Since its creation in the aftermath of the Libyan uprising against Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has faced profound obstacles in its efforts to help Libya’s transitional governments restore public security, promote the rule of law and national reconciliation, protect human rights, and make Libyan governmental institutions functional and accountable.

Progress on these goals has been limited. The country remains split between two principal governments, neither of which holds a monopoly on force, instead relying on militias in its respective zone of control. In the west, power is held by the UN-sponsored Government of National Unity, headed by Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh and with its capital in Tripoli. The Sirte-based Government of National Stability, formed in March 2022 and led by Osama Hamada, is endorsed by Libya’s House of Representatives (HoR) and works at the direction of warlord Khalifa Hifter’s “Libyan National Army.” The latter force controls much of the country’s east and south with the help of such foreign actors as Egypt, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Of the many outside powers exerting political influence in Libya, the most enduringly important actor has been Russia. For a decade, Moscow has provided Hifter, the HoR, and the various eastern governments with many billions of dollars in fake Libyan dinars, printed by the Russian state printer, Goznak. This cash was previously delivered, without accountability, to the Eastern division of Libya’s Central Bank; but now, it directly ends up in the hands of Hifter and his sons, for distribution as they see fit.

UN process hits a dead end

In recent years, the main goal of UNSMIL has been to secure national parliamentary and presidential elections that would lead to a single, unified Libyan government with legitimacy, selected by the Libyan people. As the April 16 resignation of the most recent UN special representative of the secretary-general for Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, reflects, however, the UN process is at a dead end. The chances for success in this space in the near term appear nil, as the core processes are largely moribund.

In his final appearance before the UN Security Council (UNSC) to announce his resignation, Bathily cited a litany of reasons for his inability to achieve progress on elections. They included “stubborn resistance, unreasonable expectations, and indifference to the interests of the Libyan people” by Libya’s political leaders. The same descriptions would also perfectly apply to the sins of the foreign actors most deeply involved in Libya; but in his departing screed, Bathily largely gave them a free pass, merely referencing generally “foreign fighters, foreign forces and mercenaries” in Libya, without naming names. He concluded his remarks to the Security Council by stating that the “selfish resolve of current leaders to maintain the status quo through delaying tactics and maneuvers at the expense of the Libyan people must stop.” He asserted that this will never happen unless the UNSC’s members unite and demand it.

Russia’s damaging presence

So long as Russia is led by President Vladimir Putin, no one should expect any such outcome. Using an array of tools — military, economic, and diplomatic — Putin’s support for Libyan warlord Hifter has yielded fabulous dividends for Russia. The initial Goznak dinars enabled Hifter and the HoR to effectively stall implementation of the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement indefinitely as well as to establish their own parallel governments, controlled for all meaningful purposes by Hifter, and to carry out non-security governmental functions in territory grabbed by Hifter’s forces. Bit by bit, with military and intelligence help from Egypt, France, Jordan, the UAE, and Russia, while supported by mercenaries from Sudan and Chad, Hifter and his family were able to extend their geographic reach across Libya. Hifter only failed to take Tripoli and the eastern coastal region after his brutal April 2019-January 2020 campaign was stopped, principally by the intervention of Turkey. The latter delivered to the Tripoli government and affiliated forces drones, air-defense systems, intelligence, and naval support that ultimately forced Hifter and his troops and mercenaries, as well as the sniper assassins provided by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group, to retreat. Hifter’s and his allies’ withdrawal left behind countless land mines and booby traps, including explosive devices attached to children’s toys like teddy bears.

For Russian forces, the retreat went only so far as the al-Jufra Airbase, in central Libya, where the Wagner Group and related Russian forces hunkered down, building from there a reportedly extensive web of locations for Russia to use to help Hifter (and Russia) control strategic infrastructure by providing intelligence, advice, and operational support. Relying on Libya as its military base, Russia has been able to further extend its influence and military support to governments throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

The US’s damaging absence

While Russia consolidated its position in Libya, US engagement was sporadic and inadequate. US influence was severely undermined by the malign neglect of Libya that characterized policy under President Donald Trump toward this war-torn North African state. Breaking with his own State Department, President Trump personally endorsed Hifter, in response to overtures from his Egyptian and Emirati counterparts, thus paralyzing US policy and effectively nullifying American influence just as the Libyan warlord was attempting to seize Tripoli. Under President Joe Biden, the core of the policy remained unchanged from the one developed during President Barack Obama’s second term: supporting the UN process to secure elections, even as those efforts repeatedly stalled in the face of opposition, overt and covert by such figures as Hifter and HoR Speaker Aguila Saleh Issa. In recent years, President Biden has occasionally dispatched senior officials such as Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns to meet with key Libyans figures, including Hifter, in an evident attempt to counter their reliance on Russia. But 12 years after the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US officials in Benghazi, and a decade since the closing of the US Embassy in Tripoli, the United States has yet to re-establish normal diplomatic operations on the ground there, reflecting not only fears of a repeat of the Benghazi disaster but also the lack of priority the US government has given to Libya since the end of the Obama administration. Recently, the Biden administration asked Congress to provide funding for a new US embassy in Libya. It is good to see the United States finally moving beyond the trauma of Benghazi. But the decision to do so is late in coming.

With US policymakers these days consumed by Ukraine/Russia, Gaza/Israel, and managing geopolitical competition with China, the day-to-day management of the relationship with Libya is largely left in the hands of Richard Norland, special envoy and former ambassador to Libya. Yet Ambassador Norland is coming near the end of his time on this portfolio. After a daunting five years of sustained effort, the two administrations he has served under failed to give him the tools needed to more effectively counter the Russian advance amid the triumph of the malignant status quo actors who have flourished under the Russian umbrella. Norland, reflecting US policy, gave enduring US support to UN initiatives on elections that have long been seen as going nowhere. Again reflecting US policy, he recurrently met with Hifter to seek his support for election processes and for unifying Libya’s military, achieving no apparent concessions. His successor, the recently nominated new US ambassador to Libya, Jennifer D. Gavito, will come into her position as a caretaker unless Washington chooses to adopt a more robust effort. To have any chance of success, US intensified engagement must begin to reshape an environment that has become all too comfortable for Hifter and Libya’s other status quo actors as well as the foreign governments who have promoted them.

Elements of a reinvigorated US policy

Existing US policy on Libya — relying on the UN to do the heavy lifting on Libyan elections, and its inability to decide how to handle the problem posed by Hifter’s devil’s bargain with Russia — has foundered. Beyond reopening the American embassy and having diplomats on the ground, the US should consider what tools it retains to exercise influence there in a way that benefits the people of Libya — and helps to stabilize the region by countering what the Russians are doing to it.

Moscow is continuing to move ahead to further strengthen its foundation in Libya, including with reported efforts to establish a seaport presence along Libya’s eastern coast. This type of development is sufficiently serious for US national security that it ought to be getting the Biden administration’s attention as well as prompt concern from Libya’s Mediterranean neighbors, starting with Egypt. Senior US national security officials working on Libya should consider utilizing multiple coercive tools at Washington’s disposal, including the Magnitsky Act and other sanctions, as recently suggested by Stephanie Williams, former US senior diplomat and acting UN special envoy to Libya. There may also be fresh opportunities to consider given the emerging “succession” crisis developing between two of Hifter’s six sons, Saddam and Khalid. The 32-year-old Saddam, now in charge of his father’s Libyan National Army, is said to be favored by Moscow; the more sophisticated older brother, Khalid, seems to enjoy backing from Abu Dhabi. In such conflicts, fissures can arise that, in turn, affect the entire environment. The United States, its allies and partners, as well as those with aligned strategic interests in Libya should also be developing options to make it more difficult for Russia to operate from its airbase at al-Jufra. In this regard, the reported mid-December 2023 shoot-down of a Russian aircraft near al-Jufra, said to be an Illyusin II-76 cargo transport plane, may be instructive. More incidents of this type in the future, carried out by Libyans, could create a disincentive for a continued Russian presence, as could Libyan-led disruptions to supplies of water, electricity, and transport for Russian forces based there.

Taking on the al-Jufra problem is essential to counter Russia’s so-called “Africa Corps,” which is using the base as an airbridge, both to strengthen its position in sub-Saharan Africa and to create conditions intended to force the US into retreating further there, as reflected this month in the forced removal of 1,100 US soldiers from Niger. There is something of a zero-sum game here: the Russian presence and US absence reward local thugs and make it harder for any better options to emerge.

The US will also need to find Libyans to work with who are unhappy with the status quo and seeking political — and non-violent — means to change it. Finding alternatives to the cast of characters who have long successfully opposed elections is a prerequisite for any future UN-led process — or Libyan-led one — to have any chance of enabling Libya to move beyond a system of parallel governments and warlords whose principle occupation is dividing up the spoils.

Given the Russian initiatives in Libya and elsewhere in Africa, meeting the challenge will necessarily involve an all-of-government approach by the United States, using resources — including intelligence, military, economic, and law enforcement — beyond those wielded by diplomats.


Jonathan M. Winer, a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute, was the US Special Envoy and Special Coordinator for Libya from 2014 to 2016 as well as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Law Enforcement.

Photo by MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via Getty Images

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