U.S calls for de-escalation, ceasefire and a return to political negotiations

By Sami Zaptia.

London, 12 June 2020:

At a U.S Department of State Special Briefing on Libya (and Iraq) held in Washington DC yesterday, David Schenker, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, said the US sees continued (Russian) interference in Libya as a threat to its interests.

The return to military talks by both sides was welcomed, and the US repeated its call for de-escalation, a ceasefire, and a return to full political negotiations. Schenker said that the use of critical infrastructure that belongs to the Libyan people as a tool of war such as oil or water is reprehensible and must end

On Hafter’s alleged trip to Venezuela, he said he could not confirm the trip but was concerned by the reports.

Here is the full brief on Libya:

An introduction on Libya by the moderator:

Over the past week or so, we were heartened to hear that the Government of National Accord and the Libyan National Army re-entered UN security talks to implement a ceasefire and to relaunch the UN-led intra-Libyan political talks. As Secretary Pompeo noted, putting Libya on the path to economic recovery means protecting critical infrastructure, preserving Libyan oil production, and ensuring National Oil Corporation employees can access all facilities without facing threat. Assistant Secretary Schenker can provide more details on the challenges that remain for ensuring all Libyans are able to live in peace and enjoy the fruits of Libya’s resources.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER:

Despite the end of the LNA’s siege on Tripoli and last weekend’s event in Cairo, which brought eastern Libyan leaders together and opened the way for greater political dialogue, fighting has intensified with the involvement of foreign actors. We’re particularly concerned about the continued influx of Russian military equipment, weapons, and Russian Wagner mercenaries, whose presence led to the significant Turkish intervention now underway. We see the continued interference from external actors as a challenge to U.S. interests and regional stability in the Eastern Med, but also as a tragedy for the Libyan people. Libyans want peace and an end to foreign intervention. They are alarmed by this level of foreign involvement in their affairs. We continue to call for de-escalation, a ceasefire, and a return to political negotiations. Now is the time for Libyans on all sides to act so neither Russia nor any other country can interfere in Libya. GNA and LNA agreement to re-enter UN security talks was, as the Secretary noted, a positive first step which requires quick follow-through with good faith negotiations, implement a ceasefire, and the relaunch of UN-led intra-Libyan political talks to achieve a long-term solution.

We’re encouraged that both the GNA and the LNA are now engaged in UNSMIL-hosted 5+5 talks, but showing up is not enough. We want to see all Libyans coming together to take charge of their country. It is vital that all sides exercise restraint and ensure civilians are protected as the Libyan public faces multiple challenges from conflict, COVID, and economic hardship. Those challenges have been intensified by the five-month oil sector shutdown by forces aligned with the LNA. Putting Libya on the path to economic recovery, as the Secretary said, means preserving Libyan oil facilities and restoring access by the National Oil Corporation. Using critical infrastructure that belongs to the Libyan people as a tool of war, whether for oil that feeds the economy or water upon which Libyans depend on for survival, is reprehensible and it must end.

We are troubled by reports that GNA forces are discovering bodies of civilians, IEDs and land mines in areas retaken from the LNA. We are similarly concerned that a GNA offensive on Sirte would have serious humanitarian consequence. When armed groups and their external backers escalate, the Libyan people suffer. We continue to call on all parties in Libya to protect civilians and prevent further damage to infrastructure, including water and oil facilities, hospitals, airports, and schools. Let me say once again loud and clear, if you can help me get out the message, the U.S. calls on all sides to lay down their arms and resume UN-led negotiations immediately.

Media question:

I’m sure you’ve seen reports that Haftar’s plane had flown to Caracas last week, and various officials said this is part of an effort to sell oil. I’m just wondering: What does the U.S. Government know about Haftar’s dealings with Venezuela and Maduro government? And how concerned are you that he might be attempting to do – or like broker an oil deal?

And then again, on Libya, Turkey says that U.S. should do more, and Turkish President Erdogan had a call with President Trump. What, if anything, can and will the U.S. do more on Libya?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER:

We’ve been tracking those reports on Haftar’s trip – alleged trip to Venezuela. The allegations are concerning. We continue to engage with all parties in the energy sector on – pardon me – the allegations are concerning. We continue to engage with all the parties in the energy sector on risks they face by conducting business with the Venezuelan state-owned oil and natural gas company due to U.S. sanctions. So that’s on that front.

And the second question was about Erdogan and – President Erdogan and asking the United States to do more on Libya? Was that the question?

We are absolutely engaged, and I think we are doing more every day. The Secretary spoke recently with Prime Minister Sarraj. We are engaged fully. The President spoke with President Erdogan, and we are engaged with our European allies to see the best way forward. Also have been talking routinely with both the Emirates and the Egyptians, the French, as I mentioned, other parties to the conflict. This is a complicated and entangled crisis, and we’re making efforts every day and are involved and increasingly involved in the diplomacy to try and prevail on all sides and their partners to de-escalate, to engage in the talks, and to work out what is the only possible solution for this conflict. There is no military solution; it’s going to be a political solution.

Media question:

Could I follow up on Libya? You mentioned the reports of mass graves. Does the U.S. have any information on that and how serious this is, how significant this is?

And could I ask you about the diplomacy? The Secretary as well mentioned a ceasefire in Libya, the call for a ceasefire in Libya. Do you support the Egyptian call, the Egyptian initiative? Do you think that’s serious at this point, or are you looking for something else?

And in terms of a UN special envoy for Libya, as you know, the secretary general named Ms. Tetteh, the former Ghanaian foreign minister, to be the special envoy. And as far as we know, the United States hasn’t agreed to that. Is there any sense that there is more urgency now to naming a special envoy due to the situation in Libya? Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER:

Listen, the reports that we’ve seen on the mass graves and bodies, et cetera, in Libya are truly disturbing. I will get you more detail on that as it emerges. I don’t have anything in front of me right now, but we’ve seen the reports and are looking into them.

The Egyptian initiative that was rolled out this past weekend, we think that there are parts of the initiative that are helpful. Of course, this is first and foremost trying to patch up a split or a break from about a month and a half ago where Haftar and the LNA split off from Saleh and the parliament, and this sort of patched that back together. I think that’s productive to have more unity in Libya.

That said, we think that the UN process, the UN-led process, and the Berlin process are really the frameworks and most productive frameworks for everybody to engage in negotiations and to make progress on ceasefire and negotiation, consolidation of that. So, I think there were some departures from that within the Egyptian initiative, but we still welcome the productive parts of that.

Finally, we don’t at all oppose the Ghanaian envoy. There is special urgency here, and we are in talks with our partners this month and others at the UN and Europe and other parties to this conflict about the best way to approach moving ahead with these negotiations. It is not only is the role of SRSG one that encompasses at this time negotiations and overseeing the staff and the projects for UNSMIL on the ground, it is the lead on negotiations, and we think that that’s quite a big task for one person. So we’re looking at this and talking about it with our counterparts about the best way forward.

Media question:

I just wanted to follow up on the (earlier) question, just for some clarity. She asked what the U.S. Government knows about the arrival of Haftar’s plane in Venezuela. Can you confirm or do you not know whether Haftar himself was in the plane? And how can the U.S. prevent this alliance from taking off? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER:

Well, I can’t confirm it. We’ve just seen the allegations and we’re trying to track down some ground truth on that. But it is, as I said, concerning. The U.S. and UN sanctions apply to those exporting Libyan oil outside the legal auspices of Libya’s National Oil Corporation, and we – it just – we want Libya to be a state that is embraced within the community of nations, not operating outside of law, and adhering to appropriate sanctions that are applicable. So anyway, yeah, I can’t – unfortunately, I can’t give you any more detail on this.

End of the parts of the briefing specifically on Libya

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