I Spy a Geopolitical Opportunity

CIA director’s quiet visit to Libya leads to questions about motive and timing
William Burns, with Libyan Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Dbeibeh in Tripoli.

A reportedly under-the-radar visit to leaders of rival factions in Libya by CIA director William Burns last week has set tongues wagging and hopes fluttering.

The scarcity of official statements and/or details on his visit, combined with his seniority, has led to a wave of questions over Burns’ travel plans, after he reportedly visited rival political elites in both Tripoli and Benghazi.

Analysts wonder why the US is renewing interest in this war-torn North African country, while Libyans wonder if such senior US intervention may help break a political stalemate and facilitate the elections twice blocked by politicians’ power conflicts.

Burns is a seasoned US diplomat who has led tough missions in the Middle East and North Africa. He knows Libya well, first engineering a US rapprochement with Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2004, then, in 2014, in his capacity as Under-Secretary of State, becoming the first US official to visit Libya since the terrorist attack on the US embassy in Benghazi in late 2012.

One month after his visit, a hellish civil war erupted across the country, while coincidentally as civil war ended in Libya in 2021, Burns was appointed CIA director by Joe Biden, with UN-brokered elections leading to a Government of National Unity (GNU).

William Burns, with Libyan Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Dbeibeh in Tripoli.

Handshakes and Cold Shoulders

Looking at which Libyan politicians the CIA director chose to meet or cold-shoulder gives a clue as to US motives. For several years from 2014, both the Obama and Trump administrations were relatively neutral on the conflict, opting to mediate to achieve a working solution through envoys. Burns is the first senior US official to visit the country in the years since.

Libyan media reported that he held separate meetings with political leaders in Tripoli and in Benghazi. In Tripoli, he spoke to the GNU’s Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, Foreign Minister Najla Al-Mangoush, and the Director of Libyan Intelligence, Hussein Al-Ayeb. The GNU published photos from the meeting and mentioned in a statement that Burns “stressed the need to develop economic and security cooperation between Libya and the United States”.

It also quoted Dbeibeh as vowing that his government was committed to hold elections to ensure long-term stability in Libya. Al-Mangoush wrote that her meeting with the CIA boss consisted of fruitful discussions on security cooperation, paving the way for political stability through elections in Libya.

Some local media reported that Burns met Khalifa Haftar, commander of the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) in Benghazi. These reports are unverified. Media platforms affiliated with Haftar publish nothing about the alleged meeting. An LNA spokesperson unusually declined to confirm or deny the news. Other reports claimed that Burns travelled to Benghazi for the sole purpose of meeting a handful of US military and CIA personnel working from a campsite on the outskirts of the city.

Pointedly, Burns did not meet with the designated leader of the parallel Government of National Stability (GNS), Fathi Bashagha, and his backers at the Tobruk-based parliament, including Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the parliament. Saleh is a close ally of Haftar who has used his legislative powers to press for greater political and economic concessions to Haftar.

CIA Director William Burns gestures as he speaks during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats in Washington, D.C., U.S., April 15, 2021. Al Drago/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

The CIA director’s choice to meet Dbeibeh and not Bashagha indicates that the US is ceasing its recent role as mediator between rival Libyan factions to instead will ally itself with the side that can best serve its interests in the region and beyond.

US Interests

Some analysts have linked Burns’ visit to the recent extradition of Lockerbie bombing suspects by the GNU. However, the visit seems to be more strategic than merely thanking Dbeibeh for his cooperation on a case from 1988. Indeed, his visit cannot be seen in isolation from the global stand-off between east and west in Ukraine.

Renewed US interest in Libya could be linked to the cards that Libya can play in relation to America’s security and economic competition with Russia and China. For instance, due to its geo-strategic location, Libya could yet be the gateway for US influence in Africa, while at the same time a curb on the economic influence of China and the security influence of Russia. In both aspects, Africa is seen as a fertile but underdeveloped continental market, and the US wants in on it.

In December, Washington hosted a three-day get-together called the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit. Scores of political leaders from sub-Saharan and North Africa flew in, as did the commissioner of the African Union, to discuss ways to revive US socio-economic partnerships with the continent. At the time, a senior US official said the summit was “rooted in the recognition that Africa is a key geopolitical player and one that is shaping our present and will shape our future”.

Alongside these factors, Libya is swimming in a wealth of fossil fuels. Its top international export is oil, gas, and related products which, in terms of value, is worth 32 times more than Libya’s second biggest export, gold. Moreover, the wells are nowhere near dry. Libya has the highest volume of proven oil reserves in Africa, and the second-highest volume of natural gas in the Mediterranean after Algeria.

This combination of pictures created on January 12, 2023 shows (L to R) Libya’s Tripoli-based Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah and CIA director William Burns. (AFP)

Such carbon wealth could well be of interest to the Americans, especially after OPEC+ countries refused to increase oil production to dampen the price hikes caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Libya, a member of OPEC, produces 1.2 million barrels of crude oil per day, similar to that of wealthy Guld Arab states like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Dbeibeh told Burns that he would increase this to three million barrels per day.

Libya already feeds Europe with natural gas via the Green Stream 540km offshore pipeline from Mellitah to Sicily, and from its unique and strategic position in the south of the Mediterranean, it can easily ship cargos of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) north. There are only three countries who export more natural gas to Europe, and only 20 countries who export more to world markets.

Energy reserves aside, Libya is a playground for competing states such as Russia, the US, and Turkey, much like Syria has become. In Syria, Turks and Russians are forging ties. Just last month, Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar and intelligence chief Hakan Fidan flew to Moscow to meet Syrian counterparts for security talks in a meeting that could see Ankara and Damascus reconciled. Such a development would serve Russia’s interests in the Middle East and Ukraine.

Yet when it comes to Libya, Russia and Turkey are at odds, since they back rival factions (Russia backs Haftar, Turkey backs the GNU). Still, they have found an unofficial way to avoid clashes of interests or troops in Libya. By joining this playground, the US could disturb the equilibrium, perhaps even to the extent that it may strategically shake Russia’s plans in Ukraine.

Tough Playground

If the US enters the race for influence in Libya, it needs to tread carefully. For 12+ months, Libya has been stuck in a grave political stalemate that threatens the renewal of civil war at any moment. Hundreds of Libyans have been killed or injured in street fights by militias in Tripoli, mostly last summer. Political conflict between Dbeibeh and Bashagha was seen as the cue.

Protesters hold political banners and Libyan flags at Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli, Libya. (Reuters/File)

Dbeibeh has led the GNU interim government from Tripoli since March 2021. The GNU was elected in an UN-supervised process. The GNU’s main mission is to reconcile Libya’s east and west rivals, unite the armed forces held by both sides, and hold presidential and parliamentary elections. When it failed to hold presidential elections in time, the Tobruk-based parliament asked Fathi Bashagha to head a new parallel government it calls the Government of National Stability (GNS).

Some Arab countries, including Libya’s neighbour Egypt, showed immediate support for the GNS, but Turkey continued to back the GNU. Dbeibeh refused to cede power and insisted that his government would not leave Tripoli until presidential and parliamentary elections were held. That led to clashes in the streets in 2021.

Following the Burns visit, the US will know that it needs to compromise power with both Russia and Turkey over Libya, even though the latter is a NATO ally whose relations with Russia are solid. On another level, the US will need to press Libya’s politicians across east and west to agree to hold elections. Finally, it needs to work with mercenaries and militias. None of that will be easy.

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