US wants ‘forces pull back’, security arrangement around Sirte, suggests demilitarized zones, US ambassador to Libya exclusively tells Ahram Online

Bassem Aly , Haitham Nouri , Monday 10 Aug 2020

US ambassador to Libya speaks to Ahram Online about the prerequisites for a peace deal in Libya amid his current visit to Cairo

Ambassador Richard Nolan
Ambassador Richard Nolan

US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland visited Cairo on Monday for talks with Egyptian officials and the speaker of the Tobruk-based Libyan House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh, on means of resolving the Libyan conflict.

Ahram Online spoke to the envoy about the Libyan crisis, and Washington’s position on recent developments.

Norland said Washington aims to “get forces to pull back” and “find some sort of neutral security arrangement” for Sirte. He revealed that one of the ideas suggested during talks involved the establishment of a demilitarised zone around Sirte.

He wants the Russians to be involved in a “productive way” instead of supporting armed groups, while pointing out that only international courts can decide on the issue of Eastern Mediterranean cooperation between Turkey and the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). 

Ahram Online: What was the impact of the Turkish intervention on Libya's political and security conditions?

Richard Norland: First of all, let me say that this visit took place in the context of recent conversations between US President Donald Trump and Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, and between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.

The idea was to follow up those conversations to try to seize an opportunity that in the end we hope will help lead to the departure of all foreign forces from Libya. We see that the political dimension of the Cairo Declaration on 6 June offers an opportunity for new voices to emerge from Libya’s east to engage with the GNA in Tripoli and try to come up with a Libyan political dialogue with a new approach and a negotiated solution to the conflict.

We see this hopefully as the beginning of specific steps to deal with confrontation around Sirte and Jufra, and also to help resume oil production in Libya, which has an important security dimension to it. We want to help the Libyans who want to restore their sovereignty, and in that sense I believe it has been a very useful visit.

The Turkish intervention produced a kind of a stalemate, which has created an environment where people understand that there is only a political solution. The government in Tripoli reluctantly made arrangements for Turkey to support them militarily when it appeared that the capital was about to fall to Haftar’s offensive.

But I argue that there should be limits to any foreign intervention, and the dynamic now should be on how to end and de-escalate these interventions on all sides, and there is an opportunity to do that because of the stalemate that exists on the battlefield right now.

We want to take advantage of that opportunity because the confrontation that is out there with the Turkish forces on one side, and the other forces, is one in which there could be a miscalculation any time that could lead to disastrous results for Libya and its neighbours. 

AO: What are the prerequisites for a peace deal in Libya?

RN: First, foreign actors have to stop fuelling the conflict, especially those countries that are providing military equipment and supporting mercenaries, and others who are helping to fuel the conflict. This really needs to end. Also, all the commitments that were made in Berlin, if fulfilled, will be the recipe for addressing the conflict.

I think if all pitch in now to support those in Libya who are patriotic nationalists trying to end the conflict and the involvement of all foreign forces, that is the other part of the equation. In that respect, the political dimension of the Cairo Declaration has been positive.

AO: What is the possibility of having a US plan in terms of creating a demilitarised zone in Sirte?

RN: One of the ideas we are suggesting is supporting some sort of a demilitarised solution around Sirte. We are not the only ones who suggested that, but if we can use our influence to do so, we would like very much to do that. The aim is to get forces to pull back, to find some sort of neutral security arrangement for the city itself, and to avoid the risk of Sirte becoming a flashpoint for an expanded conflict.

AO: Do you think there is progress taking place towards reaching a final settlement between the warring factions?

RN: We have an opportunity here to consolidate a long-term ceasefire, and I am not going to say whether I am optimistic or pessimistic, but I think it is an opportunity that rational parties support and will continue to do so. The reason is that the alternative is a serious regional conflict.

AO: Turkey signed an accord with the GNA last year to create an exclusive economic zone from Turkey's southern Mediterranean shore to Libya's northeast coast. In your view, do Turkey and the GNA have an oil-for-protection deal?

RN: Regardless of why the agreement was signed, its impact and how it proceeds is something that will have to be decided through international, legal processes in the courts, and I think parties on both sides recognise that. The issue is being contested and will have to play itself out in international courts.

AO: In June, Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi described Sirte and Al-Jufra as a redline for Egyptian national security. What is the US position on such a reaction by Cairo towards the Turkish-GNA moves?

RN: Obviously, we respect the president’s statements, as it shows the risk of escalations and the growing imperative to find a solution to this. In our discussions today, Egyptian officials pointed out to me, which I think is one of the most important points that even President El-Sisi made, that Egypt does not want to see any kind of military action either from the east or the west of Libya, and that Egypt opposes any kind of attack on Tripoli.

From my perspective as ambassador to Libya, hearing those assurances from President El-Sisi, to the extent that growing confidence can be built around those assurances, I think it could have a very powerful impact on what happens next to stabilise the situation further.

AO: What is the US position on the Libyan tribal leaders' call, which Egypt agreed to, for an Egyptian intervention in Libya?

RN: The broader issue is that we support efforts to de-escalate the situation. We believe in the urgency in helping all parties and the UN to come up with a negotiated settlement here.

AO: Russia is involved in Libya. What is the US position on Russia's military presence in an oil-rich country that Western oil companies have worked in for years?

RN: Russia has legitimate commercial interests in Libya like everybody else. What surprises us is that Russia pursuing its interests through the Wagner Group, bringing in sophisticated, hard military equipment and doing things that are not helping to stabilise the country.

We have noticed in the last couple of days, with the disaster in Beirut, that Russia, through its ministry of emergency services, has actually done very good work in Lebanon to help with that crisis. From our perspective, it would be good to see Russia involving itself in productive way in Libya, not in a way that fuels conflict.  

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