Special Briefing via Telephone
Richard Norland, U.S. Ambassador to Libya
June 4, 2020
Ambassador Norland: Well, thank you. [In Arabic.] I’m Richard Norland, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and I have to say, [in Arabic]. So I am grateful to our interpreter who will help in translating this conversation.
Let me just make a few points at the beginning, and then we’ll go to questions. We have consistently stated that the U.S. core position on Libya is that the Libyan conflict needs to stop. Ending the conflict will enable several things to happen. First, it will stop the destabilizing effect of foreign intervention. Second, it will allow urgently needed humanitarian action to address the spread of COVID-19. And third, it will lessen the suffering of Libyan communities which have endured an intolerable increase in civilian casualties and displaced persons.
As you are all aware, the situation in Libya has evolved significantly in recent weeks. With Turkish support, GNA forces have taken control of several areas of western Libya. Additionally, Wagner Group mercenaries have repositioned away from southern Tripoli front lines. We remain very concerned, however, over the possibility of continued escalation, in particular, given Russia’s delivery of major air assets which AFRICOM highlighted in its public statement last week. At the same time, flows of Turkish military hardware and other forms of support continue.
In line with this, our messaging to both the GNA and the LNA has consistently been that they should take advantage of the window that’s opening now to return to the UN-led 5+5 discussions. The draft framework of that agreement, which both sides have had an opportunity to review, is the ideal opportunity to establish a lasting ceasefire. But merely showing up is not going to be enough. For this effort to be genuinely successful, the parties have to participate in those negotiations in good faith, and their respective leadership needs to empower their negotiating teams.
On the economic front, we look forward to working with the UN and the international community to encourage meaningful economic reforms to tackle corruption, increase transparency and accountability, and promote unified institutions that work for the benefit of all Libyans. We remain concerned about attacks on vital state infrastructure, and we share the National Oil Corporation’s concern over the oil-and-gas sector shutdown that has deprived the Libyan economy of over $5 billion in revenue.
We also urge the GNA to redouble efforts to implement an adequately funded nationwide COVID-19 response that assures those who are most vulnerable and affected that they receive the assistance and supplies they need, while ensuring that basic government functions like the payment of salaries arrive on time.
So with that, I will be happy to take your questions.
Moderator: Thank you very much, Ambassador Norland. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
Our first question will go to Michel Ghandour from MBN.
Question: [Inaudible] General Haftar is in Egypt today. Prime Minister Sarraj is going to Turkey tomorrow. His deputy is in Russia today, and the Libyan parties agreed on resuming the 5+5 meeting. What’s going on here? Is there a serious opportunity for peace talks, do you think, after the latest military developments in Tripoli, or are they preparing for another round of violence? And did you or do you view that Libya becomes another Syria after the violent Russian involvement there?
Ambassador Norland: Well, thank you for the question. Yes, we know that Haftar is in Egypt. Sarraj is actually in Turkey today. He was scheduled to meet with President Erdogan today. And Deputy Prime Minister Maiteeq was in Moscow yesterday. And we think this reflects – we think it does reflect a real opportunity for the international community to make progress towards a settlement in Libya.
First of all, it reflects what has been happening on the ground politically in Libya in the wake of the changing military picture. There has been growing political ferment in the east, as represented by the initiative put forward by Aguila Saleh, and it’s clear that there is a growing momentum in the Libyan body politic to try to bring this conflict to an end. Because there have been so many external supporters, it’s been important to now bring those external supporters into the picture and to make sure that their efforts are in support of a political resolution.
And so we see this intensified diplomatic activity with the visits you mentioned and with the diplomacy that’s happening in terms of phone calls between Secretary Pompeo and Prime Minister Sarraj, between Macron and Haftar, between various leaders, as part of an expanding international diplomatic effort to seize this opportunity and bring this to a resolution. The situation has escalated dangerously, and the participants have a choice either to watch it escalate into a full-blown regional war or to finally de-escalate. And we believe there is a real opportunity to end the conflict, and we are going to use all of our support and influence to help that happen.
Syria – I don’t think Libya is going to be another Syria, but to make sure it doesn’t go that way, it’s really important to seize the opportunity now to de-escalate this conflict. Over.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador. Our next question comes from Sam Kiley with CNN International in the UK. Operator, please open the line.
Operator: I do apologize. Just one moment, please. Just one moment, please. I do apologize. I’m not able to open that line right now.
Moderator: That’s all right. That’s fine. We’ll come back to – we’ll come back to them. Let’s move next to a question that was submitted in advance. This question was submitted from Bandar Alrashedi Al Riyadh newspaper. The question reads: “What is the U.S. position on the Turkish influence in the conflict in Libya?”
Ambassador Norland: Right. Well, our basic position is that it’s time for all mercenaries and all foreign forces to begin to de-escalate and depart Libya. If there’s one motto we’re applying to the situation now, it’s “Libya for the Libyans.” Now, when you talk about Turkey, we have to recall that the real escalation in this conflict began with the intervention by Wagner forces from Russia in October, and the Turkish intervention was in reaction to that. So now that the situation on the ground has been roughly evened out, again, our message is that foreign intervention should stop, it should de-escalate, and the Libyan parties should be allowed to come to the negotiating table. We don’t believe Libya wants to be occupied by any foreign element, whether it’s Russian or Turkish or even an ideological movement.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador.
The next question we’ll take from Jared Malsin from The Wall Street Journal. Operator, please open the line.
Operator: I do apologize. I am having some difficulty here. That line disappeared. I’m not sure if they removed themselves from queue.
Question: No, I’m still here.
Operator: Oh, your line is open. I’m sorry, go ahead.
Ambassador Norland: And I can hear you. Go ahead.
Question: Hi, thanks for bringing me on. My question is the last time there was a major international effort to move toward a solution in Libya, in January with the Berlin conference, around the same time there was a major arms buildup taking place on both sides of the conflict. And so I’m wondering now with this new push to resume negotiations and with things kind of realigning on the ground in Libya, what are you seeing in terms of inflows, potential inflows of weapons right now in the last few weeks to either side of the conflict?
Ambassador Norland: Well, the challenge in the Berlin process has been, as you suggest, trying to make actions and deeds match words. There have been commitments to observe the arms embargo, but a number of the participants in Berlin have steadily violated those commitments. The thing about Berlin is that it did create an architecture for a political settlement, and the – we still think Berlin is the only game in town. It’s a viable architecture if people will only use it.
The – what makes things a little different now than in the past is that the level – the escalation has reached such a dangerous stage that we think cooler heads can and should prevail, and that’s certainly what we’re hoping will happen. There has been – you saw the AFRICOM press release that talked about the introduction of sophisticated Russian fighter aircraft into the theater. We’re not sure what that was intended to send in the way of a signal. Those aircraft, as far as we know, have not been used yet. But it’s really important that things move in the other direction in terms of de-escalation. The introduction of those aircraft could just as easily lead to the Turks bringing in F-16s, and that’s the last thing that anybody needs in this part of the world.
The Libyans are sending the signal now. They want foreign forces to stop playing a destabilizing role. They want to move towards a political settlement, and it’s the role of the international community to facilitate that.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador. Our next question was submitted in advance from Ahmed Gullah from Youm7 newspaper. It reads, “What will the position of the U.S. be on foreign military presence in Libya after reaching a political solution?”
Ambassador Norland: Well, the short answer to that is it’s of course for Libyans to decide. But in general, the U.S. posture in the Middle East in recent months and years has been to – we think that less military presence is desirable, not more.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador. The next question we’ll take from Daniel O’Connell with Mada Masr.
Question: Hi, Ambassador Norland, can you hear me?
Ambassador Norland: Yes, go ahead.
Question: Thank you for taking the time today. I wanted to ask you about the U.S.’s position on the kind of established courting of former regime figures by Russia, as well as Egypt’s role in this, specifically considering the fact that many of these figures are in Egypt and there has been a very documented, high-level talks in the last few days between the Russians and the Egyptians. So yeah, that’s my question.
Ambassador Norland: I’m sorry, the first part of your question about former regime figures? I’m not sure I got that.
Question: Just Russia’s courting of a lot of former regime figures – Saif al-Islam and [inaudible] that they’ve been courting.
Ambassador Norland: Right. Well, I mean, I think I would just say generally that as I mentioned earlier, we’re seeing evidence of growing political ferment of people, more voices entering the Libyan political spectrum. I don’t know if anybody knows where Saif al-Islam is. We’re certainly aware that he is the subject of potential International Criminal Court investigation. There is a range of figures who are on the scene, and I think what’s happening is a number of countries are engaging with those figures, whether it’s the Russians or the Egyptians or us. I mean, we’re talking to a lot of people too.
Egypt is in a particularly important position, we think. They obviously are a key player. They feel their security interests with their long border with Libya are at stake. There may have been those in Egypt who thought that betting on a strongman was the way to secure those interests, but I think they realize that that approach has really not worked, and so we see Egypt increasingly ready to play a constructive role. Egypt is a co-chair with the United States and the European Union in the economic working group under the Berlin process, and we’ve found them to be a constructive partner in that format.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador. Our next question will come from Isabel Debre from Associated Press.
Question: Hi, thank you so much, Ambassador Norland. I’m wondering how concerned the U.S. is in terms of Russia taking over for Ghardabiya, south of Sirte, as a potential permanent base for their operations in the Mediterranean.
Ambassador Norland: Right. Well, basically our view is of course Russia, like other countries, has legitimate interests in Libya and in the region. We would just like to see them pursue those interests through normal means and not through entities like Wagner. We just don’t see a role for a military solution to what’s going on in Libya, and of course we – NATO has interests in terms of a stable Mediterranean, and we would think that Russia would want to equally be interested in seeing a stable Mediterranean where the desires of the local population are respected. And again, I would just stress in the time I’ve been here and the engagement I’ve had with Libyans, none of them wants to be a pawn in a geopolitical game. None of them wants to be dominated by any outside entity, and I do not believe that any kind of military base of that nature is something that the Libyans are calling for right now.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador. We have time for just one more question, so we will take the final question from Rana Jawad from BBC. Operator, please open the line.
Operator: The line is open, please go ahead. Please check your mute.
Ambassador Norland: We did lose a little time there, so if you want to take one additional question, that’s fine with me.
Moderator: Sure. So while we wait for the technical issue to resolve, we’ll take one question that was submitted in advance. We have a question from Amina Alakkari from Libya Al Ahrar TV. The question reads, “How will the U.S. deal with the continued presence of the Russian Wagner Group in Libya, especially in the oil fields and ports?”
Ambassador Norland: Right. Well, again, our efforts are focused on trying to de-escalate and eventually remove all foreign elements, whether they’re Russian mercenaries, Syrian mercenaries, Chadian mercenaries, or Sudanese mercenaries, or what have you. The best way to do that is to get the – is to end the conflict. I know that sounds simplistic, but if there’s no fighting going on, there’s no legitimate reason for mercenaries to be there. And we believe that there is – the stage is set now to bring the fighting to a close. The offensive on Tripoli, which has been going on for more than a year now, is something we have long called for an end to, and it is beginning to move in the other direction now.
I spoke with some colleagues in Tripoli today, Libyans who talk about the liberation of Libya, and the joy they feel in the bombardment having come to an end, it would be an absolute crime if that were to resume. And there’s no reason that it needs to. This can begin with the de-escalation of the foreign presence, Wagner, the Syrians on both sides, and there is – there are processes in place, both through this 5+5 ceasefire mechanism and other parts of the Berlin process led by the UN, which can accomplish this task. And we’re convinced that the international community increasingly recognizes now that the time has come and no one’s interests will be served by ratcheting this up further.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador. We’ll take one more question from the line. We’ll go to – oh, I think – I think he actually dropped. So with that –
Operator: No, that line is open. That line is open.
Moderator: Oh, it’s open. Perfect. Awesome. Great, we will go to Samer Alatrush, who is with Bloomberg.
Question: Hi, Ambassador, thank you for this call. Samer Alatrush with Bloomberg.
Ambassador Norland: Yeah, sure, hi.
Question: Hi. I was curious about your sense of where the acceptance for the 5+5 talks are now. So the [inaudible] announced that the [inaudible] have accepted, and then the LNA spokesperson said that they only accept if they comply with certain conditions, which is kind of the usual [inaudible] I guess before – before they go into talks. But where are we now with the talks? Are they going to start? Are you confident both sides are invested in the 5+5 process [inaudible]?
Ambassador Norland: I can say the UNSMIL briefed us yesterday, and the talks have begun. The way they are doing this is first of all, obviously because of COVID, in virtual format, and also sequentially. So they began with the LNA. They had a productive discussion, initial discussion. They are now in the process of scheduling the GNA. They hope to do that within the next day or two. It’s very delicate, let’s be honest. The GNA wonders whether the LNA is doing this just to buy time, to prepare for another assault. There is a lot of pent-up anger and revenge; all of these sentiments are out there.
So for the GNA it’s a matter of corralling their supporters into going ahead and doing the right thing now, which is to enter into these talks. And like any coalition, there are elements that are not interested in doing that and have to be brought around, and it’s important, too, that everybody help in that process. The LNA, in theory, they were conducting this campaign to deal with what they viewed as some serious substantive issues, which sometimes were characterized as the three M’s: the militias, the money distribution across the country, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
When efforts were made to try to promote serious talks on those issues, unfortunately the LNA balked each time. But now is an opportunity to test once again whether they are serious about pursuing those issues, and if they are, we will support them being at the table. And so as the UN gets ready to hold this next round of 5+5 talks, we’ll see just how far this will go. The role of outside actors like the Turks and the Russians will be very important. If the LNA feels like it’s getting outside support for ongoing military activity, then maybe they will not be – they will not take the 5+5 seriously, they’ll just go through the motions.
Similarly, if on the GNA side the actors feel like the Turks are ready to help them go for broke and continue the offensive and move further east, which would be very dangerous in our view, then it’s going to be hard to stop that from happening, so – and put the 5+5 at risk. So the focus, I think, of all serious actors right now is on trying to make this 5+5 process viable, which is after all about removing these foreign elements. One of the things the agreement that was reached tentatively on February 23rd had was the withdrawal of all foreign mercenaries over the course of three months. So there are mechanisms to do what people say they want done, but it just needs to be taken seriously.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador. I would like to turn it back to you, Ambassador, for any closing remarks you’d like to share.
Ambassador Norland: My only point is just that we believe that in terms of all of the issues that affect Libya, whether it’s COVID-19, involvement of foreign mercenaries, economic turmoil, oil blockades, everything can be resolved, everything can be addressed if we just begin to wind down the conflict. And we think that the stage is set for that to happen, and now is the time we believe it should happen. And there is an architecture in place to do it, it’s just a question of goodwill and commitment by the various sides.
We know that a number of countries are genuinely concerned about their interests, and they’re playing that out in Libya. But we’re convinced that their interests will best be served by stabilizing the conflict. Their interests will only be made exponentially worse by exacerbating the conflict, and that’s the reason why the United States is keeping a very close eye on this, and is engaged in ways that are not necessarily visible to the public, but that we think can be helpful. Over.
Moderator: Thank you. That concludes today’s call. I would like to thank Ambassador Norland for joining us, and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at DubaiMediaHub@state.gov. Information on how to access the English recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly. Thank you, and I’ll turn it back to the operator now.
Ambassador Norland: And thanks, everybody, for taking part. Out here.