi for the sole purpose of meeting with a few dozen American military and CIA personnel who are working from a campsite on the outskirts of the city.

Nevertheless, the senior American official has not met with the designated leader of the parallel Government of National Stability (GNS), Fathi Bashagha, and his backers at the Tobruk-based parliament, especially Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the parliament. Saleh is also a close ally of Haftar. He has been continuously using his legislative powers to pressure the Tripoli-based governments to make political and economic concessions to Haftar.

The CIA Director’s choice to meet with Dbeibeh, and not with Bashagha, clearly indicates that the United States has started to stop playing the mediator role between the conflicting factions in Libya and will instead ally itself with the side that could serve its best interests in the region and beyond.

U.S. Interests

Some analysts are linking the visit of CIA Director, Burns, to Libya with the recent extradition of Lockerbie bombing suspects by the GNU. However, the visit seems to be more strategic than merely paying thanks to Dbeibeh for his cooperation on a case that happened in 1988. This visit cannot be seen in isolation from the global standoff between the Western and Eastern superpowers over the war in Ukraine. The United States' renewed interest in Libya is motivated by the many cards that Libya can throw to influence the U.S. security and economic competition with Russia and China.

Libya, due to its geostrategic location, could be the gateway for the United States to gain influence in Africa and thus curb the economic influence of China and the security influence of Russia on the fertile, but underdeveloped, continent. In mid-December, Washington hosted a three-day summit under the title “US-Africa Leaders’ Summit,” calling in forty-nine political leaders from Sub-Saharan and North Africa as well as the Commissioner of the African Union to discuss ways to revive and enhance America’s socio-economic partnerships with the continent. A senior U.S. official told the press that “the summit is rooted in the recognition that Africa is a key geopolitical player and one that is shaping our present and will shape our future.”

From another angle, Libya is swimming in a wealth of fossil fuels that could be used to influence the global energy market in favor of U.S. foreign policies, especially after OPEC+ declined to involve their oil wealth in the current economic clash between the Western and Eastern superpowers. Libya is a member of OPEC with oil production that exceeds 1.2 million barrels per day. That is close to the crude oil production volumes of some wealthy Arab Gulf countries, such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Dbeibeh told the CIA Director, last week, that he has a plan to stabilize and increase the oil production to three million barrels per day.

Moreover, Libya possesses the highest volume of proven oil reserves in Africa, and the second-highest volume of Natural Gas in the Mediterranean after Algeria. For decades, Libya has been successfully feeding Europe with Natural Gas via the Green Stream offshore pipeline (length: 540 km) extending from Mellitah Port in Libya to the shores of Sicily in Italy. Plus, Libya enjoys a unique strategic position in the south of the Mediterranean, through which it can easily ship cargos of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) to energy-deprived Europe. Right now, Libya is already the fourth top exporter of Natural Gas to Europe and the 21st world producer of Natural Gas.

On a broader scale, Libya is the equivalent playground to Syria when it comes to competition between Russia, Turkey, and the United States. Turkey, with the help of Russia, has been knocking on the doors of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria for the past few months. In December, the Turkish Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, and Intelligence Director, Hakan Fidan, flew to Moscow to meet with Syrian counterparts for security discussions. The meeting is believed to pave the way for the reconciliation between Ankara and Damascus, in a way that will serve and enhance Russia’s interests in the Middle East and also in Ukraine.

In Libya, Russia and Turkey are at odds as they back conflicting factions. However, they have been able to create some kind of an undeclared compromise to avoid clashing of interests or troops. By stepping into the Libyan playground, the United States can disturb this equilibrium in a way that may strategically shake Russia’s plans in Ukraine.

Tough Playground

Libya is a complicated playground that the United States needs to tread with caution if it plans to step into as an international competitor rather than a mediator.

For over a year, Libya has been stuck in a grave political stalemate that threatens the renewal of the civil war at any moment. Hundreds of Libyans have been killed or injured in the militiamen street fights, in Tripoli, last summer. The clashes were mainly incited by the political conflict between the two parallel governments of Dbeibeh and Bashagha.

Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh has led the Government of National Unity (GNU) from Tripoli, since March 2021. The GNU is an interim government elected in a UN-supervised process by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). GNU’s main mission was to reconcile eastern and western rivals, unite the armed forces held by both sides and hold presidential and parliamentary elections before a deadline, that has already expired in June 2022.

When the GNU failed to hold the presidential elections in December 2021 due to what the electoral commission described, at the time, as “force majeure;” the Tobruk-based parliament hired Fathi Bashagha on top of a new parallel government, that they called the Government of National Stability (GNS).

Some Arab countries, including Libya’s direct neighbor – Egypt, showed immediate support to Bashagha’s GNS, while Turkey continued to back Dbeibeh’s GNU. However, Dbeibeh refused to cede power and insisted that his government would not leave Tripoli until presidential and parliamentary elections were held. That quickly escalated to serious clashes between militiamen affiliated with Dbeibeh and Bashagha in May-August 2021.

On one level, the U.S. will need to compromise power with influential rivals, Russia and Turkey. Turkey is a NATO ally but its relations with Russia are still solid. On another level, the U.S. will need to apply a proper amount of political pressure to force the conflicting politicians in the eastern and western of Libya to come to an agreement and hold the due elections. Most importantly, the U.S. will need to handle the irregular groups of mercenaries and local militias that are indirectly setting the course of competition between the political elite.

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