Senior State Department Official Previewing Secretary Kerry's Travel to Tipperary and London

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Washington, DC
October 28, 2016


MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, and thanks to our senior State Department official for joining us. I’ll take a few minutes at the top to speak about the first part of the Secretary’s travel. Secretary Kerry will travel to Tipperary, Ireland on October 30th to meet with Irish Foreign Minister Charles Flanagan for discussion about the Northern Ireland peace process, as well as a range of regional and global issues. While in Ireland, the Secretary will also accept the Tipperary International Peace Prize.

The Secretary will then travel to London on October 31st to meet with international counterparts for a discussion on Libya. We’ll have our senior State Department official available to speak on that in a few minutes. While in London, he’ll also – the Secretary will also accept two awards: the Benjamin Franklin House Medal for Leadership, as well as the Chatham House Prize. The Chatham House Prize is given to a statesperson for a significant contribution to the improvement of international relations. Secretary Kerry was named the 2016 recipient jointly with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif. The Benjamin Franklin House Medal for Leadership is being given to Secretary Kerry for his lasting contribution to diplomacy, public service, and human rights.

While in London, the Secretary will also meet with London Mayor Sadiq Khan, and together with the mayor will engage in a discussion with London youth on current issues, including climate change and countering violent extremism.

Now I’m pleased to turn the conference over to our senior State Department official, who will speak about the Libya conference. Sir, if you’d like to go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure. Almost a year ago, Secretary Kerry, together with a number of the foreign ministers, laid out a roadmap in Rome for a potential Government of National Accord, which then came into being a month later when Libyans who’ve been involved in a political dialogue from throughout the country agreed on the framework for moving beyond governments that have been divided between Tobruk and Tripoli to – excuse me, I’m going to just move to a quieter spot. Some people just arrived where I was. Hold for a moment.

Okay. Which helped to get Libyans to agree about a month later to a agreement which created a Government of National Accord. A Presidency Council was formed from that national accord to act as executive branch for that country, and to put together a government. Unfortunately, over the past year, elements in Libya, who continue to want to maintain a separate approach, have not been willing to move ahead with a Government of National Accord – in particular, the house of representatives, chaired by Speaker Aguila Issa, who’s been sanctioned internationally by the United States and the EU, have been unwilling to hold votes with a quorum of people to provide support for the government to allow for the completion of government formation. That has really placed a huge barrier to the success of the Government of National Accord, because you have remnants of the old parallel – of the old regime that have been set up in Tobruk to try to act as a parallel government. That in turn has emboldened people in Tripoli to try and do the same thing.

So we have a Government of National Accord where – which it is not today as national as it used to be, and does not represent as much accord as Libyans needs.

Now, the Libyan people are not getting what they need out of their government. They weren’t getting it prior to the formation of the Government of National Accord, which is the reason a political dialogue came together to create it. And the elements that were frustrating Libyan prosperity, opportunity, stability, and security before, some of them continue to do the same thing.

What we – what Secretary Kerry is working to do is to continue to promote alignments among all of the most important regional and international anchors to get the Libyans to stop squabbling amongst themselves and instead to come together for the good of their country. Libya has enough oil to provide revenue to more than take care of all of its people, provide them health care, education, and everything else necessary to allow them to move forward and create opportunity for the next generations. The Libyan politicians today are not doing that adequately despite the best efforts and good faith of members of the Presidency Council, and many parliamentarians in the east, and many forces elsewhere in the country.

So the goal of these meetings in London is to try and bring internationals together again, see if we can make some progress and get beyond the stalemate, which has prevented the government from doing what it needs to do.

MODERATOR: Thank you so much, sir. Now we’ll go to questions.

QUESTION: Yes. Well, can I just ask [Moderator] quickly: Is Brexit going to be under discussion in the meetings in Ireland?

MODERATOR: I think certainly the Secretary will be poised to speak to the whole range of regional issues that face the Irish people and face that region. So I wouldn’t rule it out, but I also don’t want to get ahead of those discussions.

QUESTION: And to [Senior State Department Official], there’s just a short visit – I think there’s about a kilometer to go till the – till they get to Sirte. Do you expect any kind of advancement on that before Monday in any way? Some people feel that this would have happened by Monday.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You’d have to ask a military person to make predictions on military matters. Daesh has been very dug in in this last tiny sliver of Sirte, and the Government of National Accord forces that have been fighting them have suffered losses of well over 500 – almost 600 killed and well over 2,000 wounded. These are just huge losses for the fighters. And the people who remain seem to be very – fight to the death. There are snipers. They’re using improvised explosive devices and trying to cause as much harm as they can on their way out. The Libyans have been steadily moving ahead, but it’s been slow and I can’t predict when it’s going to end.

QUESTION: So if you’re feeling that – do you still believe that if they take Sirte that that could change some dynamic in Libya?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure.

QUESTION: Diplomatic political dynamics I’m talking about.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes. No, I understand. Everything is inter-related – economic, political, and security – in Libya. And when the fight over Sirte is over, we still have Daesh scattered in various parts of Libya outside Sirte. They haven’t all been killed and they haven’t all fled the country, so there’s going to have to be continued counter-terrorism action. One of the many reasons why Libyans need to come together is if they wind up engaged in civil conflict, it creates greater openings for the terrorists. And already the fighting in Sirte has been harder than it would otherwise have been, and it had gone more slowly than it otherwise would have gone because the people carrying out the fighting – some of them – have moved out in order to discourage forces from the east from coming into the territory. So – which has already proved to be – the political – lack of political agreements has already proved to create damage to the counter-terrorism effort.

What we’re trying to do is to urge Libyans to come together for the good of the entire country and all of their people so that they can all concentrate on the common threats.

QUESTION: You said that you’re hoping to get – to try to help break the stalemate in London. How – I mean, as we – we’ve been talking – I’ve been covering this for several years now. I mean, this has been going on for a while. What do you think could change the dynamics in London?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, in London, there’s two different things that are going on. There’s going to be – there will be political discussions in which the internationals present are going to be talking about trying to find a further way forward, and then there is focus also on the economy. There will be two days of technical meetings, which will continue following the ministerial, on how Libya can work towards finding and making further decisions on key economic issues facing the country. And there will be representatives of the central bank and the national oil company as well as the Presidency Council, the World Bank, and IMF. And so these sessions are intended to set the stage for making the core economic decisions in days to come, and that’s really very important as well. So it’s not only political, it’s also economic. Both are important. As I mentioned, in Libya, political, economic (inaudible) --

(Interruption.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Hello, can you hear me?

MODERATOR: Yes, sir, we can hear you now.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. So as I was cut off, the sentence that I was on is that in Libya, as I mentioned before, economic, security, and political issues are all completely intertwined, and really none can be dealt without dealing with the others. They all interrelate.

QUESTION: Absolutely. I understand it. Has there been any measure of economic stability since the government – I mean, since the – Sarraj and the unity government has gone to Tripoli?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, sure. You still have people getting their salaries for the most part, and that has provided a foundation for Libyans to continue, for the most part, to manage. And that’s not something that should be taken for granted.

What there has (inaudible) been is the ability to invest in infrastructure, the ability to make decisions going forward on different types of spending as opposed to the spending that was inherited from the past. There has not been a finance minister due to the fact that the house never agreed on one and the one who had been selected therefore resigned. That’s been a huge problem. There has not been a budget, in part because there’s no finance minister and because the house has been unwilling to consider the actions of the Government of National Accord, and that’s a huge problem. Libyans are going to have to find a way forward on these issues even in the absence of any cooperation from Mr. Aguila. You can’t allow a small number of spoilers to destroy an entire country. There’s got to be a way forward that’s going to enable the country to come together.

QUESTION: How worried are you that Haftar is positioning himself for a takeover rather than just using the oil port as a bargaining chip?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You’re going to have to repeat the question. The first part got muffled. If you would repeat it, please.

QUESTION: Sure. How worried are you that Haftar is positioning himself for a takeover rather than just using the oil port as a bargaining chip?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh – now I understand. I don’t know very many Libyans who would like to see a successor dictator to Colonel Qadhafi. I don’t think anyone is in a position to take that job. An elected president or prime minister, yes, Libya is going to need to get past the transition and have elections and have a government chosen by the people. But somebody becoming head of the country through conquest or coup – I don’t see that as happening. I don’t think Libyans would put up with it. They’ve sacrificed too much. And that’s regardless of who the person is. It’s not about any particular person.

QUESTION: One last one is what threat – what threat from the Islamic State inside Libya – what is the threat at this stage of Islamic State inside Libya and to its neighbors once Sirte is finally taken?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, the Islamic State, like al-Qaida, is capable any day of the week, any hour of the day of carrying out horrific attacks in any number of countries, either by people who have been organized out of its central core in Iraq – Mr. Baghdadi and his colleagues – or through self-starters, imitators inspired by its nihilistic, destructive vision of the world.

There will certainly continue to be Islamic State extremists in Libya trying to – getting ready to and intending to commit carnage, just as there are in many of Libya’s neighboring states and just as there have been in European countries and in North America. And that’s going to continue to be a problem. It’s why Libya needs to build out a strong national army, strong national police, strong local police forces, strong intelligence service, so that it’s capable of addressing terrorism through systematic, comprehensive counterterrorism institutions and measures. And the United States and a number of other countries have been ready to help them with that, and we’ve done so in the past and I expect to do so in the future. That’s not going to go away, that threat. That’s going to continue.

The difference is I believe Libyans have tasted what it’s like to have the Islamic State take territory in their country and they didn’t like it. Even extremists in Derna didn’t like it. Having invited them in, they kicked them out at some bloody cost. And at this point, other than this last sliver in Sirte which can no longer be exploited, the Islamic State doesn’t control any territory in Libya and I don’t see it as likely to control territory again any time soon. They may try to establish themselves in the south; we’re concerned about that. Some other countries that we talk to are concerned about trying to establish themselves in the south. That’s not going to go away, but there will be counter moves by Libyan forces no matter where Islamic State tries to set itself up. The key is to deny it territory and then bit by bit make it extremely uncomfortable for any cells that remain through good intelligence and good counterterrorism. And that’s going to be a requirement for the short term, the medium term, and probably the long term.

QUESTION: So coming out of the meeting on Monday, what would you like to see the plan moving forward?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, we’re looking to get beyond the stalemate. And regardless of how people have acted so far, we’re still looking to bring people aboard and to try and find compromises that bring people into a transitional government to allow the country to move forward over the next number of months until they can complete the referendum on a permanent constitution and schedule elections for a permanent government.

The Government of National Accord’s term ends at the latest – at the latest in January 2018. It could end under the political accord as early as January 25th, 2017 if Libyans were ready to pick a successor government. That’s the way the political agreement is written, and the internationals who were there witnessing it and supporting it all see that timetable as a living timetable. So this is a transition. The idea is to strengthen Libyan institutions until these long-term – until a long-term government can be put into place as a result of the referendum on a constitution and elections. They can’t get a constitution; they could still have elections based on existing law predating the political agreement, but there have to be in that – some kind of process to get that adopted.

So whatever the way forward is, it’s going to require cooperation by a number of different Libyan groups, and that means sharing Libya’s wealth in a way that the wealth goes to people throughout the country and is not captured by small cabals anywhere. Libya’s resources belong to the Libyan people, not to any one of its politicians.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

MODERATOR: Thank you. I’d like to thank our senior State Department official for [Senior State Department Official]’s time today. There’s no embargo on this. The transcript will be posted when we’re wheels-down in Tipperary and that concludes the call.

Thank you, [Senior State Department Official].