Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Travel to Rome to Attend the Ministerial Meeting on Libya

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
December 12, 2015


MODERATOR: So we can just start this now. Thanks for joining us. Tomorrow, the Secretary’s going to be traveling to Rome, Italy, for – where he’ll co-chair with the Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni a ministerial on Libya, and fortunate to have with us today [Senior State Department Official], who will henceforth be known as Senior State Department Official. And [Senior State Department Official] can walk us through tomorrow and outline some of what our expectations and goals are for this event.

So, over to you, [Senior State Department Official]. Can you hear us okay?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I can hear you fine. Can you hear me?

STAFF: One housekeeping --

MODERATOR: Go ahead.

STAFF: Just one housekeeping item is that we’ve agreed to embargo the call until 6:00 a.m. tomorrow Paris time.

MODERATOR: Great.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay.

MODERATOR: All right. Over to you, [Senior State Department Official]. Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, Libya is at a very important inflection point right now. In Tunis yesterday, members of political dialogue who have been talking now for 13 months or so agreed it was time to move forward with signing of a agreement on the formation of a government of national accord to end this period of time (inaudible), based on the framework that the – brokered by the U.S. over the past year.

So they’re ready to sign. The expectation is they will sign on next Wednesday, December 16th. This ministerial is an opportunity to demonstrate that there’s (inaudible) of the international community, both --

QUESTION: What?

QUESTION: To demonstrate what?

QUESTION: We didn’t hear the last sentence, sorry.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure. This ministerial is an effort to both build and demonstrate the full alignment, common approach of Libya’s neighbors, regional players, and other members of the international community, including members of the Security Council – the permanent members of the Security Council – for this common approach in supporting this government of national accord, which will be built. That’s its major purpose.

There’ll be two sessions, the first of which will involve a discussion of the minister from the significant number of countries with interest in Libya, and then there’ll be a follow-on meeting in the afternoon with representatives of political dialogue – roughly a dozen, maybe a few more than that representing the major groups who have been involved in the dialogue.

And that will then provide framing and momentum for the signing ceremony to take place in Shkirat, Morocco on Wednesday.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, [Senior State Department Official]. Do you guys have questions?

QUESTION: Yeah. I’m Lesley Wroughton from Reuters. We’ve seen these sides say they’re going to sign this agreement before. How confident are you that they’re going to sign it? And what is your outlook on this unity government? I mean, do you think it’s – I guess it’s the best what you can do for now, but what – how do you see it as far as an effective government that can bring the country together?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, in any conflict, civil war, you often have different elements supported by people from the outside. And for the past year, we’ve thought about three elements as being necessary to succeed in the formation of a government of national accord.

The first is having one negotiating process rather than a bunch, and the UN has provided that centrilized negotiating process. The second is to have countries that have had – that have backed one component or another say now is the time to come to the table, you need to deal – you need to reach agreement. And the third is to have benefits of the agreement for people from more than one geographic location. It can’t just be focused around a single city or the capital. It has to benefit people from the different parts of the country.

That’s the approach that ultimately resolved the decades of civil conflict in Somalia and that’s the approach that we have taken over the past year in relationship to Libya. We think those conditions have been (inaudible) with, and that’s why they’re ready to come to the table and sign next Wednesday. The majority of the Libyan people, the majority of the Libyan people’s representatives clearly are sick and tired of the conflict, the divided government, the (inaudible) government, the inability to provide governance, the services to the people, the bleeding of the Libyan treasury, the conflict over Benghazi, and the growing presence of Daesh, which is – has people very anxious in many parts of the country.

Those are all factors that have brought it to what we think will be a successful signing on Wednesday. Now, things can go wrong, it’s possible that it won’t work, it’s possible it won’t happen, but we think it will happen and that it will work.

MODERATOR: Great. Next question, go ahead.

QUESTION: Could you talk about how you expect this government to be able to step up and do anything to push back against the growing presence of Daesh? And I’ve seen reports saying that they may even have a flight simulator. I don’t know if that’s true or not, if you have anything you can shed some light on that? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I wouldn’t know a flight simulator if it was in front of me. (Laughter.) I don’t know what they look like or how they work. You’d have to talk to somebody else about the military technologies. I can tell you that it’s clear that Libya needs to have one government that’s capable of getting trained and equipped in order to be able to take on Daesh more effectively.

It’s interesting; already Libya is producing antibodies to the Daesh threat. If you look at what happened in Derna, for example, last spring, extremists in Derna welcomed with black flags and the whole paraphernalia of Daesh, the introduction of Daesh (inaudible). This fall, they had bloody civil conflict (inaudible) out, and it --

QUESTION: I’m sorry, this fall they had what?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They had bloody civil conflict in Derna and kicked Daesh out of Derna. And one way of thinking about it is Libyans don’t like to be told what to do by foreigners, and Daesh is pretty ugly in its efforts to control people’s lives. We have seen people from every ideology, every region, every tribe push back at Daesh. Daesh is primarily centered now in Sirte; it has a presence elsewhere. Sabratha was – they had some kind of public display this past week. Hard to say how much of that is real and how much of it is – I can’t tell you. I don’t know. But there is a Daesh presence.

Libyans want to fight back, they want international help in fighting back. The political agreement allows the government to ask for help. We expect the government will ask. That’s up to the Libyans, ultimately, but we expect that they will do so, and that outsiders will then help with training and equipping in appropriate ways. But that’s all to come. What has to happen first is an agreement to see it as one government, then building out security conditions to allow that government to function and stay in Tripoli, then the building and strengthening of national institutions capable of protecting Libya from threats domestic and foreign. That’s going to take time, it’s going to require a lot of political wheeling and dealing within Libya, and steady, calm support from the outside.

QUESTION: This is Barbara Usher from the BBC. Just two questions of clarification, first of all. Did I hear you right in saying that representatives of the Libyans themselves will take part in the second session? And secondly, this agreement that they’re signing, is it the one that the UN has been pushing, or is it one a bit different? Because I’ve been reading that they went on ahead and drew up their own accord that they could – that they preferred.

And then a question – and just one other question, sorry, about the – what you just said: Is the fact also from the international community side that they’re worried about what’s happening with Daesh in Libya and they want the government to ask for help motivating this as well? And would you see something sort of similar to Syria with train and equip and airstrikes and that sort of thing?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There were a lot of questions there, not sure I remember all of them. We can just cover the last first because I remember that one. I think, as Samuel Johnson once said hundreds of years ago, the prospect of hanging concentrates minds, and the threat from Daesh certainly aided in the recognition by Libyans that they need to come together and form a single government. And we think that that played a role in getting people to say, “Enough is enough, we’re (inaudible), and we need to work together.” And I think that’s true for – throughout the region, people understand that having Daesh presence in Libya is a problem and they don’t want it and they want a government.

On the issue of which agreement, the UN has spent a – over a year, 14 months brokering a detailed agreement which has had broad support. There have been (inaudible) of hardliners in the GNC in Tripoli and in the house of representatives in Tobruk, which has not been willing to accept those provisions. The agreement has been shaped a little further to accommodate them over the last couple of months, but the fundamental elements of it have not changed since late August or early September.

The meeting by a tiny number of people in Tunis Sunday who announced its supposed agreements did not represent and does not represent an alternative. Look for the substance of that agreement. You won’t find any. You can’t determine what is in the agreement because they didn’t specify. You can’t determine who is going to be in the unity government because they didn’t say. It was essentially a statement by a small number of people that they’re going to pick committees to agree on all of these things sometime in the days to come. This was seen as a stalling action by spoilers by the majority of the members of both the house of representatives and the GNC who issued statements rejecting it. If you look at the sheer number of people on the house side who issued the statement rejecting it, it is better than three quarters of the house. It’s a super-majority.

So this is not any more than a diversionary tactic. It’s not a real agreement. But the fact that it was made demonstrates how much momentum behind getting an agreement. People in Libya want a unified government, and that’s what they’ll be working to build as a result of the signing ceremony now scheduled to take place in four days from now.

QUESTION: This is Dave Clark from AFP. If there is a unified Libyan government, sovereign government there, will that make it more likely that they’ll be able to request Western military assistance? I’ve seen reports that France, Italy, and maybe Britain would be prepared to back up such a government against Daesh.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Under the UN Security Council resolution in place now, the Libyan Government can request weapons, and there’s a process it goes through and if there’s no objection, that could proceed. It’s been hard to have it work for them in a period of time when you had two competing governments fighting with one another, in part, at the ongoing conflict in Benghazi – Operation Dignity and Operation Dawn competing with one another there.

So that process is available now. Our assumption is that the government of national accord will at some point make an arms request, they’ll work with members of the Security Council and others to shape that request, and in the end, a request that’s suitable for fighting terrorism and combating Daesh I think would be likely to be approved, but it – one has to work through that.

QUESTION: Yeah, but beyond weapons shipments, the prospect of direct Western military assistance of airstrikes, training, or special forces?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The Libyan Government, under the political agreement, has the authority to ask the international community for (inaudible) help. The political agreement envisions them asking for help in support of stabilization, in support of countering terrorism, and in support of countering illegal migration, and in support of border control. It’ll be up to the new presidency council of the government to decide what they want, and then up to the countries they ask to decide how to respond.

I think there is an inclination to help this new government. I think there’s a commitment to help the new government. But the government has to ask for what it wants and then it has to be shaped in ways that are sensible that protect Libya and that are consistent with what the people of Libya want to support and will support.

QUESTION: Hi, this is Matt Lee from AP. I’m just wondering, is there a timetable for formation of this actual government, I mean – or is it open-ended?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, there’s a timetable. The political agreement (inaudible) says 40 days, communicates that --

QUESTION: I’m sorry? Sorry, could you repeat that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure. I believe in the political agreement it says 40 days (inaudible), but I know that the 40-day period is universal – seen as the period of time for the formation of government. The presidency council would meet, they would begin discussions on who would be in the cabinet – minister of finance, minister of defense, minister of education, the audit bureau and so on. There has to be further discussion who will lead the central bank, of the national oil company, Libya’s investment authority, all the different elements of the government. And they also have to work at security arrangements for the return (inaudible). So that would have the government coming back roughly the beginning of February.

QUESTION: Okay. But – so this – then – this agreement envisions that the Tobruk parliament will move back to Tripoli and will become the sole – the sole body that represents the Libyan people? Is that correct?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes. Well, to this day, I don’t know of any government that recognizes the GNC as a Libyan parliament. Its term ended --

QUESTION: Right, right. I get that, but I mean, it doesn’t call for elections or anything like that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, there have been a number of boycott (inaudible) house of representatives who have never been comfortable coming to Tobruk. They would be part of a reconstituted house, so the house would expand from those who have been participating --

QUESTION: Okay.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- to those who were elected.

QUESTION: Okay. And the --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The term of the house would be extended by one year with an automatic extension to a second year if need be prior to elections.

QUESTION: Okay. And the 40 days is envisioned to begin on the 16th, or once it’s signed, presumably, on the 16th?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes.

QUESTION: Does the agreement itself – sorry, it’s David Clark again – does the agreement itself contain provisions for a degree of federalism, or will that be something for the new government to decide once it’s started?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not sure what you mean by federalism.

QUESTION: Regional government.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: If you mean things like revenue sharing at the local level, that’s all to be discussed. There’s a lot of interest in that, but it will have to get worked at.

QUESTION: Can I have – sorry, on the – I just want to clarify something that you – we started off with. So are you expecting the moderates and the hardliners to sign this, or if just some of them are going to sign it and you hope that the others will come on board later? What are your comments on that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’re expecting representatives of the majorities of both the house and the GNC to sign it, as well as other members of the political dialogue who are – have been called independents, but they’re largely boycotters from the house of representatives who did not – didn’t want to participate in the Tobruk house, but who were elected for that house.

QUESTION: And --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It will also include – and it will also include mayors from different cities in Libya and leaders of political parties of various major parties in Libya. Whether the minorities who have been representing the hardliners choose to participate or not is up to them. The agreement will remain open for further signature, but people will proceed to form a government of national accord regardless.

QUESTION: Do you have any insight or any – how do you feel that they’re – the collapse in the oil price could affect this government and the running of Libya? I mean, you can have a unity government, but if they got nothing to use or the revenues are short, that it couldn’t be very effective. Has that been a kind of a discussion at all?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The current management of the Central Bank of Libya has had to operate for a period of a – what, almost two years now – without having a budget that’s been approved by any body that they recognize. They are trying to reduce the bleeding through limiting expenditures in various ways. The new government is going to have to come up with a sustainable budget. They’ve already been able to reduce the hemorrhaging of Libya’s savings through reducing subsidies for things like diesel oil, much of which was then being smuggled in neighboring countries and involved fraud and waste and abuse.

There’s also been an effort to establish a national ID to which you have one person, one salary, as opposed to one person in some cases getting dozens of salaries as a result of exploitation of inadequate controls. So there’s a lot that Libya can do through better governance spending and that has to continue, but it has to continue under a – in a structured way in which the presidency council and the minister of finance work with the central bank on a budget and the central bank then administers the budget.

Libya still has some tens of billions of dollars – I think it’s maybe 50, 60, 70 billion, I don’t know the exact amount at this point – of savings (inaudible). It’s going to have to husband those resources in order to reduce the rate at which they’re being drawn down. Already this year, the central bank has been able to do that through prudent management. It will need to continue to do that, particularly if the price of oil continues to be as low as it is. But at whatever price, Libya needs to be able to pump its oil. Its capacity is about 1.5 million to 1.6 million barrels a day, but it’s been pumping roughly 250- to 400,000 barrels a day as a result of the civil conflict, thus reducing their revenues by 75 to 85 percent regardless of the price of oil. So you have to get that back up, and if they get that back up, that will have a very big impact in reducing the bleeding as well and stabilizing things.

The limitation on the oil has been – people have been – shut off the spigots in areas they control who expressed their unhappiness with the state of things. Some people engaging in extortion, other people are just angry, and that’s all – has to get countered and security on the oil pipelines, fields, and terminals need to be asserted by the government, the oil needs to be turned on, then the revenues provided to the central bank for use under budgets that are approved by the government. That’s part of the work.

QUESTION: Other than Secretary Kerry and the Italian, what other – which other foreign ministers will be at this meeting, and what is their role? Are they going to basically endorse the Kobler agreement?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes.

QUESTION: Because I thought the Security Council had already done that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, yes. I expect that there will be endorsements of this political agreement and support for this government of national accord by the ministers there. I don’t have an exact listing of which ministers are attending. There are a number of regional ministers who will be there and who will be able to – you’ll know tomorrow, but I can’t give you.

QUESTION: Okay. But you – by regional ministers, you’re talking about North African, not European? You’re talking about, like, Tunisia and Egypt and that kind of thing?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, yeah. I think you’ll see ministers from the region. In terms of Europe, I’m not sure who’s coming at the ministerial level besides U.S. and (inaudible). I think Federica Mogherini of EEAS is going to be there. I’m sure she’s coming. There was some question as to whether Minister Fabius was going to be able to come or not, had some negotiations in Paris on some other important matters, so – but the attendance is going to be good.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: But if it’s already been endorsed by the Security Council, what’s the point of the attendance? Is it simply to celebrate it or are there issues that remain to be discussed?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think the ministerial has already played a role in helping focus the Libyans on the need to get to an agreement. It’s not a coincidence that the signing ceremony is just three days after the ministerial. Libyans wanted to know that if they took this step, that the international community would support them on it.

So the sequencing that I expect to see is this ministerial endorsing the government of national accord, listening to the Libyans express what they need from the international community, communicating back that they’ll provide the support the Libyans are looking for, and then there’ll be a signing ceremony in Shkirat, we hope and expect, on the 13th – on the 16th – I misspoke – Wednesday, and then a UN Security Council resolution following very immediately on that.

QUESTION: There’s been an attempt for a long time to get the UN accord and it hasn’t worked until now. What is the main reason it is working now? Is it because, as you had mentioned before, the concern about the Islamic State, or what?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s been a process of getting people aligned. It takes time. It takes discussion. I can’t say any one particular factor other than people – Libyans realize they need to have this and they’re ready to go. We’ve been working hard throughout the past year to try and get them there, the European EEAS – Europeans are working hard, the French, the Germans, the British, the Spanish, the Egyptians, the Algerians, the Qataris, the Saudis, the Moroccans, the UAE – there’s been – there’s broad participation in the dialogue by the international community, and intensive discussions with representatives of the Libyans from all regions and sides.

MODERATOR: Great. Any other questions? Great. Thank you so much, Senior State Department Official, and we’ll see you tomorrow.

QUESTION: Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. Bye-bye.