US lawmakers urge action in Libya to counter Russia's recent foothold

Despite President Donald Trump saying the US should step back from Libya, Republican Sen. Bob Corker and Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin on Tuesday called for US engagement in the North African country.

“The United States must be engaged,” Cardin said. “When we don’t have representative governments … it creates a void, and that void is filled by ISIS, as we’ve seen in northern Africa, and it’s filled by Russia, which we’re seeing Russia’s engagement now in Libya.”

On April 20, Trump said that the US has no role in Libya beyond combating ISIS. “I think the United States has right now enough roles,” he said.

In summer 2016, Moscow engaged with Libya for the first time since former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddhafi was killed in 2011.

When Gaddhafi was ousted, Russia lost billions of dollars in arms contracts with Libya, which were 12% of the Kremlin’s arms exports in 2010. They also had hundreds of millions of dollars invested in oil and gas exploration in the country.

Three governments are currently vying for power in Libya, along with several insurgent groups, such as ISIS.

Moscow supports the faction led by military commander Khalifa Haftar, while the US and NATO back the Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez al-Sarraj.

Reports emerged in March that Russia had sent special forces to an Egyptian air base on the border of Libya, which US officials and diplomats perceived as Moscow’s attempt to support Haftar’s control of oil ports that were then under threat from another armed faction.

Reports also emerged last month that Russia had private-security forces operating in a region held by Haftar.

“[Russia is] trying to do in Libya what they have been doing in Syria?” Sen. Lindsay Graham asked Africa Command chief and Marine Corps Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser during a Senate Armed Services Committee in March.

“Yes,” Waldhauser said. “That’s a good way to characterise it.”

A Kremlin insider recently said Russia is trying to position itself as a conflict mediator and contain ISIS, other terrorist groups, and the ambitions of the west.

In 2004, former President George Bush made a deal with Gaddhafi to lift economic sanctions on Libya, allowing American oil companies back into the oil-rich nation. Eni, an Italian oil company, also went back into Libya.

But by 2009, this new relationship began to sour. Oil prices fell dramatically, and Gaddhafi threatened to nationalize the oil companies.

By 2011, the Libyan leader was gone with the help of US and NATO air strikes. The US role in the Libyan revolution was spearheaded by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who joked of Gaddhafi, “We came, we saw, he died!”

It was at this time that then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s attitude toward the US changed.

He saw the move as “a case study in Western intervention: Stir up protests, give them rhetorical support and diplomatic cover, and, if that doesn’t work, send in the fighter jets.”

“The bottom line here is Libya, which the United States wants to snap up as soon as possible,” Andrea Cucco, editor-in-chief of the Italian Difesa Online news portal, recently told pro-Russian news agency Sputnik, saying sources in Libya believed the US wanted to “carve up” the oil-rich North African country.

The US, she said, “can barely stand the role Russia is playing in ending the crisis in Libya.”

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