Flurry of flights between Malta and Libya could signal change in US-Libya policy

The frequency of flights into Libya – especially given the risks and costs involved in flying aircraft into what is still a dangerous environment – could signal a change in policy

yannick_pace
Yannick Pace
8 September 2017, 8:30am
UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, in the first ever meeting between a Western leader and the renegade military commander
UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, in the first ever meeting between a Western leader and the renegade military commander
Two US-registered aircraft have been operating almost daily flights to Benghazi and Misrata in eastern Libya since the beginning of August, online flight tracking data shows.

It is part of the flurry of diplomatic and business activity that is stepping up ahead of what could be a change in US policy on the war-torn North African country.

In July, Benghazi airport was reopened, a week after the city was declared liberated by the Libyan National Army, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar – a military officer who has played a role both in bringing Gaddafi to power in 1969, as well as to toppling him in the 2011 Libyan civil war when he returned from exile in the United States.

But since pulling out completely from Libya, the US has had little involvement in the country in matters unrelated to counterterrorism operations.

Now, the frequency of flights into Libya – especially given the risks and costs involved in flying aircraft into what is still a dangerous environment – could signal a change in policy.

A report on CNN politics last month, citing two US officials, said that a change in direction was being considered, with a real possibility of the US reopening its Libya embassy as well as having a more permanent presence in the country, including in Benghazi.

In 2014, several western nations, including the US, closed their embassies and pulled their diplomats out of Libya as the country descended further into chaos and lawlessness in the run-up to its second civil war in the last decade. This followed the killing of four US nationals, including the US ambassador to Libya, in a 2012 attack on a US compound.

For a change in policy to happen, there would need to be a broad national government in control of the country. But Libya remains divided, with different groups vying for control of different parts of the country. Haftar’s forces, together with the Tobruk-based government, control Benghazi and much of the east of the country, while the United Nations-recognised and Western-backed ‘Government of National Accord’ led by Fayez al-Serraj, controls Tripoli and the surrounding area in the West.

In July, both Haftar and al-Serraj were hosted at the Elysee Palace in Paris by French President Emanuel Macron when they agreed to a ceasefire and to hold general elections early next year.

Last Thursday, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drain said he would be travelling to Libya to push warring parties to support the peace roadmap tentatively agreed upon in Paris.  The French initiative has angered officials in Italy, which has previously taken the lead in efforts to bring peace to its former North African colony and borne the brunt of successive waves of African migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean from Libya.

Italy has also been stepping up its efforts for influence in the country, having hosted its own round of talks between the two key players earlier this year.

And while in the last two weeks, Haftar has been hosted by Vladimir Putin in Moscow, UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson was also in Benghazi last week where he met both Serraj and Haftar to discuss the “development of the political situation in Libya”.

A government source told MaltaToday Johnson was expected to visit Malta first. But a deliberate change in plan saw Johnson first fly to Libya before going to meet his Maltese counterpart Carmelo Abela.

Johnson has pledged £9 million  (€9.8m) to help tackle terrorism and human trafficking in Libya, after becoming the first senior Western politician to visit the Haftar on the ground at his home base near Benghazi.

Johnson told BBC Radio 4 that Haftar, who controls eastern Libya, has pledged to give up military rule if he becomes the country’s president. Johnson said he pushed the point of political compromise to Libyan politicians. He said: “I think the politicians need as it were to suppress their own selfish interests, compromise for the good of the country and get behind the UN plan.”

Britain is one of the countries, along with France and the United States, that bears some responsibility for the chaos that was left ruling Libya after a Nato-backed rebellion that ousted  Gaddafi.

Johnson also argues that Britain has a national interest in Libya, which he described as the front line in Europe’s struggle against illegal migration and terrorism.

yannick_pace
Yannick joined MaltaToday as a journalist in 2016. His main areas of interest are politics...