Libya Plea for Arms to Fight Islamic State Backed by U.S.

  • Kerry joined by diplomats of nations from Italy to Russia
  • ‘Boots on the ground’ ruled out by Kerry, Italy’s Gentiloni

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry backed providing weapons to Libya’s unity government to assist in the fight against Islamic State and other jihadist groups, a move endorsed at a meeting of top diplomats of nations from Italy and the U.K. to Russia and Saudi Arabia.

The idea “makes sense,” Kerry said after talks in Vienna with the head of the unity administration, Fayez al-Sarraj, and representatives of more than 20 nations. Sarraj said his Government of National Accord would supply the United Nations with a list of weapons it needs “as soon as possible.” The UN would have to provide exemptions to an arms embargo before weapons could be shipped.

The envoys met in the Austrian capital on Monday to discuss ways to bolster Sarraj’s UN-backed government, the most significant attempt so far to end the violence that has fractured Libya since the ouster of former leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. But Sarraj has yet to win the support of powerful armed factions based in Libya’s east, which are contesting control of the crucial oil industry.

QuickTake Libya's Breakdown

“It is imperative to put the international community’s full weight behind the Government of National Accord,” Kerry said. “It is the only way to ensure that vital institutions such as the central bank and the national oil company, that they fall under representative and acknowledged authority.”

‘Weapons and Bullets’

Sarraj’s government will get “those weapons and bullets needed” to fight Islamic State, Kerry said. Parties within Libya that “obstruct or undermine” the country’s political transition will face U.S. sanctions, he said.

Kerry remains in Vienna on Tuesday, where he’s expected to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the UN’s envoy for Syria, Staffan De Mistura. They’ll be joined by top officials from 17 countries to explore ways to politically resolve the war in Syria. 

The disintegration of Libya after Qaddafi was deposed should be taken as a lesson for negotiators trying to find a way forward for Syria, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said on Tuesday in a conference call from Moscow.

Libya shows “that there is no alternative to a political settlement, it shows the absolute short-shortsightedness of a blinkered approach which has no flexibility,” Peskov said. Russia has argued that removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would unleash greater chaos and repeat mistakes made in Iraq and Libya, where the overthrow of long-standing regimes gave free rein to militant groups.

Libya’s government was formed under a UN-mediated peace deal last year. The agreement is backed by Western allies as the only way to stem spiraling unrest that has plagued the North African nation and enabled Islamic State to expand along the southern Mediterranean coast.

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who joined the gathering of diplomats at the roughly three-hour meeting in Vienna, ruled out a wholesale lifting of the UN arms embargo but said humanitarian aid and weapons could help Sarraj’s government bring stability to the country.

Speaking at the briefing with Kerry and Sarraj, Gentiloni also ruled out putting “boots on the ground” in Libya, while pledging support in “several security dimensions.”

“The international community stands ready and the U.S. stands ready to provide humanitarian, economic and security support,” said Kerry, who added that nobody is talking about inserting troops into the conflict.

‘Small Teams’

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters in Washington on Monday that “small teams of U.S. forces” already have gone into Libya to gather intelligence on the ground about Islamic State forces expanding their foothold in the country.

Sarraj announced last week that Libya would create a special force to fight Islamic State. The group already has 3,000 well-trained fighters in Libya, Hans-Jacob Schindler, an expert with the UN’s sanctions monitoring team, said by phone from New York, and will have many more if the group continues to lose territory in its Syrian and Iraqi strongholds.

“If Syria and Iraq would end tomorrow, then Libya would definitely be No. 1” for Islamic State, he said. “Libya is very much already a hub.”

At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday “the United States has already taken military strikes” from the air against Islamic State targets in Libya and “won’t hesitate to do so” when necessary. He said that’s “not a substitute” for efforts to build up the Government of National Accord to take on the terrorists itself.

QuickTake: Libya’s Breakdown

Libya, with Africa’s largest proven crude reserves, broke into two separately governed regions in late 2014, one centered around Tripoli and the other run by an internationally recognized government in the east. Competing administrations of Libya’s state-run National Oil Corp. earlier on Monday agreed to resume exports from Hariga port to help revive the OPEC member’s production, according to the NOC East chairman.

A communique issued by the diplomats in Vienna said that “the international community is willing to reopen diplomatic missions in Tripoli as soon as possible” and that the Government of National Accord “shall take all necessary measures in order to provide the security conditions that will allow the return of the diplomatic missions.”

The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed when militants attacked American outposts in Benghazi in 2012.

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