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US diplomatic confusion on Libya

Washington’s position on Libya is muddled and risks losing the support of the Egyptian people and its leadership

Saeed Okasha , Tuesday 21 Jul 2020
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On 18 July, the Pentagon confirmed that Turkey sent 4,000 mercenaries to Libya during the first three months of this year. In a report on combating terrorism in Africa, it added that Turkey provided funds and citizenship to thousands of combatants in return for participating in the Libyan conflict alongside the forces of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). This clear statement from the Pentagon does not show any change in the US’s position regarding the crisis that threatens war between Egypt and Turkey in Libya at any moment.

Washington’s response has alternated between taking a neutral position towards the parties in the conflict, as expressed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who rejected foreign intervention in Libya, and indirect support of Turkey as noted by Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker who refused to hold Turkey alone responsible for igniting the crisis. This shows that the US position, as stated by Pompeo and Schenker, equates between Egypt’s moves based on legitimacy and the globally recognised right to defend its national security and prevent the existence of terrorists on its borders, and Turkey’s position that contradicts basic principles of US foreign policy and international law that reject explicit or implicit state sponsorship of terrorism.

The US’s position on the Libyan crisis is not only problematic because it contradicts one of the basic principles of US foreign policy since 9/11, which is to contain and combat terrorism and hold any state that sponsors terrorism accountable, but more importantly this position does not serve US interests in the long run. US interests in the Middle East are best served by restoring stability in countries torn apart by civil war, such Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Libya.

There is practical evidence that keeping Russia and China away from competing with the US in the region is only possible through strong governments that enforce security and stability in their territories, unlike the chaos that allowed these two countries to gain a military and economic foothold. This chaos also led to expansion of Iran’s military influence in a way that clearly threatens US interests. Meanwhile, US reliance on Turkey to block Russian incursion in the region was a mistake, since Turkey sought to reach understandings with Russia in Syria, and moved towards strategic closeness with Moscow by buying the S-400 missile defence system, which represent a serious threat to NATO’s policies and plans to confront Russia.

Although Iran and Turkey differ on how to address the Syrian issue, the possibility that Tehran and Ankara will draw closer is not impossible, especially due to their joint interest in preventing the creation of a Kurdish state in the region, as well as growing economic ties between them. Washington should not forget Turkey’s role in violating sanctions against Iran triggered by its nuclear portfolio and support of terrorism. Washington must also understand that Erdogan’s long years in power have promoted anti-Western sentiments because the Turkish president invokes religious reasons to explain his failure to join the EU.

US decision makers are mistaken to think they should tolerate Turkey exacerbating the conflict in Libya by resorting to terrorist groups, because then Ankara is less likely to draw closer to Moscow. On the contrary, the opposite is more likely, especially since Erdogan is facing domestic pressures due to economic conditions, and the growing ability of opposition parties to defeat him in the coming elections. Despotic leaders, such as Erdogan, will resort to transferring pressure at home overseas, even if this means turning against traditional allies in order to rally support for themselves in confronting their opponents at home.

Washington’s biggest mistake would be to hand over the Libyan issue to Schenker who is in charge of Near Eastern and North Africa affairs, because he lacks understanding of the social conflicts in the Middle East, even though he specialises in Arab affairs.

An article published by Washington Institute for Near East Policy in April 2011 (three months after the so-called Arab Spring), titled “Egypt’s Enduring Challenges”, reveals Schenker’s ignorance of political and social forces in Egypt. In the article, he predicted that a coalition of Egyptian liberals will win power after Mubarak’s overthrow, and claimed that liberals will be keen on establishing good governance in Egypt to prevent political Islam from becoming an alternative to them in upcoming elections. Schenker also projected that the Muslim Brotherhood could agree to adopting the Western model of democracy, which means they can be assimilated into the political system.

This article shows that Schenker does not understand that liberals in Egypt are not a political current that has a popular base, but rather a handful of intellectuals and academics who are mostly not directly involved in politics and prefer to write research papers and articles about liberalism and democratic transformation. Neither does he understand that due to the Muslim Brotherhood’s social and ideological composition they would never adopt democracy as an ideology or practice.

The events in Egypt that followed proved that Schenker is incapable of understanding what happened in Egypt and the Arab world at the time. Therefore, it makes no sense for Washington to hand over the Libya portfolio to him after he previously failed to predict what would happen in the region, after the so-called Arab Spring uprisings.

The statement by the Pentagon warning about the dangers of Turkey’s moves, and that it is sending terrorists and preachers to Libya, could aim to counter what State Department staff such as Schenker are doing by encouraging Erdogan to continue towards a clash with Egypt. Pompeo himself must be the one in charge of this issue, and use all US resources to push towards a return to negotiations among parties in the Libyan conflict. War between GNA militias supported by Turkey and the Libyan National Army (LNA) could lead to more complications that prevent reaching a comprehensive settlement to the crisis anytime soon.

Egypt’s position that asserts its right to defend its security remains the most politically, militarily and legally sound. It is in Washington’s interest not to lose credibility on punishing countries that sponsor terrorism, otherwise it will lose the trust of the Egyptian people who support their leadership in defending Egypt’s legitimate right to defend the country’s security.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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