SPECIAL BRIEFING VIA TELEPHONE
JOEY HOOD, ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY
BUREAU OF NEAR EASTERN AFFAIRS
JUNE 24, 2021
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Acting Assistant Secretary Hood for his opening remarks. Please go ahead, sir.
MR. HOOD: Thank you, Justin. Hello, everybody. It’s a pleasure to speak with all of you. As Justin said, I’m in Berlin. This is the first stop on Secretary Blinken’s travel to Germany, France, and Italy, and it’s an important opportunity to highlight the strong relationships that we have with our allies and partners in addressing common challenges and shared priorities around the world.
I joined the Secretary and U.S. Special Envoy for Libya Ambassador Richard Norland in the Second Berlin Conference on Libya. The conference brought together the international community to support the progress the Libyan people have made towards an inclusive, negotiated political solution. It also represented a milestone in this progress: the Libyans joined as participants in the Berlin Process for the first time. They were represented by Government of National Unity Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dabaiba and Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush.
The conference demonstrated strong agreement to support Libya’s national elections in December of this year. We also reaffirmed support for the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions 2570 and 2571, which were adopted in 2021 – sorry, in – yes, 2021 – along with the October 23rd, 2020 Libyan nationwide ceasefire agreement. Issues surrounding military de-escalation were highlighted, and while still unresolved, useful bilateral discussions were held on how to begin to operationalize the departure of foreign fighters.
The United States supports a sovereign, stable, unified Libya with no foreign interference, and a state that’s capable of combating terrorism within its borders. We firmly oppose all military escalation and all foreign military intervention, which only deepen and prolong the conflict. We’re committed to increasing our diplomatic support to the progress made by the Libyan people, including through the work of our special envoy.
In the months ahead, the United States will continue to promote international efforts to support the interim government as it prepares for the elections and works to end the conflict. We’ll also work with the Libyan people and international partners to ensure support for strengthening Libya’s institutions and governance.
And with that, I’m happy to stop and take some of your questions. So over to you, Justin.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much for those remarks. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
And our first question comes to us from Nadia Bilbassy with Alarabiya TV. Please go ahead, Nadia.
QUESTION: Hi, good morning. Thank you for doing this. [In Arabic.] I have two questions, actually. Number one is, if you look at the recommendation of the Berlin first conference, it’s almost the same as the second. So what gives you hope apart from the participation of the Libyan representatives that this outcome will be implemented and different? And also considering that you have called for all foreign forces to leave Libya, the Russians did not send high representation – the foreign minister was not there, the same for the United Arab Emirates and China to a certain extent – is it feasible that these forces can leave soon without having somebody at that high level at the conference? Thank you so much.
MR. HOOD: Well, with regard to the question about hope, it’s interesting – I noticed that almost every speaker at the conference looked at the prime minister and said, “Your presence here is what represents hope for us.” Because what the prime minister represents is an effort, a successful effort by the Libyan people and the major political actors to come together and to form a Government of National Unity on an interim basis to bring them toward elections.
I think if you’d asked people a year and a half ago if that was even possible, they would have said no. And so we’ve seen remarkable progress among the political actors being willing to stop fighting, to form various committees such as the Libya Political Dialogue Forum and the 5+5 Military Commission, and to make important decisions which, as I said, has ended the fighting and brought the political actors together to form a government. And so people are not dying like they were during the conflict, and you now have a real chance at elections, which we fully expect to take place in December, and you also have a chance for a budget to be passed for the first time in many years.
We often forget that Libya is not a poor country. It has major resources. And so the passage of a budget, I think, is going to mean real – a real difference for the services that are provided to the Libyan people. So that’s what gives us a little bit of hope, although we’re realistic; we recognize, just as you said, that foreign forces are still there. And so that’s one reason why paragraph five of the conclusions, which you’ve all seen, I’m sure, says all foreign forces and mercenaries need to be withdrawn from Libya without delay.
We can’t wave a magic wand and make this happen, but working together with the Libyan people, I think there’s a strong chance that we can set the conditions to provide the incentives and the maybe other parameters for these forces to leave. But frankly, there’s no organization or body that is more capable of bringing about that departure than a strong, unified Libyan government chosen by its own people. And so that’s why elections are so important.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Hiba Nasr with Asharq News. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Good morning. Thanks for taking my question. Other than – other than the foreign fighters, what could be an obstacle for the coming elections, the main obstacle, other than the foreign fighters?
MR. HOOD: Well, I think that Libya has a number of obstacles that it needs to overcome but can overcome. The first one is setting the constitutional and legal basis for the elections, which must be done by July 1st, and we continue to call for that to happen. So doing that will then unlock a number of things that the high national electoral commission needs to do to move to the next steps. But security is obviously going to be a problem in many places throughout the country where armed groups that are not part of any government organization are moving around freely and attacking. I mean, we’ve seen attacks by terrorist groups in the past couple of months that have been just shocking, especially in the south. And so security is another one. Administratively, obviously they haven’t had a nationwide election in a long time. I’m sure that they need to train people and they need to even bring electricity and other things like that to certain parts of the country to make sure that just administratively the election can take place.
But as I said, Libya is not a poor country. It doesn’t have a huge population. And so these things are possible; they can overcome these challenges and they have a lot of partners, like the United States, who want to help them do that. So I have every confidence that they can do it, and they seem determined.
MODERATOR: Great, thanks very much for that. We’re going to take a question that was emailed to us from Ali Laggoune with Al Bilad TV in Algeria. His question is, “How do you see Algeria’s role in the Libyan crisis, since it is one of the main neighboring countries? And what is your comment on Haftar’s forces closing the border with Algeria?”
MR. HOOD: Well, of course Algeria is a valued partner of the United States and we think that they can play a constructive role in helping Libya get back on its feet. With regard to this closure, so-called closure, look, the Government of National Unity is the recognized Government of Libya. Unilateral actions like closing international borders don’t have the support of the international community, and we think they’re counterproductive to the political transition. Under the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum roadmap, the presidential council is supposed to carry out the functions of the supreme commander of the Libyan army in accordance with
Libyan legislation. So the so-called LNA, or Libyan national army, has supported the roadmap process thus far and needs to continue doing so, including with respect to the national elections coming in December.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Elizabeth Hagedorn with Al-Monitor. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you. First, can you give us some more detail on the understanding reached between Russia and Turkey on the withdrawal of Syrian fighters? How confident are you that some foreign forces will depart in the coming days as Libya’s foreign minister suggested? And as a follow-up, in addition to its Syrian fighters, has Turkey shown any flexibility on removing its regular forces? Thanks.
MR. HOOD: Well, Elizabeth, we think that foreign actors of all stripes should respect the Libyans’ desire to reassert their own sovereignty by respecting the terms of the ceasefire agreement from last October. With regard to any understanding between the Russians and the Turks, or separately from those two parties, I would have to refer you to them to know exactly what they intend to do. But we call on both of them and all sides to immediately pull out all foreign forces, whether they are regular forces, mercenaries, or something else. The best way for Libya is to decide on what countries it’s going to have security cooperation relationships with once it has a government that comes out of these elections and that clearly represents the will of the Libyan people. And so that’s what we’re going to continue to work for.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes to us from Borzou Daragahi with The Independent. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you so much for doing this. Given that many of the – much of the foreign interference in Libya is the result of sort of a regional rivalry between two U.S. partners, allies, United Arab Emirates and Turkey, have there been any steps that the Biden administration has taken to address that underlying dynamic to speak with officials in Ankara and Abu Dhabi about the kind of conflict that is at the root of the conflict, so to speak?
MR. HOOD: Yeah, Borzou, actually it’s a good question and it’s one that I can answer affirmatively. Yes, we have had those discussions in both of those capitals and elsewhere. But just, I think, a difference between this administration and maybe previous ones is that this – the Biden administration has decided to undertake diplomacy in a very quiet way. And so you’re not likely to see well-publicized meetings and readouts of every single discussion that are very detailed because we think that we can get more progress by having quiet conversations with our partners, and then coming in with as many allies as we can with a unified position. So that’s why I think you’ve seen so much work done on trying to get unified positions on very clear sets of points.
It may not be very satisfying media-wise all the time. [Laughter.] And for us, I think also it makes it difficult for us to show that we’re being active. But through our quiet diplomacy, we absolutely are having very, very in-depth and pointed conversations with our allies such as the UAE and Turkey on issues related to Libya and other files.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Our next question comes to us from Grigoriy Sapozhnikov with the TAAS News Agency. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: A question: Mr. Hood, did you have any contacts on the margins of the conference with the Russian side, with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vershinin? And how can you estimate in general the cooperation with Russia on Libya, especially maybe on humanitarian portfolio? Thank you.
MR. HOOD: Well, Grigoriy, I can confirm that we have had contact on the sidelines of this conference with all of the major players, including Russia, and I think that there is space for cooperation here not just on the humanitarian side but on the security side as well, because I think we all have an interest in making sure that Libya is not an exporter of instability. And we saw in Chad last month just exactly how profound that instability can be on neighboring countries. So I think there is space for us to cooperate here and that’s certainly what we would like to try to do.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. We’ll take another question that was emailed to us in advance. This is from Eric Schmitt with the New York Times. His question is, “How many foreign troops or private military contractors (i.e., the Wagner Group) still remain in Libya, and what is the administration doing to expedite their departure?”
MR. HOOD: Well, I’m sorry, Eric, that I’m not going to be able to get more precise than to say we believe that foreign forces, fighters, and mercenaries number in the thousands on each side. But we continue to engage with all of our partners and allies on how to operationalize their departure. We believe that progress on this was made here in Berlin, but obviously there is much more work to do. We think that this involvement is destabilizing and Russia’s involvement in particular remains of concern given nearby U.S., NATO, and European interests throughout the Mediterranean.
But we think there’s a clear roadmap out there. The Libyan ceasefire agreement calls for the withdrawal of all foreign fighters and mercenaries – no exceptions. So this is not a question of, well, if I go, what about the other side? The Libyans are clear: they want everybody out and they want to have elections so that they can have a strong, unified government that then makes security cooperation agreements with other countries based on the will of the Libyan people and not based on the rule of force.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Duygu Guvenc with ANKA News Agency. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello. Thanks very much for holding this conference. Actually, yesterday a senior State Department official was telling that once an arrangement is reached in Libya, then a unified Libyan armed forces is established, the four-year-old [inaudible] will come to an end and indicating that the Turkish deal with the Libyan Government would come to an end. First of all, I understand and respect that you don’t want to comment on behalf of the Turkish side, but do you think that if the Turkish military is withdrawn – Turkey withdraws them from Libya, would
it contribute to a settlement, a peaceful atmosphere? And would you elaborate a little bit: with whom in Ankara you are dealing on these issues? Is it the presidency or the armed forces? Thanks.
MR. HOOD: Well, thank you for the question, Duygu. I’m not going to go into details of our diplomatic discussions, but I think you know that we enjoy a close relationship with the Turkish Government from our presidents all the way down to our working-level staff. And so these conversations are being held at every level.
You asked about what will happen once foreign forces, and including Turkish forces, depart the country. We do think that this would contribute to a peaceful settlement because it would allow the Libyan Government to unify their own armed forces under one command and then to establish healthy security cooperation arrangements with a range of countries at their choice and not because it was forced upon them. So we think that that’s the path to go forward and that’s what we’re going to continue to work with our allies and partners on implementing.
MODERATOR: Great. We have time for one final question, and that will go to Yasmine Marouf Araibi with INTERLIGNES Algérie. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you. Thank you for this opportunity. So my question is about the United States intention to make the national reconciliation happen and to make the election, upcoming elections scheduled for December 16th. Thank you.
MR. HOOD: Yasmine, if I understood your question correctly, you wanted to know how the United States intended to help make sure that the elections happened in December? Is that it?
QUESTION: Yes, exactly, and help the reconciliation happen, national reconciliation happen.
Mr. HOOD: Ah, okay. Thank you. Well, we have a number of programs through the U.S. Agency for International Development that specifically tried to address issues of reconciliation. Of course, USAID and other organizations like the U.S. Institute for Peace, they have a lot of experience in promoting reconciliation in different countries around the world. And so we’re going to be working with the Libyans on that and I think the most important ingredient to this recipe of reconciliation is the fact that Libyans themselves want to work toward this goal. They have made this decision and that’s why you’ve seen so much progress over the past year on forming a government and forming a military commission and calling for the departure of all foreign forces.
I mean, I think we all understand – Turkey, Russia, UAE, the United States, other countries – we all have legitimate security concerns with Libya given all the instability that has happened there and in surrounding countries because of what’s happened in Libya. So I think we can all work together with a legitimate, duly elected Libyan government to make sure that we all have those security cooperation arrangements that would help us address our legitimate security concerns. And that’s what we’re trying to work toward.
So our intention is to certainly help the Libyan Government of National Unity as much as we can to help the elections take place in December, but this is primarily their project and one that we are supporting, not one that we are driving.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much for that answer. Unfortunately, that was the last question we have time for today. Acting Assistant Secretary Hood, do you have any closing words you would like to offer?
MR. HOOD: No, I don’t think so except to say thank you to you and to all of our journalist friends who tuned in today. I appreciate your attention and I look forward to your reporting.
MODERATOR: I’d like to thank Acting Assistant Secretary Hood for joining us today, and also thank all of the journalists on the line for participating with your questions.