Special Assistant to John Kerry on air at Azeri.Today
Azeri Today interview Jonathan M. Winer, former U.S. Special Envoy for Libya, currently Scholar at Middle East Institute.
- Mr. Winer, the civil war in Libya, which began in 2011, culminated in the overthrow and murder of Muammar Gaddafi. Did the US and its allies act correctly in interfering in the internal affairs of Libya? How big was the need for military intervention?
- The U.S. military action in Libya responded to events, with the goal of protecting Libyans from the massive civilian casualties of the kinds we have now seen in Syria. After 42 years of personal rule, support for Qaddafi had collapsed and much of the country was in revolt. Libyan civilians, journalists, and NGOs were reporting significant atrocities by Qaddafi’s forces, including by foreign mercenaries. They also reported Libyan Air force bombings of civilian populated towns in the east. Libyans made formal requests for foreign intervention. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) then approached the UN Security Council and asked it to take steps to protect Libyan civilians. The UNSC enacted UNSCR 1973 authorizing the use of force. This was not foreign interference in Libya – it was a collective effort to save lives. If the U.S. and its allies had chosen not to help Libyans in completing their removal of Qadaffi six years ago, Libya might today instead look much worse, resembling Syria, with ongoing intensive conflict, continuing civilian massacres, and terrorist control of national territory.
- A new civil war began, mainly in the north of the country between Islamic forces (including ISIS) on the one hand, and government troops on the other after the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2014 in Libya. In your opinion, why does Libya fail to establish peace and stability? What is the struggle in Libya for?
- The labels you are using do not really speak to what is going on. There are no generally recognized “government troops” in Libya, and that’s an important part of the problem. Instead, General Haftar, the head of the “Libyan National Army” continues to reject civilian control by the internationally recognized government based in Tripoli, and much of the rest of the country is controlled by local militias. Forces in the north coastal area represent a wide range of interests, not just Islamists or those opposed to Islamists. These different elements need to be brought together under civilian control and integrated into a national force to address terrorism, with local police being given the funding and power to deal with local criminals. For Libya to become safe again, the era of the militias needs to end. If Libyans agree on political solutions this can succeed, with militia members applying to join the military and the police, and funding for the militias then phased out.
Why has this not happened? Instead of builders, Libya has too many opportunists. Instead of compromise, Libya has maximalists. Politics is seen as a zero sum game, I lose if you win, rather than a means of everyone getting something they want. Qaddafi said he ruled through what he called the “Jamahiriya” or will of the masses, but in practice, he made all of the decisions, no one’s opinion mattered. After 42 years under him, Libyan’s most effective experience of governance has been at the local level, where people know one another personally, and have trust based on family and tribe. In practice, this has meant constant jockeying for power locally, and refusal to recognize the political legitimacy of those who have other interests from them. Libyans need now to take the risk of cooperating with one another to enable national institutions to function.
- What are the interests of Americans and Russians in Libya?
- The U.S. and Russia should be joining with other countries interested in Libya with a common approach to help the country become stable and to enable the Libyan government to provide security and basic services for its people. A stable and secure Libya which is capable of protecting its people is also more likely to be able to police its borders and not to provide safe haven to criminals, terrorists, and traffickers or to exports its problems to others. During my tenure as Special Envoy, the United States and the Russian Federation generally worked closely together in alignment on exactly these goals.
At this time, the U.S. and Russia should be working with other countries to press Libyans to reconcile with one another, compromise, enable the current Government of National Accord function as a transitional body, integrate different existing forces into a national armed force operating under civilian control, agree on a constitution, and schedule elections to take place within the next year or so. For that to take place, international actors involved in Libya must avoid enabling Libyans to use foreign sponsors to refuse needed compromise with other Libyans.
In practice, no one can impose a military solution on Libya. Libyans must reach agreement among themselves on next steps through negotiation.
- Why can’t Russia and the US agree on the Syrian issue? What is the reason?
- Syrian leader Bashar Assad has long been a Russian client. His regime used chemical weapons on his own people and his rule has resulted in civil war and created millions of refugees – yet he remains a Russian client. By contrast, the U.S. has long believed that the Syrian conflict is the direct result of Assad’s failures as a leader, and will never end so long as he remains in place. It’s a fundamental difference in goals and in policies, and that’s reflected in Russia’s actions inside of Syria. While giving lip service to combatting terrorism, in practice, Russian military attacks in Syria have targeted Syrian resistance forces, thereby helping Assad hold onto power. The results for the Syrian people continue to be catastrophic.
- Special Assistant to US President Christopher Faure has recently said that the US wants to resume a dialogue with Russia on strategic stability issues. Do you think it is possible? Do Americans really want it?
- I can’t speak to the intentions of the Trump White House. But substantial portions of the American political class, including senior career officials in the U.S. government, as well as many within the American public at large deeply resent Russia’s gross interference in U.S. elections in 2016, and this will make achieving any new U.S.-Russian agreements difficult. To partner with the west on significant matters, Russia first needs to stop interfering in elections in other countries, as it did in the UK with Brexit, in the recent French elections, and as it is now doing in Germany. Russian active measures have already led to tremendous resentments in countries victimized by them, which now include Bulgaria, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Serbia, and Slovakia, among others. There is a real risk that the existing resentments will harden and turn into retaliation. If this nasty game continues, everyone will lose. I hope the Kremlin realizes this and changes course.
- There are rumors that impeachment of Trump is possible. What do you think about this?
- Independent investigations in the United States will seek to get the facts about the Russian interference in the U.S. elections in 2016, and then will apply the law. If individuals associated with the Trump campaign worked with a foreign power to violate U.S. election or other laws, those individuals will be subject to criminal prosecution. By contrast, impeachment is a political question. The probability of it taking place depends in large part on what the facts about 2016 prove to be, and of whether President Trump now takes other actions that cause a majority of the members of Congress to decide that he cannot continue to govern.
- What do you know about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict? How will the US-Azerbaijan relations develop under Trump?
- Senior U.S. officials have been and likely remain very concerned about the risk of further clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh after the hundreds of deaths a year ago in fighting. Last year, the U.S., Russia and France joined through the OSCE Minsk Group to help stop the fighting. But the peace process has been stalled. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan would benefit from renewed conflict. Such fighting risks broader unrest as well as humanitarian crisis. Regardless of changes in administration, the U.S. retains a strong interest in preserving peace in the region.
The biggest tensions in the relationship remain concerns about renewed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and arrests of journalists and human rights activists such as Khadija Ismayilova, whose release from prison last year helped resolve a real problem in the bilateral relationship. Meanwhile, we have common interests in seeing Azerbaijan further develop its oil and natural gas industry and its pipelines to Europe, as well as in expanding political, trade, cultural and security cooperation with Europe and the US more broadly. We want and need continued cooperation against terrorism generally and the Islamic State in particular. These are ample foundations for continuing a strong bilateral relationship and making it stronger.
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