If Biden could rein in the likes of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, experts say he may pressure such leaders to reduce their involvement in Libya.
Soon after winning the United States presidential elections, Joe Biden proclaimed “America is back” on the world stage, indicating his keenness to restore Washington’s involvement in various global affairs.
This made diplomats and observers hopeful that Biden could reverse US retrenchment under Donald Trump and end Washington’s foreign policy paralysis in key conflicts like Libya and Syria.
In Libya particularly, Trump was criticised for taking an indifferent stance on warlord Khalifa Haftar’s offensive and granting Washington’s allies and Russia a free pass in their interference in the war.
“A Biden administration will be a far cry from how a Trump administration treated multilateralism,” Noamane Cherkaoui, an analyst of North Africa geopolitics, told TRT World. “In Libya, the US’ inertia until recently has been consequential, and Biden promises to make the US a relatively more active player in Libya’s conflict.”
A defining moment in Libya’s conflict was Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army’s (LNA) campaign on Tripoli from April 2019, which shattered peace initiatives and further fractured Libya.
Trump held a phone call with Haftar following his offensive, discussing their “shared vision” and temporarily declared his support for the warlord. The following month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump backed Haftar after Egypt and Saudi Arabia – two key LNA supporters, lobbied him. His susceptibility towards being swayed by Haftar’s backers, and his affinity towards “strongmen” leaders, therefore made Trump at least unwilling to rein in on Haftar.
Clearly, Trump has played a negative role in Libya when Washington could have been more proactive in supporting a resolution to resolve the conflict and curtailing the involvement of Haftar’s backers, namely the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Russia, France and Saudi Arabia.
Due to Washington’s ambivalent position, Russia and Turkey have emerged as key power brokers. Ankara intervened in January 2020 to back the GNA’s counter-offensive against Haftar, while Moscow shifted its support from Haftar after his failed campaign and is now working with eastern Libya’s parliament while maintaining ties with the GNA.
Haftar’s other backers still seek to gain a stake in eastern Libya despite his faltering, which could still impact current peace talks. Attention, therefore, will be on how proactive Biden will be to ensure diplomatic initiatives are upheld.
Talks for establishing a ceasefire and holding national elections have advanced since August, with the United Nations (UN)-brokered Libyan 5+5 Joint Military Commission furthering hopes for this since October.
However, there are two present obstacles for ensuring that peace efforts succeed. The first is rebuilding trust between conflicting sides and giving a platform to domestic Libyan voices. Secondly, the UN has also stressed that the international community should take every possible step to support Libya’s stability. Despite Haftar’s war failing, ending the excessive foreign interference in Libya is still crucial for building lasting stability.
"There are now 20,000 foreign forces and/or mercenaries in your country. That is a shocking violation of Libyan sovereignty," the United Nation's special envoy to Libya Stephanie Williams said during a virtual meeting on December 2.
“This is a blatant violation of the arms embargo ... They are pouring weapons into your country, a country which does not need more weapons," Williams added.
Clearly, the ongoing involvement of foreign powers increases concerns that a lasting ceasefire could be upheld.
Cherkaoui added that while Biden could be bogged down by domestic priorities, stronger diplomacy is expected, as is greater support for UN-led peace initiatives.
Biden, however, may be cautious about engaging directly in Libya. He opposed the 2011 Libya intervention during the Obama administration which overthrew Gaddafi’s regime. In a 2016 interview with journalist Charlie Rose, Biden claimed he predicted Libya’s descent into instability following Gaddafi’s ousting, saying “My question was, 'OK, tell me what happens.' He's gone. What happens? Doesn't the country disintegrate? What happens then? Doesn't it become a place where it becomes a petri dish for the growth of extremism? And it has."
Though then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the cheerleader of the intervention against Gaddafi, Biden may also be hesitant to engage in Libya after Obama’s post-2011 reconstruction failures, which analysts argue actually led to Libya’s instability following the intervention, rather than the revolution itself.
Furthermore, Biden may also have other foreign policy priorities, especially resolving tensions with Iran after Trump tore up the 2015 nuclear agreement which the Obama administration brokered. As regional tensions between Washington and Tehran have intensified since 2018, Biden will see it as essential to reduce them.
On the other hand, should Biden also deliver his campaign pledges of reining in the likes of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, this may indirectly pressure such leaders to reduce their involvement in Libya. Should Biden also cooperate more deeply with the European Union (EU), this could bolster international peace efforts, and may also restrain France’s goals of securing its own geopolitical influence in the country.
Moreover, Biden may take a more pragmatic stance on Turkey, particularly as he is looking to become a more peaceful negotiator and curtail Russia’s influence.
“An opportunity exists for a pragmatic relationship with Turkey that would allow the US to rein in Russia, which is not going anywhere anytime soon, and Turkey remains most directly in place to contain it,” said Cherkaoui.
Yet even if all these hopeful suggestions manifest, Biden’s refusal thus far to counter the UAE, which may still seek to undermine the peace process with the GNA, could undermine any efforts to support Libya’s stability.
“Many observers believe the Biden Administration will be tougher on the UAE, an expectation that may prove wrong,” Libya analyst, Jalel Harchaoui, told TRT World. “During the second Obama term (from 2013 to 2017), the UAE demonstrated its extraordinary capacity to build a rapport with a Democratic administration and get done many of the things it wants to get done.”
“The Biden Administration will not allow brazen, spectacular things to be attempted by the UAE, but that doesn’t mean at all that DC will put pressure on Abu Dhabi or hinder it in any way,”