Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Participation in the Vienna Ministerial Meeting on Libya

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
via Teleconference
May 15, 2016

MODERATOR: Thank you so much and thank you all for joining us today. We have [Senior State Department Official]. Moving forward, he will be known as a senior State Department official. As a reminder, this call is on background. There is no embargo. With that, I turn it over to our senior State Department official.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Hi, everybody. It’s actually only been about six weeks since the Government of National Accord Presidency Council entered Tripoli. As you may remember, they had to get in by boat because Khalifa al-Ghwell was still in charge at this point. Six weeks later, the GNC government controlled by Ghwell has essentially melted away, and the al-Sarraj government has, bit by bit, moved into ministries and expanded its range of operations in Tripoli. But there have been some continuing challenges as we go into this ministerial which have prominently included the attempts by eastern hardliners to export oil illicitly, which we and the world stopped with a UN Security Council designation.

And there have been continuingly successful efforts by a minority which have prevented the house of representatives from voting to endorse the cabinet. As I think you’re aware, today the Treasury issued sanctions on HOR President Aguila Issa, who was central to that failure to vote and who violated express commitments made to the United States and to others to allow a vote to take place.

As the ministerial takes place, we want to see the GNA move forward further on security in Tripoli and to harden its ability to operate there and to build nonpolitical, nonpartisan, non-ideological forces that will protect all national institutions. We want to see a coordinated national effort against Daesh and we want to see it secure its land and maritime borders.

To help the GNA accelerate this, we’re expecting that the ministerial will show the international community lining up unambiguously behind the GNA as the recipient of security assistance in Libya. And the alignment that we’ve been able to achieve over the past year as reflected in the UN Security Council resolution of December 23rd is – I mean the Rome ministerial which preceded it, I think in late November, I guess early December – I don’t have the date in front of me – yeah, December 13th, 2015 – is essentially the predicate for what we hope to do. It’s pretty much the same group with a few additions in Vienna on Monday.

We expect that the group will express and renew its firm support for Libya’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is critical going forward, and for Libya being transformed into a secure and democratic state, achieving unity and reconciliation, and restoring the rule of law and state authority. And we expect the Libyans will make commitments about their next steps on security and that the countries participating will, in turn, commit to helping. I think that’s the core of what we expect to get done in Vienna. Notably, the ministerial will include Libya’s neighbors, major regional players, the P5, the Europeans, the UN. It’s got a pretty broad group including the League of Arab States and the African Union as well.

So those are the basics. I’m happy to answer any question, but that’s probably enough by way of introduction. Thanks.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much to our senior State Department official. If we can have the operator take the first question.

OPERATOR: Certainly, and just a quick reminder, ladies and gentlemen, if you have a question, please press *1. And first go to Pamela Dockins with Voice of America. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, Pamela Dockins, Voice of America. You mentioned security. In particular, at this point, how big will the focal point be on efforts to defeat Daesh in Libya? And at this point, is it your overall assessment that the group’s presence there has leveled off? Does it appear to be growing or does it appear to be diminishing?

And then as a related question, what additional support are you offering to the government to help combat this threat?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure. First, I think every participating party in this ministerial thinks Daesh is a huge problem for Libya and the region. I mean, Libya is a keystone for access to the Sahel, the Maghreb, the Near East, the Mediterranean, and Europe. And to have Daesh get a foothold in Libya is bad for everybody. They’re predatory, they’re brutal, they’re not sustainable, they don’t build anything, they’re purely predators. And they’re not going to survive over the long term, but they can do a tremendous amount of damage in the near and medium term, and they’re destabilizing wherever they are.

So that’s clearly a focus of the Libyan Government. Prime Minister al-Sarraj has said so expressly in recent days. There have been statements as he’s had meetings with a number of regional capitals. And I think it will be an important focus of the ministerial. Last week, president – Prime Minister al-Sarraj announced that the GNA would be creating a counter-Daesh joint command and joint operations room, and I expect he’ll provide further information on that.

He also announced that they would be forming a presidential guard, which could be seen as a successor to what was a – the General Purpose Force, which was – which we all tried to build a couple years ago, which never got off the ground. And this one needs to. I think that they will move – try and move ahead on that and talk about next steps on that. I would expect that there will be a request for training and assistance from Libya to combat Daesh and to train and equip the presidential guard, and I think that will be at the center of the ministerial.

Now, in terms of Daesh’s presence in Libya, Libya is a country that does not like, after years of Qadhafi, to be told what to do by anybody. They don’t like – Libyans don’t like to be told what to do by other Libyans, and they like even less being told what to do by non-Libyans. The Daesh presence in Libya is a mixture of radical and extremist Libyan groups – people who previously were in al-Qaida or Ansar al-Sharia. And there’s more than one Ansar al-Sharia. There’s – Tunis has one group, and Libyan Ansar al-Sharia is pretty much separate in the east. Some of them have rebranded. Some of them are still around in their original form. And what we’ve seen in Darnah is Libyan extremists welcoming of Daesh and then deciding we don’t like to be told what to do by Daesh and kicking them out. This is before recent border efforts against Daesh there.

So Daesh has not had a welcome across the board. It’s been very much a mixed picture. But they have achieved a geographic presence in a triangle along the east-west highway in Sirte city and east and west of Sirte. And their neighbors in Misrata to the west and the oil basin to the east don’t want them there and would very much like to take them out. And they need to be taken out, and they’re going to try and expand. There’s going to be, I think, a substantial effort required to extirpate them entirely.

Now, are they growing? Are they shrinking? Are they staying the same? It’s all of those three things at once. They’re being pushed out in some places. They’re recruiting elsewhere and bringing people in from Iraq/Syria area from the south. There are some Boko Haram people, for example, who have made their way to Libya. So they’re growing and they’re shrinking at the same time, and it’s hard to know exactly how many there are or what they’re doing until they announce themselves. So it’s going to be an effort that’s going to take some time.

I’m convinced Libyans very generally don’t want them there and that they will be pushed out, but it’s not going to happen on autopilot. It’s going to take work by a lot of Libyans with the help of the international community.

MODERATOR: That’s great. Thank you very much. Moving on to our next question.

OPERATOR: And we’ll go to Carol Morello with the Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. How much do you expect this ministerial meeting to lay the groundwork to requests for more military intervention?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, what does the word “intervention” mean? I’m not sure what that word means. I’m not being clever about this; I don’t know what the word means. I think they’re going to ask for military assistance. The Libyans want to have fresh, unified weapons – that is, as opposed to flotsam and jetsam and whatever they happen to have around – to be able to go after Daesh. The Government of National Accord also wants to be able to stabilize cities against criminal groups and other extremist groups, such as Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaida in the Maghreb. So I’m certain it will include requests for training and equipment, but “intervention” – I’m not sure what that word means and I’m not clear what the Libyans are going to ask for about that, so I’m not sure.

MODERATOR: Great. Moving to our next question, please.

OPERATOR: And ladies and gentlemen, once again, if you have a question, please press *1.

MODERATOR: Great. Senior State Department official, would you like to close with any words?


MODERATOR: (Laughter.) That works. Great. Operator, do we have any more questions in queue?

OPERATOR: No further questions.

MODERATOR: That sounds great. Thanks, everyone, and have a safe trip.